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Urban Explorers Give Modern Ruins a Second Life

2020-07-27 22:56:24

For Jake Williams, nothing means success like wrack and ruin.

Mr. Williams had studied business marketing in college before withdrawing and pursuing a full-time career as an urban explorer, researching and telling the stories of abandoned properties.

He films his excursions and, as the producer of Bright Sun Films, shares them on YouTube. The subjects of some of his more popular videos, like a former Days Inn hotel or an abandoned Walmart, are fairly mundane, but viewers are drawn out of morbid curiosity, he said.

“I think when you see an abandoned place on the side of the road,” he said, “people will ask, ‘How’d that get there?’”

The urban exploration movement traces its origins to online forums that allowed “all these weirdos to connect” and trade tips on places to visit, said Matthew Christopher, the founder of the website Abandoned America.

Drew Scavello, the creator of Truth In Destruction, which photographically chronicles abandoned places, said that when he started urban exploring in 2007, a small number of people were focused on sites in Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia. Since then, the movement has grown into a large, loose-knit network that includes teenagers up to septuagenarians.

Mr. Scavello said he was drawn to photographing former psychiatric hospitals, which he described as “overlooked and undervalued” because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

In his work, artifacts from bygone eras are not encased in glass or roped off but are instead readily accessible. For instance, he said, during a visit to a former state hospital in Iowa, he found an orbitoclast, a device once used in lobotomies, in a cabinet.

“It’s a much more tangible way to connect to history than going to a museum and taking a preplanned tour,” Mr. Scavello said. “A lot of the time, it’s pretty incredible some of the stuff that gets left behind.”

Mr. Christopher of Abandoned America started photographing and documenting abandoned spaces after working at a private mental health institution and learning from patients and staff members about a former state-run hospital, Philadelphia State Hospital, also known as Byberry Hospital, which closed in 1990.

He said former patients of that hospital “were warehoused, forgotten and erased.”

From there, he discovered abandoned schools, factories, hotels and movie palaces. “Before you knew it, I was obsessed with it,” he said.

His talks, books and photographs attract fans and the curious with the allure of adventure, nostalgia and academic interest.

His work is more than a snapshot of a time gone by; it is also a commentary on the impact of humans on the environment and the kind of throwaway culture society has embraced.

Some of the sites he has documented date to a time when the United States was competing with Europe and trying to show off America’s grandiosity.

“They thought they were building institutions to last centuries but now it’s a quick churn,” Mr. Christopher said.

That’s a view shared by Bryan Weissman and Michael Berindei, who run a website called The Proper People. The name is a nod to a sign posted at a property they once visited that declared “Access Prohibited — Except by the Proper People.”

“A common theme we try to touch on in our videos is the idea that the world we live in is becoming more and more disposable,” Mr. Berindei said.

He described the remnants of buildings from the 1920s and earlier as “really grand, heavily ornamented structures that truly impress.”

The builders from those eras probably believed that what they were constructing “would be essentially permanent, and so they naturally injected art, creativity and craftsmanship into them,” he said.

Mr. Berindei said he appreciated construction from the 1940s and 1950s, but in the decades that followed, buildings came to be “thought of as a good or commodity, rather than a permanent mark on our landscape.”

“The architecture of the past will only become more and more unbelievable as more of our built world is replaced with prefab, cheaply constructed junk,” he said.

Mr. Christopher said documenting abandoned sites dates to at least Piranesi, the 18th-century artist who sketched Roman ruins.

Jaime M. Ullinger, an associate professor of anthropology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, described modern-day abandoned sites as “liminal,” or in-between spaces. They don’t serve their former function, but they have not been razed or rehabilitated either, which makes them inherently interesting.

“It used to be this thing,” she said. “Now, it’s this thing and it’s not quite anything.”

Mr. Weissman and Mr. Berindei have documented visits to former amusement parks, malls and hotels.

They also visited a gigantic former power plant in Philadelphia that dates to 1925, a site they described as “extremely dangerous.”

A video shows them gingerly walking across a narrow beam over a dark pit to gain access. Farther inside, a large chunk of concrete dangles precariously from the ceiling.

They have encountered other hazards in their travels, including the toxic chemicals known as PCBs, lead paint and mercury (especially at former power plants) and mold, asbestos and pigeon droppings.

Scrapes, cuts and bruises are not uncommon. “I don’t think we’re up to date on our tetanus shots,” Mr. Berindei said.

Another hazard can be a legal one related to trespassing. Does Mr. Christopher always seek the permission of the owners of the properties he visits? “No,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Weissman and Mr. Berindei of The Proper People have had a few run-ins with law enforcement, but they have never been arrested or issued a citation. They said any tension eases once they explain the nature of their work to the authorities.

On a visit to an abandoned power plant in New Orleans, Mr. Weissman and Mr. Berindei found a colony of people who were relying on generators and power tools to strip the site of scrap metal to sell to support their drug habits.

“We talked to a few of them,” Mr. Berindei said. “They seem like nice people. It was just a sad situation.”

Mr. Christopher acknowledged that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic may lead to an increase in the number of abandoned properties, especially retail centers, but that does not mean he’s looking forward to such an outcome.

“In a way,” he said, “it’s a little bit like saying to a doctor during the pandemic, ‘You will be really busy in the I.C.U.’”


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