Urban Explorers Give Modern Ruins a Second Life


For Jake Williams, nothing means success like wrack and ruin.

Mr. Williams had studied business marketing in college before withdrawing and pursuing a full-time career as an urban explorer, researching and telling the stories of abandoned properties.

He films his excursions and, as the producer of Bright Sun Films, shares them on YouTube. The subjects of some of his more popular videos, like a former Days Inn hotel or an abandoned Walmart, are fairly mundane, but viewers are drawn out of morbid curiosity, he said.

“I think when you see an abandoned place on the side of the road,” he said, “people will ask, ‘How’d that get there?’”

The urban exploration movement traces its origins to online forums that allowed “all these weirdos to connect” and trade tips on places to visit, said Matthew Christopher, the founder of the website Abandoned America.

His talks, books and photographs attract fans and the curious with the allure of adventure, nostalgia and academic interest.

His work is more than a snapshot of a time gone by; it is also a commentary on the impact of humans on the environment and the kind of throwaway culture society has embraced.

Some of the sites he has documented date to a time when the United States was competing with Europe and trying to show off America’s grandiosity.

“They thought they were building institutions to last centuries but now it’s a quick churn,” Mr. Christopher said.

The builders from those eras probably believed that what they were constructing “would be essentially permanent, and so they naturally injected art, creativity and craftsmanship into them,” he said.

Mr. Berindei said he appreciated construction from the 1940s and 1950s, but in the decades that followed, buildings came to be “thought of as a good or commodity, rather than a permanent mark on our landscape.”

“The architecture of the past will only become more and more unbelievable as more of our built world is replaced with prefab, cheaply constructed junk,” he said.

Another hazard can be a legal one related to trespassing. Does Mr. Christopher always seek the permission of the owners of the properties he visits? “No,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Weissman and Mr. Berindei of The Proper People have had a few run-ins with law enforcement, but they have never been arrested or issued a citation. They said any tension eases once they explain the nature of their work to the authorities.

On a visit to an abandoned power plant in New Orleans, Mr. Weissman and Mr. Berindei found a colony of people who were relying on generators and power tools to strip the site of scrap metal to sell to support their drug habits.

“We talked to a few of them,” Mr. Berindei said. “They seem like nice people. It was just a sad situation.”

Mr. Christopher acknowledged that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic may lead to an increase in the number of abandoned properties, especially retail centers, but that does not mean he’s looking forward to such an outcome.

“In a way,” he said, “it’s a little bit like saying to a doctor during the pandemic, ‘You will be really busy in the I.C.U.’”



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