April 17, 2008 :: It's only a misdemeanor. Milledgeville Asylum, Milledgeville, GA
Urban exploration is suddenly everywhere. Wonderful pictures in Harper's this month of the decimated Detroit schoolbook depository building (legendary in the break-in-and-take-a-few-pictures circle). A CSI New York episode that takes place in the New York subway's fabled City Hall station--a place that, stale and shuttered, watches silently as the 21st century speeds by on the 6-train but never stops. Bldgblog's post the other day about future urban ruins--fascinating (a brilliant blog in total, by the way). It was even all over that recent summer blockbuster that shall remain nameless for its terrible plot holes and overly-wrought drama and anticlimactic ending rife with sneaky religious overtones (or so Blake tells me, I didn't really feel that last part).
Of course, because of all this attention, there will be people who will call the cold, crawling feeling of awe and simple sadness that you get once you open the doors of somewhere long-forgotten trite and overwrought and the "wrong" response to have...blah blah blah, everything anyone knows about is done and over and therefore stupid. Ugh.
Who cares. I happen to know that there's something absolutely gut-twistingly sexy about both ends of the urban exploration experience, that not feeling some goose-pimply response must mean you're somewhat dead inside.
First, there's the feeling of doing something you shouldn't, of trespassing on others' property, of opening long-locked doors, scaling fences, hiding camera flashes in the dark. But then, there's what time and weather and neglect does to our built environment--places often well-planned and solid. Places that in real, daylight life, when the intangible presence of humanity is everywhere, seem immovable, unchangeable. After we've all left the building, en masse, we find these places very different and transient taken over by nature and emptiness. As pack creatures, as needers of companionship and noise and diversion, it's frighteningly unsettling to be both smacked in the face by time standing still and time marching on all at once. And it's awesome.
I took the picture above a few years ago on a trek with my friend Stephanie to a place called Milledgeville, home to a state mental facility which is now partially abandoned. The empty buildings range from turn of the century to mid 60's in construction, and every one we entered was a museum exhibit of nature climbing over man. Paint hung in swags from drooping ceilings. Dark shadows suggested previous fires and ever-leeching water. Rust and a crunchy layer of decomposing building materials were everywhere underfoot. It was terrifying at times, a bit melancholy at others, and wildly beautiful the entire excursion. Here's the flickr set that documents some of our trip.
Here's another, from one of my favorite abandoned places.
And here's the site of probably the best of the best of the sneakers and photographers of dormant buildings.
My point, I guess, is that I don't think urban exploration is nothing but a cheap thrill. I don't think it's relevant to discount the emotions we feel when we unseal the past to see what time has done with it--sadness, awe, inspiration, fear, melancholy--they're all just right.
I think it's perfectly human to want to sit at the intersection of time and place and feel both change around us.
And I think I'll be doing it every chance I get.