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Urbex online: Leave only your virtual footprints

Made or posted on Sep 6, 2016

Music school near Chernobyl nuke plant, by Andre JoosseIt’s a boyish/tomboyish thing. As a grownup, you may not understand. Unless you’ve acquired a license for nosiness and become a journalist.

To enjoy urban exploration (often abbreviated urbex), it would also help if you’re a little emo, with a taste for ruined hospitals, shuttered factories and ill-fated follies, cobwebbed with at least a few years of mystery.

Online, you can follow incursions by an ad hoc corps of “urban explorers.” Urbex photo-bloggers come in all varieties:

  • obsessive history geeks who kinda enjoy following leads and dodging security guards to get their kicks;
  • muddle-headed nostalgists and giddy kids who don’t exactly know what they’ve come across;
  • hobbyists who cross oceans to check off the best urbex sites, like birdwatchers with bucket lists; and
  • still-life photo artists, including some who skillfully exceed the default mossy, tattered textures and melancholy of “ruin porn.”

For more experienced urbexers, the adventure and confirming photos are the point. To protect the “lost” places they’ve found from plunderers — and perhaps from competing urbexers — they often refuse to reveal their subjects’ locations and details, or anything much of substantive interest. Some are coy about how they gain access to places, legally or otherwise, and hide their own identities.

A small sampling of urban explorers:

Deserted USSR space shuttle, by Ralph MirebsRussian photographer Ralph Mirebs finds Russian and Japanese ruins of not-long-ago, such as an unguarded Soviet space shuttle, nearly launch-ready but abandoned 20+ years ago in a hangar in Kazakhstan (photo at right). See more at Mirebs’ website, with text passably converted by Google Translate. Among many other Grade A oddities, he takes us to a Japanese snake museum (text via Google Translate).

Detroit’s depopulation and decline have been so spectacular that the National Building Museum in D.C. recently devoted two extensive, simultaneous photo shows to the struggling city: grand pictorial views by Andrew Moore and the more sociological, change-oriented observations of Camilo José Vergara.

The good-looking photo blog Opacity sneaks us into a spooky former state mental hospital in Staunton, Va., now being converted into condos and a hotel. It’s one of many asylums that Opacity has profiled. The blog points out the great influence of Philadelphia hospital superintendent Thomas Kirkbride, whose Kirkbride Plan reforms set the style for the relatively light and airy multi-winged institutions built in many states during the late 1800s.

Deserted indoor poll, Catskills, by Will EllisWill Ellis‘s Abandoned NYC, one of the better-photographed and better written urbex sites, visits ruins of the defunct borscht-belt hotels of New York’s Catskill mountains, including the “midcentury modern” Grossinger’s kosher resort, now patronized by spiders and raccoons. Shelley Berman has left the building.

Abandoned NYC also travels to Flushing, Queens, to shoot surviving monuments of Robert Moses’s 1964 World’s Fair.

New Yorkers will remember an urbex surprise in Lower Manhattan: the grandly vaulted, skylighted and tiled City Hall subway station, used from 1904 to 1945 and forgotten underfoot since then.

NPR’s Jacki Lyden accompanied urban spelunker Steve Duncan for a memorable audio story on their scramble under Manhattan in 2011.

Round glass and concrete tower at defunct Italian sugar beet refineryOf a number of urbexers who shot a defunct but impressive sugar-beet refining structure in Italy (at right), Ian Moone of Proj3ct M4yh3m, based in Yorkshire, caught the best shot of its oculus skylight and high cylindrical interior. But I found no blogger who knew the reason for this big, many-windowed tower. “Fuck know what it did, but it’s big, circular and deep,” another urbex photographer wrote.

Lost America, by Troy Paiva, specializes in vivid night photos of relics of the West, such as the long-closed Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay. For better or worse, Paiva often turbocharges his nighttime images with colored gels on his lights.

Thomas Kenning‘s DC in Ruins satisfies some curiosity about Washington’s ancient, dry McMillan water filtration plant near Howard University, and about the idle old brickworks on New York Avenue, NE, among other local oddities. Kenning shows us a surviving trace of Georgetown’s even odder Aqueduct Bridge that once carried a canal and its boats across the Potomac, but he refers us to a serious historical blog, Streets of Washington, for meatier material explaining why and how a canal crossed a river.

Westinghouse floodgate near Pittsburgh, by Sherman Cahal Sherman Cahal‘s handsome, ambitious site Abandoned: The Story of Forgotten America tells stories of companies and projects gone wrong, or just superfluous, such as a large floodgate built in 1938 by Westinghouse Electric to keep Monongahela River floods from backing up into another Pittsburgh-area valley (where high water had repeatedly damaged a big Westinghouse plant). Cahal’s subjects typically plunge into dramatic decay, though the causes he lays out are often less dramatic obsolescence.

S.S. United States,idle at dock, by Michael Christopher of Abandoned America Michael Christopher‘s devotedly nostalgic Abandoned America: An Autopsy of the American Dream informs us that the S.S. United States (above), onetime speed champ among ocean liners, has been waiting 20 years at a Philadelphia dock for a cruise-ship makeover or, more likely, some kind of historic preservation.

Abandoned Steve also takes us aboard the rusting, creaking S.S. United States with short videos as well as stills. This anonymous Steve helpfully warns us which of his forgotten places are said to be haunted as well.

An energetic young Japanese explorer, the gender-ambiguous Tomboy-Urbex (she/he is identified as Tommy Nakamura on Facebook), travels throughout Japan and far overseas for the hobby. Tomboy-Urbex motored to the desert of southwestern Arizona to shoot the Poston WWII detention camp for Japanese-Americans. (A citizen group is working to preserve the camp as a historic site.)

Remains of Poston, Ariz., detention camp, U.S. War Relocation Authority and Gunkanjima island, both by Tomboy-Urbex

Back home in Japan, Tomboy-Urbex has repeatedly photographed the tiny, nightmarish Japanese island Gunkanjima or Hashima (above), once a densely populated concrete labyrinth atop a Mitsubishi coal mine; now becoming a urbex tourist destination. It’s been eerily vacant since the mine closed in the ’70s. During WWII, Korean prisoners reportedly worked the mine.

Former Ballantine's Scotch distillery, Dumbarton, Scotland, by Scottish-UrbexScottish-Urbex climbs the decommissioned eight-story Ballantine’s distillery (below), once the largest in Europe, that made scotch for 66 years in Dumbarton, Scotland. Among other sights on the website: the landmark modern St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, built nearby in Cardross in 1966, which produced Catholic priests for just 14 years. An arts group is trying to preserve and reuse the structure.

Some urbex websites are more entrepreneurial, such as the Brooklyn-based Atlas Obscura, which seems to rely heavily on free public domain and Creative Commons licensing for its wide-ranging images. Another example: their page about Gustave Eiffel’s cozy private apartment high on the Eiffel Tower where he allegedly entertained pals and peers such as Thomas Edison.

Photographically ambitious urbex sites, such as Dark Passage by Julia Solis, are trying for revenue from sales of coffee-table books. Solis published her survey of abandoned theaters in the 2013 book Stages of Decay (at right). Here’s a PDF sample of the book.

Untapped Cities, founded by Michelle Young and covering urbex within a broader urbanista subject area, appears to earn revenue from in-person tours of subjects in the New York area, supplementing online ad revenue. Historical and trivia posts include one on Hart Island, near the Bronx in Long Island Sound, where the city has buried the unclaimed bodies more than 1 million New Yorkers. Untapped Cities also looked back at early Manhattan installations of the cookie and cracker giant Nabisco, including a block-wide building that survives today as the Chelsea Market.

Last and least, a YouTube team called The Proper People uses spooky music to color their video foray into Nara Dreamland, a long-closed Japanese knockoff of Disneyland. Suddenly, in the darkness, they’re surprised to encounter — what?! — another band of excited young connoisseurs of decay.

See also

We tread into a puzzling location, well trodden by urban explorers — Rock Creek Park’s East Capitol ruins — near home in D.C.