An intorduction to urban exploration


“The town was paper, but the memories were not.”
― John Green, Paper Towns

Urban exploration has been popularized over the years as remnants of the past are left right in front of us. Abandoned buildings, dark catacombs, rusty stairwells, and underground transit tunnels in modern cities are visited by the curious who don’t seem to mind potentially unstable infrastructures.

Seeing high-def and saturated photos of rusted hinges off old bridges and dim, long hallways has always fascinated me and given me the creeps. There’s a beauty in seeing what people have left behind. There’s also an allure in going to places few people have seen, some spots just down the street from where you live. You can trace the history from what’s been left behind and know the structures you inhabit, work, and exist in are likely to end up like this someday.

Wonderland, Beijing, China

It’s that hint of story which endears a place, as much as its decay that scares me. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night after having nightmares of being in one of the world’s abandoned places, like Hashima Island in Japan or the Wonderland Amusement Park in China. I saw a lot of abandoned spaces in Asia and it was easy to explore buildings constructed to last less than a decade. What surprised me was how common they can be found back home. My neighborhood in Washington, D.C. is full of them. Closed-down schools with boarded windows, old churches lying vacant on street corners, gutted apartment complexes. The city is full of urban decay. There’s a lot of writing to document the spaces, DCInRuins, the DCist’s Abandoned D.C. column, and the Brightest Young Things Hidden in Plain Sight column.

I contacted the Hidden in Plain Sight columnist to see about tagging along on one of his building tours. It seemed like something I didn’t want try alone for the first time exploring.

The writer, Jonny Grave, was a local and had been exploring the city for years. He met me by the Rhode Island Metro on a weekday afternoon. I learned to ride a bike around the city to prep for the occasion. We rode to an abandoned building a few blocks north and began to poke around a fenced up building with numerous “Warning: No Trespassing” signs. The building, which used to be a school, was open and empty. Cracked pavement lined its base; I could only see broken glass and few things left to discern it from a parking lot with walls.

After several attempts we gave up and went on to explore other spots. I was still thinking about revisiting the structure several weeks later when I saw the aCreativeDC blog post about an art installation opening up in a space near the Rhode Island Metro.

SYNTH SERIES: The Intersection of Music, Space, & Architecture

I asked Grave about it, who recognized it as the same building we’d tried to get into. The artists posted that their string creation would last no more than two weeks, and I was already itching to head over immediately.

My second attempt to get into the site was just as unsuccessful. I convinced a girlfriend to come check it out with me, still not wanting to go alone. We drove over and parked by the metro, her sporting a cute yoga outfit and me in a work dress and heels. I doubt we could have looked more ill-suited to climb through the building.

A group of security guards at a trolley parking lot next door quickly spotted the dazed and confused girls running their fingers alone the wire fence surrounding the old school, and they approached us within minutes of us starting to look for holes in the fencing.

“Can I ask what you’re doing?” One asked, giving us both a skeptical look over.

“Nothing really.” I kept my voice light and high-pitched, and unconsciously twisted my finger in my hair and tilted my head as if doing an impression of ‎Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. “Just exploring.”

“Wouldn’t recommend that,” another said, “this area is dangerous. Some girl got killed recently, about your age.”

“So sad,” I muttered, glancing at my friend to gauge her reaction. She’d stiffened since the guards had come over.

“Very sad. They found her body in that building there.” He pointed to the concrete structure we were trying to get into. “This isn’t a good area to poke around in.”

I thanked the men for the warning and grabbed the elbow of my friend to steer us back to the car. I’d suggested it would be a quick and easy trip since we were exploring in broad daylight. On the ride home we talked about light topics far removed from the subject matter of the last hour, all the while I planned to go back by myself.

There’s a few rules and safety instructions for urban explorers, online. Avoid unsound structures and lurking fumes, the idea of “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”, don’t vandalize, be aware of trespassing laws, explore in groups, and don’t break anything to get in or out. There’s cases of buildings collapsing on photographers or explorers falling to their deaths.

I was conscious of needing a community to venture out with, but out of impatience went back myself to the building three days later. The sun was setting and the neighborhood felt still and quiet as I examined the fence. The popularity of the installation had brought numerous people to the area, so it took less than a minute to find part of the fence stretched open from people climbing through.

While sliding through the metal I thought over what to say if I ran into a police officer. “I didn’t see the trespassing sign” or “I got lost and accidentally ended up here” seemed unlikely to work if caught inside. I was more conscious of how alone I felt. The side of the building sports a gaping hole and leftover construction. The ground slopes down into the blackness of the basement, or you can climb over rubble to get to the first floor. I wasn’t afraid of an unsound structure as much as I was of persons hiding out here. It’d been easy to get in.

To calm my imagination down I played a meditation game someone had taught me: breathe and count to ten without thinking of anything but your breath. I hoisted myself onto a platform, avoiding the dark hole below as much as possible, 1… 2… 3… The setting sun’s light barely touched the first floor, creating shadows and black spaces where my mind tried to picture figures hiding. 4…. 5… 6… I found a staircase and began to climb up the floors, each platform getting brighter as I went up to the fourth floor. 7… 8… 9… Each footstep I took echoed in the halls.

On several rounds ending on 10, I reached the fourth floor. The space glittered in the sunset’s light and I forgot I should be wary of the space. It was quiet in a serene way, the way a church feels when no mass is in session. I had trouble seeing the string installation from the staircase, though a few steps towards the center floor brought its colors into view. Layers of lines wove between several columns. Each angle a viewer stood at presented a new segment of it. I circled its walls several times, nearly forgetting I’d come to photograph it. My Canon’s clicks echoed in the hall, but I barely noticed the sound.

Although the buildup to this moment had been huge in my head, leaving the space left me quiet and reflective, almost drained. I thought about what one of the installation artists had said. “Through our work, we strive to temporarily alter the perception of public space through establishing rhythm, movement, transparency, and ephemerality,” Toki, one of the artists, had told aCreativeDC after its creation.

To me, whether it was string tied to walls, cracked pavement breaking until repairmen, or concrete structures awaiting the inevitable process of demolition, it was all momentary. Exploring this space on the brink of its ending, both the building and string creation, I felt an excitement to see more. I had a lot to learn, but it was the first thing I felt had peeked any real interest since moving into the city.

I made my way to my bike, parked a few blocks away, and jumped on it with the resolve to look into other spaces of the District.

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