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Urban Explorers: Archaeologists of the Modern City

When you walk or drive by a shuttered factory or other rusting, decaying industrial hulk in your city, do you notice it? If you do, do you just think, “urban blight”? Or do you think “there goes some history in need of documenting?” If the latter, you might be an urban explorer in the making. Keep in mind your new hobby would be illegal, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of intrepid souls.
Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer had an article on these determined individuals, who often risk life and limb (and ignore many a no-trespassing sign) to explore and document abandoned industrial buildings, from factories to power plants to former mental hospitals. The article was extraordinarily hard to find on the Philly Ink website, not appearing under the title used in the paper. If the link I provided doesn’t work, try searching at the Philly Ink website for “exploring abandoned industrial hulks”. Unfortunately, the photos that accompanied the newspaper text are not available. And the text available is only a condensed version of what was a well-written, fascinating, informative lengthy piece by staff write Joelle Farrell. I can’t imagine why they’ve given it such short shrift on the web site.
Nevertheless, there are web resources to make up for the lack! It turns out these urban explorers, like good archaeologists, are also documentarians – in some cases, providing for us the only photos and copies of salvaged documents from buildings long since destroyed. You can find links to famous Philly urban explorer Goddog’s photo galleries and Byberry site, to explorers’ sites featuring Pennhurst and Asbury Park, N.J., and to the e-zine Infiltration at this site provided by the Inquirer. Goddog’s site is just astonishing. If you have any taste at all for industrial photography you will love his work.
Some of these photos you look at and wonder, just how do we come to abandon so much? There is a sadness, a sense of missing presence, in many photos. I know what these people are doing is illegal – and yet, I think they are doing us a great service in documenting these spaces. I’m sorry I can’t share the whole article from the Inquirer with you but I hope you will enjoy looking at some of these websites. Maybe it will spur some more people to recognize the value in buildings like these and become involved in historical preservation in their cities (see for example the Preserve Pennhurst website).

  1. March 5, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Add dangerous to illegal. About 20 years ago Max Gerwick, one of our local photographers was killed here in Bloomington, IL, exploring the old Chicago & Alton Railyard buildings. He fell through a floor. Someone was with him, and came to his side, but he died too quickly for help. There is a memorial fund in his name that rewards certain art projects.
    Another friend of mine, also a photographer, published a book about that complex, after it was abandoned but before it had decayed so much. He is a polio survivor who lugged a big wooden tripod and view camera around to make his photos of the buildings and giant machinery. The pictures are incredible art, very moving.
    To some minds this means no one should ever explore wrecks. I don’t agree. Art and history are both excellent human pursuits worthy of risk. I’ve taken a few photos from the sides of cliffs and would/will certainly do it again.

  2. Moopheus
    March 5, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I have a lot of photos of things that have been torn down, in the process of being torn down, or I expect to be soon torn down. Some are house shadows: when a row house is taken down, the outline can be seen on the building left standing. Usually I don’t go as far as trespassing, which in most cases means I only take exterior shots from the streets. There are a couple of local sites I would like to get into if I could, and have even considered trying to get actual permission, though I think it unlikely (no one would want the liability).

  3. March 5, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Nice blog Zuska! Thanks for posting this!
    http://www.ElPeecho.com

  4. JLK
    March 5, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Oh Zuska, thou has struck a nerve with JLK. I have a fondness for old, creepy historic buildings that I am not allowed to enter. New England is full of abandoned mental hospitals and prisons, all of which I am fascinated by, and all of which either have been or are going to be torn down.
    One in particular – Northampton Asylum in Northampton, MA fascinated me for years. My little sister managed to get a security guard to let her in so she could take pictures merely months before they began destruction. It was one of the original Kirkbride designs, rich in history and set atop a beautiful piece of land. They have started turning it into apartments and shops, despite the knowledge of hundreds of graves on-site (some marked with patient numbers and some completely unmarked due to weathering).
    I hate, hate, HATE it when they tear down buildings like that and turn them into some commercial enterprise. Though I understand that the size of them generally renders the impossibility of conversion into something that respects the memory of what once was, I wish that some compromise could be found. An old prison near where I live was also just torn down to make room for condos, followed by an article in the newspaper about reported hauntings. If it were up to me, my first choice would be to turn these places into museums detailing the history of the building and its occupants, but my second choice would be to turn them into creepy bed & breakfasts like the Lizzy Borden museum.
    But I would actually rather see an abandoned, boarded up building than some shiny new condos standing where something important used to be.

  5. JLK
    March 5, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Oh Zuska, thou has struck a nerve with JLK. I have a fondness for old, creepy historic buildings that I am not allowed to enter. New England is full of abandoned mental hospitals and prisons, all of which I am fascinated by, and all of which either have been or are going to be torn down.
    One in particular – Northampton Asylum in Northampton, MA fascinated me for years. My little sister managed to get a security guard to let her in so she could take pictures merely months before they began destruction. It was one of the original Kirkbride designs, rich in history and set atop a beautiful piece of land. They have started turning it into apartments and shops, despite the knowledge of hundreds of graves on-site (some marked with patient numbers and some completely unmarked due to weathering).
    I hate, hate, HATE it when they tear down buildings like that and turn them into some commercial enterprise. Though I understand that the size of them generally renders the impossibility of conversion into something that respects the memory of what once was, I wish that some compromise could be found. An old prison near where I live was also just torn down to make room for condos, followed by an article in the newspaper about reported hauntings. If it were up to me, my first choice would be to turn these places into museums detailing the history of the building and its occupants, but my second choice would be to turn them into creepy bed & breakfasts like the Lizzy Borden museum.
    But I would actually rather see an abandoned, boarded up building than some shiny new condos standing where something important used to be.

  6. douglas
    March 6, 2009 at 7:53 am

    i grew up in asbury park, nj in the 80s/90s. i loved as a teenager breaking into the huge abandoned victorian hotels and amusements, totally overgrown with weeds. was like a different place
    also, ocean grove on the south border is just as weird – a cultish methodist-owned dry town where summer people live in tents
    adding to the contrast is deal, on the north border of asbury, with a significant hasidic jewish population and multi-million dollar property
    strange trio of towns

  7. Vincennes
    March 6, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Some people dont get the same rush out of it as others do.
    Learning about the history of something that is decayed and left to rot is a surreal feeling.
    Holding old documents from inside of the place and reading about everything that happened first hand is a totally different story then just looking it up online.
    Taking pictures of something that you know is going to soon be knocked down/destroyed is a wonderful feeling because you can capture what you think is beautiful in your own perspective.
    Sure, there are risks when your going inside of one of these locations but you just have to be smart about what it is your doing.
    Traveling to go to a hospital, or a power station is an adventure.
    I think this article is very informative and I’m hoping that it does open alot of minds.
    Good work.

  8. March 8, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I just love going into these sorts of ruins and exploring. Photos are the next best thing. The thing I think excites me most about experiencing these places first hand is the smells.
    The smell of urban/industrial decay is dizzying, electrifying. It is the smell of history – of lives and deaths, of what we were and who we’re becoming.
    I found GoDDog’s Bethlehem Steel album particularly moving. I actually had the honor of making a rather clandestine exploration of the original plant in the late nineties. It actually made me weak in the knees, when it hit me that for 140 years this place had been producing much of the backbone of this nation I call home.
    JLK –
    I can’t tell you how much I love the old state hospital in my hometown. It makes me very angry that something couldn’t have been done with it. It is often very expensive to remodel and reinforce old buildings, but it is far from impossible and if plans were made that integrate adn utilize the existing structures, it can work out as being much less expensive than demolition and reconstruction.
    There was a really big nursing home in Portland that closed because shoring up the original portions of the structure would have been prohibitive. The developer who bought it really did some awesome things with it.
    For one, he kept the mainstreet facing facade of the original structure mostly intact. It is not exactly the same appearance as it had originally, but is much closer than it was since an addition had been put on in the seventies. And they were able to salvage a great deal of the original structure, most notably the main chapel, which is now a resident gallery.
    But the best part, is that the whole development is living spaces for artists, with cooperative workspaces. And they really worked to integrate the history of the place into the common spaces.
    All right, I could go on for hours and I have work to do. Maybe I’ll post about this later, I’m really glad to have enjoyed this diversion. Thanks Zuska…

  9. ajo
    March 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks for the Pennhurst link. I’m glad to see that it’s as creepy/beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. My dad did some work there once and found one of their old annual reports & brought it home…totally cool….Oh, and my great-aunt was a patient there.

  10. March 15, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    In my environmental consulting years, it was part of my job to explore this kind of place. It was very dangerous, particularly for the falling-through-the-floor kind of accident georgew. commented about, above. It was creepy. It was also — as long as I had a competent assistant and a strong light — fascinating.
    I used to live walking distance from that Northampton hospital JLK refers to. There was definitely a compelling vibe about the place.
    In general, I prefer to see redevelopment of places like these… “Brownfields,” in the environmental lingo… than to have every new housing/shopping development eat up previously undeveloped land. Enough sprawl, already.

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