For every prohibition you create you also create an underground.
- Jello Baifra (Dead Kennedys)
As urban explorers, we often confine our adventures to those places which are, by and large, empty. That is not to say that other people – drug users, graffiti artist, geocachers, squatters, film crews, security guards or troupes of children looking for imaginative play space – don’t also use what appear to be places largely absent from human presence, but that the places we often explore are not generally utilized as shelter or housing. When we do encounter people, we usually leave with an apology. Fuck that, I say bring on the meld.
In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe between 2008 and 2010, myself, Winch, Statler, “Gary” and Silent Motion took guilty pleasure in locating and camping in the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The experience left us in a distinctly different psychological state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom. The reverence for actual state failure, rather than imagined post-capitalist social or site-specific industry failure, made our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden. If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past, what then does the ruin of a failed state say to us?
As Dsankt once pointed out to me, there are very few people involved in urban exploration that are economically disadvantaged. Obviously, in order to be able to create the opportunity for these sorts of engagements with the city, one must be secure enough financially and with enough free time that putting in the necessary hours to research and explore sites can be accomplished. More importantly, one also, as I pointed out above, has to view these spaces as primarily areas for play and creative practice rather than potential housing.
As we found in our exploration of economically disadvantaged areas as far away as Poland, our relative affluence became readily apparent. At one point, we were all stunned to find someone living inside the Soviet Military base Vogelsang, dozens of miles in an East German forest. We all mused in the car driving away about whether that person had consciously chosen to live in that hacked up shell of a building in a peaceful forest next to the derelict nuclear launch pads outside Berlin or whether they were, perhaps, running from something. As we set up our temporary camp there the night before, we all discussed how we could just choose to stay as whoever that was did. Winch later wrote that “the fact we could sleep there, build fires and do whatever we liked turned it into an environment that was absolutely ours – the geography of isolation turned it from being a ruin into our ruin.” And isn’t the what place is all about? Did that tramp living there feel the same?
In 1923, Chicago sociologist Nels Anderson and anarchist Ben Reitman developed the general condition of vagrancy, divided into three main classes: bums, tramps and hobos. He writes, a tramp is a man who doesn’t work, who apparently doesn’t want to work, who lives without working and who is constantly travelling. A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed laborer without money, looking for work. A bum is a man who hangs around a low class saloon and begs or earns a few pennies a day in order to obtain drink. It is an interesting notion that one can have different motivations for being homelessly mobile and where (if?) we exist on that scale, as temporary spatial hijackers. I will return to that later.
As I have found recently in my explorations of the Las Vegas storm drains, we don’t have to travel as far as Poland to see people living in derelict space and infrastructure. As David Runiman writes in the April 2011 issue of the London Review of Books, since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves. Las Vegas unemployment, meanwhile, breaking new records, has been marked at 15% one year ago, it now stands at 13.7%. However, as Joshua Ellis, the writer who runs Zen Archery pointed out to me over coffee last week, those numbers include only those who apply and are accepted for unemployment benefits. He reckons the reality of unemployment (not to mention underemployment) in this dusty city is closer to 25%. Still, amidst the glitz of the strip, constant televisual pundit banter about inevitable economic recovery (Osama is dead, the price of gold is skyrocketing!), not to mention flash weddings of vegan casino moguls, it is hard to argue that economic conditions aren’t “recovering”. Until you slip into Las Vegas drain.
As Matthew O’Brien, author of the book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas writes, the strip, of course, provided a stunning contrast to the storm drain. How could these two worlds so closely co-exist..? Then again, how could they not? In America, poverty always bows at the feet of corporate wealth. The question I find interesting here is whether these people have arrived, following Anderson’s definitions, by choice or circumstance. Matthew is one person who can answer that question.
Matthew has spent a good part of the last 10 years exploring the Las Vegas drain system, systems that are not monitored. There are no rules. There are no heroes. And, oh yeah, they can fill a foot per minute with floodwater. Along with Ellis, they were the first to break what has become an international story about the living conditions of over 300 people residing in the drain system here.
When I arrived in Las Vegas, I knew I would not be able to resist my explorer urge to see the drains for myself, but I also wanted to hear the stories from the only two who dared to venture into that system first, having no idea what to expect. What follows is a short interview with Matthew reflecting on the impact of the book and his future plans.
BLG: Given that it has been 5 years since the publication of Beneath the Neon, perhaps you could just give us an update on your work in the Las Vegas storm drains. Are more people living there since the economy tanked? How has the publication of the book affected both you and them?
MO: The main thing that has changed in the drains since Beneath the Neon was published in 2007 is that many of the people living in them have a chance to get out. In March 2009, I founded a community project called Shine a Light, a collaboration with local charity organization HELP of Southern Nevada. Basically, I escort their social workers into the drains and they offer assistance to the people we encounter. In two years of work, they’ve helped hundreds of people with stuff like getting ID and prescription glasses and they’ve actually housed maybe 80 or 90 people. It’s, by far, the best thing to come out of the book and my explorations of the tunnels.
Following on from that, if you could go through the whole experience again, would you change anything? For instance, you mentioned to me previously that you felt a bit reluctant about giving away detailed information on locations and using people’s real names.
There’s little I would change about Beneath the Neon and my experiences in the drains. I mean, there are minor things I would add to or take out of the book, since I feel like I’ve matured as a person and a writer, but it’s who I was and where I was at the time, and I’m cool with that.
In the book, I use only the first names of the people I interviewed and tried to be vague about the location of the tunnels, while giving the reader enough info to hold onto. There are times when I think I should’ve been more vague about the location of the drains, but, really, few people are seeking them out and venturing into them. And those who do—mostly urban explorers and bored teenagers—probably would’ve found the inlets and outlets without my assistance. If you’re determined to find the drains, there are ways to do it.
In the book, you make a few references to urban exploration but it’s obvious that your motivations for exploring the drain, as a journalist, were quite different from the perhaps more selfish motivations of urban explorers. Is there an urban exploration scene in Vegas? If so, do you feel like you are a part of it?
As far as I can tell, there isn’t much of an urban exploring scene in Las Vegas. The city isn’t really suited for it. There aren’t many bridges, abandoned buildings, train tunnels and old interesting ruins here. And the stuff like that that is here tends to be secure and hard to access. (Most property owners in Vegas take trespassing quite seriously.)
There are, however, a lot of stalled, half-built hotel-casino projects on and around the Strip. They would be interesting to explore, I think—viewing the skeletons and innards before they’re concealed by a glitzy facade.
But I’m probably not the man to do it. There’s too much risk (fines, injuries, etc.) and too little reward. Plus, I assume there are no people, besides asshole security guards, in these areas. Part of what made the drains interesting to me is that you could encounter graffiti artists, madmen, public-works employees, squatters and others, which added to the intrigue and context of the setting.
I am very interested in the politics behind Beneath the Neon. This is a hard city to live in, a place with very conservative values that offer little help to those in need. It seems obvious from your book that on some level, the authorities in Las Vegas were quiet happy to have their homeless problem “disappear” underground. Of course, you have now made it all public. Has there been much of a reaction to that from authorities and policy-makers?
There really hasn’t been much of a reaction from local authorities and politicians to the book and the media coverage of the tunnels, which is good and bad, I think. One of my biggest fears was that the police would sweep the people out of the tunnels after the book was published. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But politicians and city and county employees, as far as I can tell, didn’t try to do anything to help the people, either. That’s part of the reason I founded Shine a Light.
If the Mob was still running the town, I’m sure I would’ve received a none-too-subtle message to drop the subject. But the corporate Mob just seems to ignore the subject entirely.
Finally, tell me about what you are up to now. Are you interested in exploring different types of subterranean spaces in the future such as the London sewers or Paris Catacombs (quarries)?
I recently published another book, which I’m excited about. It’s titled My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas. It’s a collection of creative-nonfiction stories set in off-the-beaten-path Vegas and it includes the original storm-drain stories Josh Ellis and I co-wrote for Las Vegas CityLife. Also, I checked into one of the seedier weekly motels in town (and that’s saying a lot!), stayed a week and wrote a diary about my experiences. I wrote a personal story about living in a historic, past-its-prime apartment complex in the shadow the Strip. Stuff like that.
I am interested in exploring subterranean spaces in other cities, but not necessarily writing about them. I’m a bit of a Vegas specialist, so writing about the drains here made sense. However, I’m probably not as qualified to write extensively about the Shanghai Tunnels of Portland, the catacombs of Rome or the quarries of Paris. They’d just be fun places to visit, as a way to balance out the more touristy stuff. I don’t totally geek out or get off on exploring underground spaces. I’ve just developed an interest in them and urban exploring through my experiences in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.
After conducting this interview with Matthew, I showed him a photograph I had taken of a drain next to a notable landmark, a photo which, in our parlance “exposed access details”. He asked me not to publish it. I was heartbroken, given I though the photo had turned out beautifully, but had to defer on the side of Matthew’s sympathy as one who knew intimately about the conditions of living here, rather than my ego as a photographer of the largely unseen and unpopulated. I mean, if I was living in there and some asshole posted the photo of my front door on Place Hacking, I would be pissed. Just kidding, I’d go steal more drinks and wait for the party to erupt.
A larger question here for the urban exploration community lingers; it has always been the elephant in the room. At what point do our exploration cease to be an adventure in creative practice and boundary subversion and begin to impact those less fortunate than us in a negative way? Is urban exploration, in fact, a victimless crime when we disturb people while exploring? And maybe more importantly – at what point might we begin, as Matthew has, to move past urban exploration to begin working for the rights of those less fortunate than us, to use our media influence to actually improve the lives of others? Do we actually care about that, or just about ticking our list of explored locations?
On the other hand, these people are living in public space (as much as taxpayer funded infrastructure is public space) and most of the people I met so far in drains here could give a shit whether I was walking around in there, they just wanted to know if they could bum a smoke or hit me up for a dollar. Given that our crew has now started squatting space in London, are we really all that different? And if we are bridging the gap between urban explorers and hobos, tramps and bums, following Anderson, what are we? Does that dreaded monstrosity the prohobo – the hobo that chooses to be homeless yet retains the ability to photograph, blog and scam the internet for money as well as picking pockets and robbing Liddle for fixtures to BBQ vegetables looted from the skip actually exist? Is this Donna Haraway’s cyborg, neither nature nor culture, human nor computer, neither employed nor homeless? Are we becoming as liminal as the spaces we increasingly reside in? Are we finally getting close to the meld? I hope so, cause I can’t wait to pop.
In fact, as Matthew spun the stories of encounter in his book, one after another, it became obvious that with a few rare exceptions, most of the people in the drains were there by choice. They had chosen to stop contributing to the system, chosen to gamble their lives away, chosen meth or heroin over family and stability and chosen the freedom and danger of living off the grid, scamming tourists and casinos by silver mining (hunting machines for left over credits). They choose to get high till the day cools off and then crawl out of the drains, all sloppy and hungover, delighted to go dick around in this Mad Max plasticland for another night. In short, many people have chosen this life in Las Vegas Undercity. That is not to say that we shouldn’t offer a helping hand where it’s needed, and bless Matthew for also doing so, but it is to say that maybe pity is wrongly placed here. As Harold, one of the drain dwellers that Matthew encounters says, quite proudly we dwell in the subterranean world, man. We dwell in the subterranean world. Harold goes on to tell Matthew that it was an economic choice, and he is saving mad cash living in the drains. Maybe Harold knows something we don’t, maybe he is braver than us. Maybe homelessness is preferable to the mental vacancy you inhabit at work everyday. The Situationists thought that where material poverty had been eradicated, the biggest threat to life was boredom. Maybe Harold already figured that out and just decided to subvert that whole nightmare before he got there.
Perhaps the other side of this issue is a question of why people don’t live in ruins and infrastructure in London and Paris. Perhaps it’s a fundamental difference in economic distribution, social programs or access to charity. Or maybe it’s just a matter of pride or social conformity. In any case, the Las Vegas Undercity, the only feature of Las Vegas that may interest the intrepid urban explorer, is also, consequently, the true face of a city built on nothing but wealth and decadence and doesn’t look a thing like anyplace else. I suppose, in that light, maybe everybody should see the Vegas drains, maybe then they would understand the true cost of this wonderland. I am pretty sure this is a good indication of what happens when we hack the system into an open source OS: here’s your free market fuckers.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I have always had a deep love for Las Vegas, and particularly for the Mojave Desert. But my recent experiences here, seeing the Las Vegas Undercity, has made me want to leave and never return. Nowhere in the United States is the chasm between rich and poor deeper or more upsetting, nowhere is the barbarity of American free market capitalism more evident. But you know, this is just what’s happening out there, in the real world, in real time. If you want to see if it for yourself, or even move yourself in, that’s your call I guess. When Las Vegas is just another Old West ghost town –boom and then bust! – these reinforced concrete boxes will be buried beneath the desert. They’re our preservation areas. Our art galleries. Our time capsules. They’re also our homeless shelters. As for myself, I am going to take the lessons learned here back to London, that’s when this scene is going to get really raw. What an age in which we dwell. Now let’s drill down into the meld.
Thanks to Katie Draper and Erika Sigvardsdotter for exploring drains here with me and Joshua Ellis and Matthew O’Brien for making me feel at home in a city full of drugs and scary clowns.
Be Monstrous. Explore Everything.