Online and Underground – Archived Post

Online and underground

Thanks to the Web, the sport of infiltration — creeping through abandoned buildings and unused subway tunnels — is thriving as never before.

Julia Solis throws dinner parties in the subway tunnels of New York. Wearing period costumes, her guests dine on vegetarian cuisine while high-speed trains clatter by an arm’s breadth away. She invites friends to join her for games in the dark damp tunnels beneath abandoned lunatic asylums; she browses crumbling shuttered hospitals and reads the patient records that have been moldering there forgotten for decades.

L.B. Deyo likes to climb the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night. He uses the bright wash of floodlights to see as he hauls himself up the support cables, hanging onto the guide wires of the suspension bridge for dear life until he reaches the top of the towers. The cars below pass oblivious to the spectacle above them: In New York, Deyo says, most people simply never look up.

Solis and Deyo are part of a growing movement of urban explorers, adventurers who go where they are not supposed to be and document their experiences online. Call it “off-limits tourism” or “infiltration.” It’s not exactly breaking and entering but, rather, visiting boarded-up ruins and underground steam tunnels and the roofs of forbidden buildings. At Solis’ Dark Passage webzine or Deyo’s Jinx Magazine, and dozens of Web sites such as Infiltration, Urban Explorers Network and Forgotten New York, these explorers are visiting places most of us will never see, and recording it so the future won’t forget.

The term “infiltration” encapsulates a whole range of activities ranging from the merely archaeological to the outright dangerous. Climbing through the broken window of an abandoned orphanage may not seem to have much in common with climbing to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, but the two activities do share a common ideology. “The whole idea is to look at a sign or an area that’s obviously off-limits, where you’re not supposed to go, and ask, ‘What exactly is it that’s keeping me out?’” explains Deyo. “We don’t break locks or bolts or climb over fences; what we’re really overcoming is imaginary barriers that are just understood but barely questioned.”

Infiltration is in no way a new concept — after all, who hasn’t clambered through an abandoned building, ducked under a fence to explore or slipped behind a barrier to see what’s there? In the ’60s and ’70s groups like the San Francisco Suicide Club began to codify the modern movement with organized guerrilla adventure groups. But in recent years, thanks in part to the community powers of the Web, the infiltration movement has grown in strength. It’s no longer a solitary pursuit; instead, you can join mailing lists, Usenet groups, countless webzines or even the Urban Exploration Web ring to swap tips, scout out good locations and meet fellow explorers. “I don’t think there could have been an urban exploration movement as there is now without the Web,” says Deyo. “It’s a good case study of what the Web can do sociologically; people all over the world send e-mails each and every day. We’ve even heard from someone who explored a nuclear submarine base in Russia.”

Although adventurers hail from any land in which abandoned buildings or underground tunnels can be found, there are particularly strong outposts in France (especially the Paris catacombs), Australia (thanks to its adventurous culture), Detroit (with a crumbling downtown full of abandoned buildings) and the East Coast of the United States. If you live in New York, you can join the Jinx Athenaeum Society, which holds monthly meetings promoting urban adventure, or participate in Solis’ Dark Passage infiltration parties.

Most infiltrators have been lifelong adventurers, but for many the first real step into the explorer underground is by going literally under the earth, into campus steam tunnels. Most campuses have extensive underground routes for Ethernet wiring and steam and water pipes. Despite the heat and cramped quarters, the pipes are big enough to host the curious students who climb through open grates to see what’s inside. On some campuses, such as Cal Tech, exploring the steam tunnels has become such an undergrad tradition that authorities turn a blind eye, also ignoring the poetry and artwork that students leave behind to mark their stays. (Wondering if your campus has steam tunnels and how to go about getting in? The
<href=”http:”” “=”” target=”new”>Urban Explorers Network compiles information about as many campuses as it can.) </href=”http:>

“It’s kind of like punk rock — you’re into something not a lot of people are into,” says one student enrolled at Virginia Tech. He was initiated to the steam tunnels by an insider during his freshman year, and has since visited his campus library for maps and historical context; his Web site offers diaries and photos as well as advice to fellow students, although he keeps his name secret to avoid campus authorities. “It’s one of those weird paradoxes,” he says. “We want to be our own underground thing and yet we also want to brag about it and help others so they don’t get hurt or busted.”

Exploration of campus tunnels is a kind of gateway drug that leads infiltrators to more extensive tunnel networks — say, the New York subway system, which boasts level after level of abandoned yet oddly clean tunnels lit by eerie blue lights. Tunnels are probably the most common destination, since nearly every urban area is riddled with them. But Jinx’s Deyo and his co-editor, David Leibowitz, who began their magazine in 1996, pursue more lofty goals: Our “area of specialty among urban explorers is heights — a lot of groups like to go into the sewers and storm drains, but we really like to go onto rooftops and tops of bridges. I’ve always loved heights, getting that vantage point on the city that most people never get, having the whole city at your feet.” He prefers places like the Brooklyn Bridge and the rooftop of Grand Central Station, which have an “aesthetic tug … a certain epic quality.”

Infiltration is undoubtedly dangerous — there are always the very real risks of stumbling onto a live rail in a subway tunnel, falling off the top of a bridge or getting crushed under falling debris in a crumbling building. And there is the risk of getting caught, although most explorers I spoke with seemed relatively unconcerned about authorities. Of those I spoke to, only a few had been caught, and only Deyo had ever gotten in trouble. As a juvenile, he and Liebowitz climbed onto the roof of Grand Central Station and were immediately spied and apprehended — but even then Deyo merely got a ticket. “This is New York City and the cops have other concerns than some people who are basically participating in a minor victimless crime,” he shrugs.

Urban explorers admit that the appeal of infiltration is often about the thrill of being somewhere you are not supposed to be — or, as Solis puts it, of “confronting your fears, going into spaces that are dangerous and very creepy.” But despite the adrenaline rushes, many explorers say that it is also the poetry of this pursuit that draws them in.

Solis, for example, first began adventuring when she was a child in Hamburg, Germany, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that she started feeling compelled to document her explorations. She goes exploring several times a month and throws Dark Passage events — often based on a historical novel or film — in which she guides groups into forbidden places. Solis sees herself as “a little bit of an archaeologist, a little bit of a historian.” She specializes in the numerous abandoned lunatic asylums and hospitals that dot the Northeast, gothic monstrosities still cluttered with abandoned equipment, letters, furniture and records. “You are finding artifacts from a whole different way of life that you never would normally see,” she says. “I find file cabinets full of records and look at documents and try to figure out what went on in a place, reconstruct a story.”

The destinations are often doomed buildings on the brink of being demolished; many infiltrators feel driven to make a written or photographic record of historical places that will soon be lost forever. Photographer Shaun O’Boyle, whose Modern Ruins Web site is full of stunningly evocative images of abandoned hospitals, shipyards and factories, believes that “ruined buildings have an interest that goes beyond any interest that building may have had when it was occupied. It has become abandoned space; it no longer functions as it was designed to. The building is no longer sheltering anyone. The slow crumbling and decay make it less and less like architecture and more and more like shapes and forms, masses and planes for their own sake, much like sculpture.”

The infiltrators are not preservationists, however; rather, they are observers and chroniclers. Kevin Walsh, a 43-year-old copywriter for Macy’s, maintains the Forgotten New York site to document the smaller lost detritus of his lifelong home: lampposts, moldering signs and forgotten alleys that once were thriving roadways. It’s a trove of unnoticed ephemera: doorways in subway stations that lead nowhere, weed-encrusted station houses on the abandoned Rockaway rail line, long-forgotten sidewalk art. “I want to get there before the city notices that they are there and gets rid of them,” he says. “That’s why they’re still there, because people don’t notice them.”

Many infiltrators shy away from press coverage — such as Ninjalicious, the infamous founder of and one of the movement’s heroes — for fear of trouble with authorities or encouraging too many newbies. But those like Solis and Deyo want to convey the message that the movement isn’t about crazy kids breaking, entering and vandalizing; after all, only a certain kind of person would dare to venture into the blackened basement of an abandoned lunatic asylum and brave the invisible ghosts simply to observe and understand.

Perhaps that person is just a little bit crazy, but the urban explorers have a unique perspective on the places around them. Consider them the secret keepers of the cities, above and below the ground. As Deyo puts it, “People have their own lives to lead and don’t feel much of a need to look up at architecture, which is a shame and is part of the reason why we’re doing it — it forces us, if no one else, to view the city as more than just a milieu for the mundane aspects of our lives, a place to work and live. It’s also an environment, and like any environment it can be explored.”

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

Interview with Ontario Abandoned Places

I haven’t been active on the site so it was very nice to be included in the interviews. Following is my own interview. Follow the link to read the other interviews with Ontario women urban (and rural) explorers.

Thrill of the XXploration – ThatGRRL – Link is 404 on the site now so I am just adding the domain link.

Hello. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I began looking at abandoned houses as a kid. My Mom, my Grandmother’s sister and I explored an old house together more than 30 years ago. I still have the key I found in the front door. These days I live in Barrie but I was actually from Toronto originally. Mainly I see derelict farmhouses around Ontario. I like any old building (especially old banks and cemeteries) with old stone or iron architecture.

I watch for ghost signs and would like to find a location for rooftopping but there aren’t so many tall buildings in rural areas. I like to learn more about the architecture itself and the history of buildings but I only know a little so far.

My second camera was a Panasonic. I still think it captured colours better than my other cameras. The camera I use now is a FujiFilm Fine Pix SL300. I picked it because it had the most zoom I could get at the time. I always look at the zoom first because I like to narrow in on features of the building without having to be close. Also, zoom lets me get in to see places up close when I can’t physically get close.

Describe your integration into the community, were you accepted by the males, did you experience any stereotypes or prejudices because of your gender?

I’ve never had trouble fitting in but I’m not a group person so much. I have met men and women through exploring. I began a group for Ontario explorers on Flickr about 9 years ago. Through the group I’ve met other women explorers (2 I met in person). I’ve met exploring men too and trade information about places with several people I have met online and through the Flickr group. Most of the time I explore with my Mother (70 now) but still likes to explore and find rocks and wildflowers for her garden.

I think it is easier for women to explore as we aren’t seen as a threat or up to something the way men may be. I’ve been stopped by people who were suspicious or concerned but I’ve never had any trouble. I just tell them the truth “I really like old buildings” and most of the time people will take the time to tell me all they know about the history of the place. I’ve even had people offer me return visits and ask if I’d like to pick apples from the trees on the property.

Have there been any unpleasant experiences from the community based solely on your gender?

I haven’t had any unpleasant experiences. Everyone I’ve met or talked with has been equally interested in the old places and preserving them. The only time I’ve been doubtful about someone else was when I wondered about their motives (scavengers or vandals). One of the nice experiences I’ve had was being a scout for filmmakers three times, even being credited on the films when they were completed.

Do you have any particular group of friends whom you explore with, has your experience in the hobby formed any long lasting friendships with such a group of people or so you still find yourself very much solo exploring? Do you have any role models, people that you’ve looked up to either from their photographic skillset or their explorations?

I’m not a great mixer socially but I do keep in touch with people online and I’ve joined as many local and Ontario based groups as I find. I haven’t been as active in my own groups the past year and I miss that.

I like seeing other photographers, not just urban explorers but anyone who photographs and finds a unique way to present what they have seen. A clear photo is just the beginning you can get into night photography, re-photography, rooftopping and etc. The photographs last longer than actually being there. They remind you of what you saw and show you what you missed while you were there.

Do you take precautions for your health such as a respirator, steel toe boots? Are you ever concerned with the long term heath effects?

I don’t explore tunnels and such and I seldom enter inside the old places (partially not wanting to trespass that far and partly out of thoughts of safety). The main issue for me have been animals. Birds in particular have been a hazard. But, I’ve also walked into the path of beehives and had one caught in my hair. I could hear it buzzing but did not really want to find it with my fingers. One of the grossest experiences I have had was stepping on a frog in the long grasses. I’m still not sure I actually did but it always gives me a squicky feeling.

Other than animals we did get the car stuck in deep mud once and my first solo exploration I lost my car keys and had to go back looking for them.

The stupidest thing I do is wear the wrong footwear. I know I should wear boots and I will even bring them along but seldom actually change into them. I wear Croc knockoffs and have yet to be unlucky, not that I think I’m exceptionally lucky, just have not been unlucky so far.

How does a typical exploration work for you? Do you print out maps the night before, do you use a GPS to do a round route, are you highly organized or a last minute planner?

I’m mainly solo or with my Mother. It works out nice cause I navigate and she drives while we both keep on the look out for interesting places. In the car we debate on whether or not a place is actually abandoned. That’s interesting because there have been mistakes made. I prefer houses which are obvious ruins/ abandoned.

I always bring my camera, a map book and sometimes I have an idea of where I want to look or a location I have heard about. Mostly it is unplanned and yet we usually will find at least one abandoned house – usually more than one.

Have you ever been caught by the police or property owner, what was the outcome, were you able to talk yourself out of the situation?

I have been stopped by security and property owners a few times. I’ve never had a confrontation. I really think it helps being a woman and being older.

I won’t break and enter. For me this means I won’t push open a fence but if the fence is already open and shows a path where others have walked through, then I will go ahead and take it. I’m a bit on the timid side when it comes to deciding how far to go to gain entry. I understand the concerns of property owners and there is the chance someone will actually live (and be at home) in some of the run down farmhouses.

My weirdest experience was knocking on the door of the trailer parked on the property to ask permission to photograph the ruins of a farmhouse. The man who answered just wore a robe and wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. I was pretty sure he had been online looking at porn. I didn’t really think about it and put it together until I was finished taking photos and writing down a note about where I was at the time.

Many explorers have an ethic of ‘take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. Do you believe in this ethic or is it a laughable concept?

I’m not on the side of graffiti at all. I have taken some objects from abandoned houses, I’m not a complete purist. But, I don’t move things around (posing them for photographs) and the objects I have taken were a key from long before I thought about ethics and once I took a bowl I found far outside the house as I was walking back. The amazing thing about the bowl was how long it took to get the stink of rotting grass and mud out of it.

The only things I take and don’t feel wrong about are garden plants. I have several which I have dug up and transplanted into my garden. Without digging them up they would eventually be lost to weeds. I like giving them a new place to live, thrive and be appreciated.

There was a group called Urbexers Against Vandalism but they became discouraged and closed the group. The website and Facebook groups are gone. I kept the graphic and remade it for my own site. I think it is an important ethic as it concerns keeping locations for others to see and respecting the property owners.

The hobby is becoming more mainstream and more publicized. Is this a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion, should it remain a secret hobby?

I don’t think it should be seen as something deep, dark and secretive but I don’t like to see it being treated too casually either. I’d rather explorers be people who appreciate the history of the locations (and have some care for the property and the property owner) than just visit with the idea of scavenging, destroying, or having some grand adventure taking artsy pictures.

Publicity can bring some respect and increase knowledge about what explorers actually do. But, it also brings more of the thrill seeking types out for the sake of being trendy. This ruins it for the real explorers because there are accidents, theft and damage which makes us all look disrespectful and up to no good.

I was a member of my local historical society. It gave me a feeling of being legitimate or being able to explain my interest as a love of history and architecture.

Do you use social media, have any websites or sell prints online, etc?

I have not gotten into selling prints. I may in the future. I’d actually consider putting photographs together as an Ontario calendar. I have begun my own site this year, it’s not ready for public viewing yet (though it is online as I go along putting it together).


The media brings more attention to urban exploration but doesn’t always explain what it is so well. Also, perception is in the reader’s mind. Some think we are thrill seekers, some think we are vandalizing locations or just interested in breaking into places to see what we can get. I think the people who view the photographs we take can enjoy them and that is a nice thing about social media. I do worry about the people who take up exploring with intentions other than ethical exploring and documenting history.

What are your thoughts on secrecy and keeping places private, do you tend to not disclose places to others when asked or do you share with others?

I try to be careful but nothing is 100%. If you pass along information to someone you can’t know what they will do with it, who they may pass it along to and what their actual intentions are. When I visit a house I usually go back or at least watch for it the next time I drive by. It really does give me a sadness to see one of them gone. They can’t ever come back. Yet, I don’t blame property owners who demolish them or developers who buy the land and build new. We can’t keep everything but I like to see them standing, weathering yet still here a part of the world.

How long do you see yourself continuing in this hobby, do you see a potential age where you might no longer continue or can we expect to see you out exploring with your adult children when you’re in your 60’s?

I’m turning 50 this week. I think I will still be photographing old buildings for as long as I can still get around to see them.

(Editor: Wow, I thought you were in your 30’s. Congratulations!)