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Broken Windows to the Past

For a new breed of explorer, a 'Danger -- No Trespassing' sign is an invitation to history and adventure in cities' abandoned buildings.

June 24, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — It's a building to hurry past: dingy, deserted, with dark, jagged holes of broken windows scattered across its 13 stories. "Hey, crackhead" is spray-painted on the black granite facade.

This was once a grand department store, but it's been derelict for a decade.

Which means Lucas McGrail can't wait to get in.

He clamps on a hard hat. "This is the last frontier," he says.

Abandoned buildings like this one, the creepier the better, are treasured arenas for the treacherous -- but trendy -- sport of urban exploring. Slip inside and a hidden world opens up. Over broken glass and sodden lumps of fallen plaster, there's an eerie beauty in the decay. Through dark hallways, up rust-pitted stairs, there's a thrill in the adventure.

Scouting each step with his flashlight, breathing hard in the stale air, McGrail climbs to the top floor of the department store. Like most explorers, he's in it for the daredevil fun of being someplace he shouldn't. But he also loves the way these old buildings give him a glimpse into the past.

In an old records room, he finds a leather-bound diary, nearly a century old, kept by the owners of People's Outfitting Co. They wrote about their golf scores and their swollen tonsils, about the trials of keeping the store afloat through blizzards, streetcar strikes and electrical shorts that had them working by candlelight. February 1916 was slow: They sold mostly Victrolas. In June 1919, business was good: "Brutally hot weather. Refrigerators and fans went like hotcakes."

McGrail, a 27-year-old architect, rummages through the records room for other memories of an era past, coming across a framed optometry degree from 1935 and swatches of shag carpet in fuchsia and split pea.

"This is my way of opening a window into the past," he says. "It's the same charge other people get when they explore Stonehenge, or the ruins of ancient Rome."

McGrail counts himself among an informal federation of adventurers worldwide -- mostly, but not exclusively, young men -- who regard "Danger -- No Trespassing" signs as a personal challenge.

Taking photos to document their exploits, they slink through steam tunnels and drainpipes, climb idle construction cranes, even descend into abandoned missile silos. Or, like the loose-knit Urban Exploration League in Detroit, they prowl forsaken buildings. Then they post their discoveries online, in narratives so packed with drama that an illicit crawl through a sewer comes off like an expedition to the North Pole.

In the last decade, urban exploring has developed its own vocabulary: "Seccers" are security guards; "to skunell" is to skateboard in a drainpipe; "to summit" is to reach the roof of an abandoned building.

There's an online discussion group devoted to exploring steam tunnels under college campuses, including UCLA. There's even a magazine, Infiltration, published three times a year in Toronto and claiming a circulation of about 2,000. The editor, who identifies himself only as Ninjalicious, says the movement has grown to include several thousand enthusiasts across the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Russia, Australia and Japan.

A Risky Hobby

Participants risk arrest. They risk injury, even death; every explorer seems to know someone who fell through a rotting floor or bashed his head on a low-hanging pipe. Lifting a metal grate in an abandoned cafeteria, McGrail once found a human index finger in a puddle of dried blood. He figures it belonged to an explorer whose hand got stuck under the grate.

"It's probably kind of stupid to do this," said Josh Kahl, 28, a Detroit explorer. "But it's interesting. It's an adventure. You never know what's going to happen."

Urban exploring is about discovery, about "looking behind the scenes," the editor of Infiltration said in an e-mail interview. It's about finding "the wonderful, neglected spaces that might otherwise go unappreciated."

For explorers who thrill to neglected buildings, few cities are more enticing than Detroit.

Fueled by the wealth of the auto industry, Detroit built dozens of extravagant high-rises between 1900 and 1930. The downtown skyline sparkled with Art Deco office towers and luxury hotels -- some rising 30 stories. A red-brick department store built in wedding-cake tiers occupied an entire block. The enormous train station was designed like a classical temple, with stately columns out front.

But within a few decades, the businesses built with such opulence began to lose their customers. Between 1950 and 2000, Detroit lost more than 1 million residents -- half its population. The race riots of 1967, in particular, led to a mass exodus. Shops, hotels and theaters shut down.

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