Visiting the Forgotten Parts of the World; Urban Exploration

I think I can speak for most that whenever I come across a door that says “Do Not Enter,” I’m more enticed into entering that door. What secrets does the door hold? Why are these secrets protected? I wonder if I’ll find something interesting behind those doors. I never bothered to actually trespass or explore something neat until I was 16 years old, walking my high school crush home (who lived in the opposite direction of my house). We came across an ominous path that led to some trees. To this day I’m not even sure why I was so drawn to it. It seemed odd because the path seemed to be man-made but there were no signs of city-workers or well people. Did it have some historical purpose? As society progressed this path was forgotten. However I wanted to know where it led to. I just had to.

At the end of my first expedition.

The next day after school, I walked in the opposite direction of my house towards that mysterious path. It was a bit of a lonely path, there weren’t many birds or animals. Although I was accompanied by flies and various insects, I eventually came across a lone dandelion. I could describe the scene to be like a stage. The sun was like a spotlight and the leaves cast a shadow around the dandelion. In addition to the dust floating around, I witnessed this beautiful image that I unfortunately did not take a picture of. Nonetheless I continued down the path, passing by litter and sewage pipes when I arrived at a cliff overlooking the Trans-Canada Highway and the Fraser River. I was slightly disappointed. I was expecting an abandoned building or some forgotten monument. Some sort of reason this path existed. I had brought my hopes up only to be let down by beer bottles and cigarette butts. I took a picture with my Ipod 4 and began walking home. Little did I know, I had completed my first expedition in urban exploring.

A hobby in which many history and photography enthusiasts practice, urban exploration is the exploration of man-made structures and landscapes. While ominous paths and “keep out” signs push people away, urban explorers are welcomed.

Just as I have questioned the destination that lies beyond that path, one might have seen a door and asked themselves,

“Where does this lead to?”

Some expeditions require extreme preparation, a readiness to jump fences but mainly, a thirst for adventure. Adrenaline junkies will get the thrill they need from the risk urban exploration holds. Historians will get to literally walk into the past of abandoned buildings. Who doesn’t want to walk from a 2000’s neighborhood, and into a building trapped in the 1960’s. It is a euphoric experience ranging of all kinds of environments, making every expedition just as exciting as the next.

While browsing through the internet, most of the excitement comes from exploring abandoned facilities, sewage, drainage tunnels and transit tunnels, trespassing into restricted areas, and roof topping. Furthermore, some of the greatest pictures taken from urban explorers come from famed locations such as deep within the New York Subways, and atop cranes overlooking major cities. In Jeff Chapman’s “Infiltration,” he states that the thrill comes from

“discovery and a few nice pictures.”

Some of these pictures are so fascinating that it motivates people into going to a location and witnessing a building or rooftop for themselves. It’s no wonder many people want to explore. While learning more about urban exploration, I came across Margaret Heidenry’s “Secrets of New York: Track 61 and Grand Central’s M42.” written for the CNN. It unveils the secret Track 61 of the New York Subways, a tomb to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal train. It lies covered in dust and is heavily guarded, only accessible by special VIP’s. The public eye is oblivious to the rich history underneath New York’s streets as it is an area closed off from the public.

However security is not something urban explorers are unfamiliar with and with something that amazing, it is no wonder people will attempt to trespass. However the extent some urban explorers will go to fulfill their need for adventure is definitely a cause for concern.

There is no doubt that trespassing onto the tracks of the New York Subways or any area closed off from the public is both dangerous, illegal and opens up opportunities for the ones with ill-intentions. Although some explorers will ask for permission before entering, others dismiss the idea of getting caught and walk the line of legal ambiguity. I myself am guilty of the latter. However I have begun to avoid the heavily guarded areas or where I’m more like to get caught. The New York Subways is indeed fascinating, but recently the New York Police Department is cracking down on urban explorers to prevent them from coming into contact with terrorists and unintentionally causing a terrorist attack. The claim seems a bit but a police source says for the New York Daily News:

“It’s not that these ‘urban explorers’ are terrorists, but if you’re a terrorist and you see one of these guys on Facebook or Instagram — what happens if they contact one of these guys, pass themselves off as a photographer, then go down into the tunnel with them?”

In addition to being arrested, dying is certainly a risk to urban exploring. I, like many genuine explorers, take the time to prepare and evaluate the situation to ensure a safe expedition. However sometimes things happen. In 2008, The Globe and Mail published an article about a 26 year old man who died after falling off a sixth-floor catwalk while exploring a power plant from the 1950’s. Many old buildings have failing infrastructure that may collapse underneath one’s feet. A flash flood may occur while an urban explorer is stuck exploring sewage tunnels. Simply losing one’s grip while scaling a building may lead to a plummeting end. It is shame that some may die for the hobby but it is also a reminder for all urban explorers to not risk their lives and to always be safe. Finally, with the amount of photographs and videos, someone is bound to find access into a building, vandalize and ruin it for others. Not to mention the terrorists that the NYPD are concerned about. With how quickly information travels online, there will be times where other people will do something that ruins the joy for others. Defacing structures and ruining the beauty of something once trapped in time.

In order to combat the amount of misconduct, there is one unspoken rule, which all genuine urban explorers universally agree on.

“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

To “take nothing but pictures,” is to not steal anything and only take pictures or videos. Many objects left in abandoned buildings has a historical connection to it’s former residents. To steal would like stealing from a museum, taking everyone else’s opportunity to see it. Furthermore, a building may act like a memento or tomb to the former residents. To take something not belonging to you would seem morally wrong. To “leave nothing but footprints” means to not damage, vandalize, or deface any part of the structure one is exploring.

It is better to not vandalize anything as it would ruin any potential photographs for other urban explorers. Destroying parts of a building could compromise the safety of others, which is the most important of urban exploration at the end of the day. When I was staking out a potential building to explore, I noticed someone had tried to break through the window. The window was reinforced but the broken glass was unappealing and it detract the beauty of the building. Fortunately there are many urban explorers who enjoy the hobby and truly respect it.

Personally, I was astounded to find an online community of like-minded individuals who welcomes new explorers. On there is a sub forum or subreddit called “r/urbanexploration.” One would be able to find pictures upon pictures of old abandoned buildings, ominous landscapes, and roof topping. The amount of photographs and videos are outstanding, and veteran explorers are willing to help newer ones. One is welcome to post their discoveries there and even ask fellow urban explorers to team up for an expedition. With such a wonderful community, it truly enriches the experience for others.

You may have heard all of these stories of people tunnel-hacking and doing all kinds of risky things. But just a reminder, It does not have to involve trespassing (although in my opinion some of the best documentations involve trespassing). It also does not have to be as dangerous as roof topping Singapore’s city skylines or trespassing onto a military base.

In fact, you may have even gone urban exploring without even realizing it. I started off with a simple nature walk that led to a road I knew. However the fact that I went and discovered a new path to that road made it an expedition. Climbing onto the rooftops of buildings, walking on railway tracks, any man-made location that makes you go “I wonder where this leads to?” is considered to be urban exploration. At the end of the day, explorers get the opportunity to crack open secrets that would’ve been never unveiled if it were not their curiosity. I personally look up to the famous urban exploration group, “London Consolidation Crew.” They believe urban exploration is more than hobby. It is a way of life. That one should

“…go forth and adventure. Be fearless. Ignore limitations. Explore everything.”

Among all the things I’m busying away at, I might come across a door, take a peek and walk around. Perhaps everyone should take a look around a corner, and maybe they’ll find something worth taking a picture of.