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Urban Exploration: Off Limits Curiosity Can Kill

English: An urban explorer under Hobart, Tasma...

I was going to talk about a film I watched last night. The 2011 film URBEX aka Urban Explorer was directed by Andy Fetsher and distributed by German distributor Universum. It is about a group of five young people who go through previously sealed tunnels underneath Berlin. I quite enjoyed it and will be reviewing it later.

As I was trawling the net (or Googling the net if you prefer) to find more information on the film, my eye caught a reference to urban exploration. I went back and clicked on the link to a Wikipedia page.

The Wikipedia definition of Urban Exploration is, ‘ Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex or UE) is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities. Urban exploration is also commonly referred to as infiltration, although some people consider infiltration to be more closely associated with the exploration of active or inhabited sites. It may also be referred to as draining (when exploring drains) urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, or building hacking.’

Essentially urban exploration (UE) is something that has been steadily gaining in popularity since 2006. The dangers, according to Wikipedia, are many: Arrest – for criminal trespass or common trespassing. Jail or imprisonment – this one sort of dovetails with arrest. Physical – this can be broken down to personal injury and health issues (mostly due to exposure to Asbestos).

I can see the appeal. The article in Wikipedia intimates that this is a new hobby of younger people. I am guessing that includes a demographic of perhaps 13 to 30. Although looking at it, I would probably enjoy participating in the practise as well.

I remember getting excited when I learned about the ‘buried city’ underneath Seattle in the mid seventies. This curiosity was given a booster shot of publicity when it featured in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Amazingly this curiosity has been around since the 1950’s and it’s first official tour took place in 1965.

Seattle underground city. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I felt the same burst of excitement when years later I learned of the buried city under Edinburgh, Scotland. I would have given my right arm to see either of these two fascinating places in person. If you wander through the web, you’ll find that a lot of places have ‘buried cities’ or ‘underground vaults’ all available for public legal touring.

But if you look a little closer, you’ll find images and links to the UE world of ‘tours.’

Urban Exploration in Oświęcim

Urban Exploration in Oświęcim (Photo credit: robfuncken.nl)

My daughter adores old buildings and abandoned industrial estates. They are, to her, the modern equivalent of the ‘ghost town’ and they hold the same fascination as the Mesa Verde held for me as a youngster. But if I am really honest, I feel the same about buildings or areas that are abandoned and forgotten in the not so distant past.

I can see the allure of exploring these forbidden places. Places that have been deserted and emptied of human occupants with only the vestiges of prior inhabitants remaining.

Seattle’s underground city.

I worked, for a very short time, for a used office furniture retailer. They would go and survey what office articles such as desks, chairs, filing cabinets, et al, an out of business retailer had left behind. A bid would be put in for clearing out the remaining equipment. If the bid was accepted, we would go in and collect the things for cleaning, inexpensive repair and re-sell the items at a ‘discount’ price.

It was while I was working for this small business that I got to experience what could be called a type of urban exploration.

The business had been a long running traditional employer of thousands of people in the local area. The company had gone into receivership in the mid 1990’s. I was tasked with another employee from the furniture store to collect any office furniture that was deemed ‘worth messing with’ and bring to the store’s repair warehouse.

Manufacturing memories.

The abandoned building was the size of two American football fields laying end to end. It was winter time and the inside of this huge mausoleum was ten degrees colder than the outside.

Machinery, desks, chairs, filing cabinets and other assorted office paraphernalia was scattered throughout the building. The main area was surrounded by little offices that perhaps the worker’s supervisors had run their sections from.

The entire area, including the offices, had a feeling of panicky departure. It looked like a land bound Mary Celeste. Books were left open on desks as if they’d been abandoned mid-sentence. Pens, pencils, staplers and staple pullers littered the desks and the floor.

A lot of the pen holders still had expensive pens in them. The desks were full of papers; expense sheets, manifestos, instructions and private correspondence. A few briefcases were scattered here and there. If not for the thick layer of dust that permeated the building and the lack of order and people, it looked as though everyone had just left hurriedly for a fire drill or a quick union meeting.

It was eerie, disquieting and fascinating.

One room was full of children’s books. Not your run of the mill present day books either. Quite a few looked as though they might be collectors editions of children’s classics. Black Beauty, Treasure Island, and other children’s books littered the floor and filled boxes that were in untidy heaps.

When my colleague and I had our lunch break we went into the areas that were ‘off limits’ and explored. These areas were even more fascinating. Where the main area we’d been working in looked hastily deserted. The off limits area looked like there should still be people there working and planning their rosters and task lists. This area was almost clean. The ever present thick dust that had coated everything in the other room was not present in these offices. The look of disarray was not present either.

Everything was neat and precise and clean. We both felt a little like cat-burglars so we did not stay long. I don’t know about my co-worker, but I felt like the inhabitants of the offices were going to come in at any minute and throw us out.

When we finished our collection of the old office things deemed saleable, we left. I felt like a modern day archaeologist. As silly as it might sound, I felt I knew how the folks had felt that explored the Egyptian tombs and the Aztec ruins.

Oh sure, my little exploration of a business gone broke couldn’t compare in importance or significance, but, the snapshots of daily activity in an recently deserted building was fascinating.

I can well imagine why people have been increasingly interested in this modern form of exploration. The mix of forbidden exploration of hitherto unknown or sealed locations and the chances of injury combined with the visceral and tactile experiences must be a heady combination that is difficult to refuse.

A lot people are curious about life before we came along. Even more so if the life we see is of an infamous or disturbing nature. It will be interesting to see where this variation of time travel will go. Because that is what urban exploration seems to be. A quick look at yesterday or yesteryear, that is dirty, forbidden, dangerous and excitingly real.

I can understand that.


This post was featured on “Freshly Pressed” in August 2012, entitled Urban Exploration: Off Limits Curiosity Can Kill. It is reproduced here on submission by its author, Mikesfilmtalk.

Mike is a “Survivor, Sporadic YouTube vlogger, obsessional Blogger, 54 year old “big kid.” I like writing about Films, books and things in general and the odd interview.

Welcome to my world.”

Be sure to visit his very interesting and entertaining blog!

2 replies »

  1. One guy I found who does some draining through 1800’s smuggling tunnels runs this cool Salem walking tour. Those tunnels were used during the Underground Railroad and by some of our early Federalist politicians to avoid custom duties on their imports. Even the Masons used them he said.

    Like

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