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THE NATION

Urban Explorers Are Picture of Stealth

May 20, 2001|JOHN JURGENSEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's raining in the tunnel. After a downpour, water drains through the old hospital, trickling toward the foundation.

As it seeps into this whitewashed brick passage, it drips on three young people whose splashing footfalls echo in the gloom.

Down here in the basement, it's unlikely that the security guards they avoided outside will find them. But they keep quiet, alert for noise or light.

In rooms opening off the tunnel they see outdated medical instruments, old files, a rack of moldering fur coats and luggage that once belonged to patients.

They push past the wood lattice blocking an alcove. Mice scatter as flashlight beams bob over stacks of white boxes containing bandages, slings and vials of medicine. Around the room are shovels, sandbags and 35-gallon drums of water--civil defense rations.

This place is a forgotten fallout shelter, a legacy of mid-20th century preparedness. Finding it here in the basement of this abandoned psychiatric hospital in Connecticut made their trip worth the risk, say the three, members of a group called Dark Passage.

They are part of a subculture in cities around the world that visits off-limits places. From subway tunnels and bridges to shuttered factories and abandoned buildings, they chronicle their excursions in magazines, in photographs, on Web sites and even in formal meetings modeled on those of Victorian exploration societies.

They call themselves "urban explorers."

Police call them trespassers.

The law often stands between urban explorers and the destinations they approach like irreverent tourists. And their hobby leads them to places loaded with rotting staircases, rodents and toxic materials.

What draws them?

"The appeal to me is to go to places that tell a story," says Julia Solis, who began Dark Passage almost three years ago. "It's like an archeological expedition. It gives you insight into a whole other time period."

She was one of those creeping through the asylum's terra incognita. The expedition was documented in a video made grainy by the building's tomb-like darkness, silent except for the chirping of crickets.

Clandestine expeditions are as old as mischief itself, since kids were first emboldened to check out that creepy, boarded-up house down the block.

But as an avocation with a name, urban exploration can be traced to 1977 and the formation of the San Francisco Suicide Club.

Among the club's exploits: an annual black-tie potluck dinner on the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge, and tours of the Oakland subway in formal dress.

"I wouldn't say that exploring the urban environment was invented in San Francisco," says John Law, also known as Sebastian Melmoth, an early member of the club. "But to use it as a playground, the Suicide Club was the first group to pursue that in the extreme."

Threading Through 'Negative Spaces'

Others have followed.

Members of the Jinx Project are drawn to New York's lows and highs, its subway tunnels and bridges.

In Detroit, Daniel Kosmowski embarked on a crusade to save the historic Book Cadillac Hotel after he ventured into the once-luxurious building and saw how "strip miners" were gutting and selling it piece by piece to scrap yards and antique dealers.

A writer, Julia Solis feeds her fiction with the odd artifacts and remnants of human history discovered in abandoned asylums. Photographs she's taken capture the eerie aura of their crumbling interiors.

Whatever their specialty, urban explorers crave what Melmoth calls the "negative spaces" of urban environments. "I can't even look at a sewer grate without wondering what's underneath," he says.

Urban explorers claim to have little in common with the graffiti artists, vandals and squatters who also frequent their destinations.

"It's very important to me that the places are left exactly as they are," Solis says. "Don't change them, don't take from them, don't put graffiti on the wall even though the place is slated for demolition."

To learn the history of the hospitals she visits and to improve the odds of returning, Solis has approached the security guards who watch over them. Some guards, seeing the sprawling structures as museums in the rough, have even given her permission to poke around, she says.

But to police, trespassing is an offense, not a recreational activity. There's a good reason why subway tunnels with high-voltage rails and condemned factories laced with PCBs are off-limits. And police do make arrests.

The latest issue of Infiltration, "the zine about going places you're not supposed to go," is dedicated to accounts of getting caught in the act.

One explorer tells of getting collared for climbing a 25-story construction crane. Another recounts a bust by police of a party in an enormous Uniroyal tire beside a Detroit highway. Most of those caught were fined; one excursion culminated in a night in jail.

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