Sharing urban exploration on the web
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — One fringe activity that has gained a higher profile through the Internet is the practice of "urban exploration." Urban explorers surrender to the temptation to poke around abandoned buildings, factories, and even subway tunnels (so much exploration takes place underground that some enthusiasts go by the term "urban speleologist") and record their discoveries on film. What was once shared with a small circle of friends and peers is now available worldwide over the Web. Sites like the following demonstrate how seriously some explorers take their hobby.
Originating from New York, DarkPassage gets straight to business with "Urban Post-Mortems," a collection of sites ranging from a derelict ice skating palace to the Essex County Jail. (There's also a search for a legendary pedestrian tunnel connecting Grand Central Station to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.) "Hospital Hopscotch" explores both local and out-of-state institutions, while "Parlor Games" catalogs various UE events organized by the Dark Passage crew. The "Nerve Center" provides links to similar sites.
TheZoneTour, a Paris-based operation, offers online excursions that include a World War II air raid shelter and an abandoned NATO headquarters building. In addition to the still images common at other sites, the Zone Tour also provides a few QuickTime movies and one QTVR 360-degree panoramic. (The movies are available in three resolutions to accommodate various connection speeds.)
Abandoned Places documents the leisure-time investigations of a Belgian airline pilot who has been exploring abandoned buildings since the age of 10. Two galleries of images take the visitor to sites around his native country as well such Beirut, Havana, and an airplane boneyard in Africa. An "Impossible Projects" section features a few of the webmaster's own architectural imaginings, and an FAQ covers such helpful subjects as "Special Precautions" while exploring and "What stories do you make up when you get caught?"
(His answer? "None. Simply tell the truth." Please note that many, if not most, of these explorations involve at least technical illegalities, whether it be the simple fact of being on private property without permission, or ignoring fences and 'Keep Out' signs. For their part, serious explorers have a policy of never vandalizing or stealing objects from a site.)
Bringing the in-depth approach to a single subject is The Essex Mountain Sanatorium, although you'll have to get past the B-movie horror film lettering on the front page, much of it difficult to read against the photographic background. The reason for the site's unusual thoroughness is in part thanks to the curiously large volume of information left behind when the building was abandoned in 1977. The Essex Mountain site features blueprints, employee accident records, postcards, and excerpts from a patient-published newsletter. The webmaster also provides a thorough history from construction to reclamation, his theories about hauntings, and visitor-submitted photographs and stories.
Unfortunately, all this vicarious exploration can get a bit depressing, seeing so much decay and vandalism, not to mention the simple melancholy that comes with once-important structures brought down by neglect. So, for a more aesthetically pleasing finale to this compilation, see Lost in America Night Photography. Photographer Troy Paiva has created five galleries of night shots of the American desert west, covering everything from deserted towns to "Moonrise over a 1962 Chrysler," and if you're inspired by the images, the site also offers tips for your own night-time photography excursions. After all, even a ruin can look good with the right lighting.
Jim Regan is a writer and graphic artist.