The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. -Hunter S. Thompson
I couldn’t believe we were back in Vegas. Being the neurotic adventure-seeking pendulums of desire that we are, we had oscillated between one extreme and another, passing through my beloved quiet desert from LA to Sin City, through blistering days and freezing nights under the stars, from my Mom’s home cooking to endless Del Taco – only to find that Emily Fish had already arrived from Mexico and been camping in McCarren Airport for at least 24 hours. She had constructed a little shanty town out of Indian shawls and suitcase remnants in the baggage claim area and fended off TSA security with honey in the ear and incense sticks. I walked in dripping sweat, stinking of whiskey and gunpowder. She looked me up and down and said, “well honey, I guess we had better go explore everything”. Damn right. We started with a gaudy carpet by the toilets in the Bellagio.
Vegas was in shambles. The Sahara casino had closed down. New construction had ceased. The only skyscraper with cranes on site when we arrived was Fountainebleau which Aurelie Curie assured me was secured tighter than Fort Knox. 1 of every 9 homes was in foreclosure due to non-payment of mortgages and unemployment was astronomical. Thinking back to my jaunt though the Las Vegas underworld just a few months back, it was clear nothing had changed since the last time I left poolside to go crawling around underground. The summer of 2011 in Sin City felt like the apocalypse. But as I had already found, Las Vegas history, the real Las Vegas history, makes fops and fools of even the most sincere explorers. The city’s story is riddled with blind alleys, dead ends, crazy twists, and outright fabrication; nothing should be taken at face value here, we had to get out on the strip and take score.
As much as I love the city, Vegas is one of those places that you really must assume you may never return to every time you leave, fragile as it is, so you’ve got to milk it. It made sense to start with the Sahara, a Vegas icon recently deceased after 59 years of pwning poor saps and breaking people’s hands with hammers in back rooms. We called up Aurelie and she gave us a hot tip – they were having a liquidation sale. The idea was to pose and buyers taking pictures of potential purchases for a client and walk through the front door, head for the lifts and see where you can get. Solid. Floor 24 please.
There was a spooky sincerity to the liquidation of the Sahara, evident in the faces of employees and the place itself. The architecture was slumped over against a wall, baking in the heat clutching a bottle, shrugging to passerbys and laughing to itself while trashy families picked at its carcass and wondered to their partners wielding tall cans of Natural Ice whether they could put this on eBay, holding the item in question aloft in the glaring casino floorlights with a discerning eye. We bypassed the hordes and wandered backstage where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, George Carlin & Bill Cosby had performed. Later I found out Aurelie had gone up in the flies the week before. You don’t know until you try.
Marc Cooper writes that Vegas is purposefully constructed as a self-enclosed and isolated biosphere, sort of what a recreational colony built on the moon might be like. The Sahara in the summer of 2011 was the perfect example of this, a biosphere with holes in the glass, oxygen seeping out into the desert wind with a hissing sound, ready to explode at the flick of a match.
To imagine that for 59 years this place had never closed. Ever. Yet there we sat, alone in quiet buffets and silent rooftops, not even an air conditioner running. It was a spectacular privilege. Extrapolating what we saw in the Sahara, it’s clear this city would ruin like a a hot rod – in the sexiest way possible.
From the roof of Sahara we could see our last and final target in Vegas – Fountainbleau. It was the only skyscraper in the city under construction, the only one with cranes on it and, as Aurelie had warned us, getting up there would likely require a distraction of immense proportions such as a catastrophic desert thunderstorm or nuclear bomb blast. However, we were determined that it must be done, despite the security patrols vigilantly rolling around on ATVs like circling sharks. There were at least three teams on the ground down there and they were better prepared than us, wielding binoculars and radios.
However, before we could tackle it, we encountered another opportunity altogether. Essentially, we were walking down Las Vegas Boulevard and saw that there was a new Walgreens under construction. The front gate was open and it was 2 in the afternoon, the street swarming with red-faced tourists. We figured we should give it a shot – the worst that would happen is that we would walk into a worker or security, feign drunkenness, apologise, head for the gate and run like hell when we hit the pavement. An archetypal tactic straight out of Access All Areas. As it turned out, though we were all sweating it, there appeared to be no one there. I guess they just took lunch and left the gate open. Cheers guys.
That was the end of our time together as a group in Vegas. Emily went back to Washington, Witek to Ottawa and Otter to London. Marc Explo and I were left alone to pack up our stuff for a final leg of the trip before our summer was over. But we had one mission left to complete. Since it was unlikely I was coming back to Vegas, I felt compelled to do something grand to mark my time there, to push the bar higher, as our crew does, wherever we go. This desert has attracted all manner of dreamers, from millenarian cultists to visionary artists to advanced weapons scientists from the United States Air Force. They have all made their mark, they have all tested something or other on America’s proving ground. Like bleached bones these dreams lie in the desert sand, faded and chipped but intact; they have their own story to tell, as compelling as the accounts of written history or the stirring narratives of museums. So at 3am on Sunday before we flew out, Marc and I dodged the security patrols and alarms and climbed the 68 story Fountaineblue skyscraper. These photos are my parting gift to one one my favorite cities in the United States. With love.
Thank you to all my friends in Vegas including Matthew O’Brien, Joshua Ellis and Aurelie Curie. Thanks as well to Marcia and Jack Kulpa for allowing me to look after your beautiful house for the summer.
…place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit
Most people, I would venture to guess, tend to think of home as a place of comfort and rest, peace and solace. The Inland Empire of Southern California in the 1990s, where I grew up, did not hold these qualities for me. Perhaps that’s because home exhibits a certain plastic tendency that enables its boundaries to expand and shrink, which allows it to signify other geographical scales and although my family and friends were steadfast, I never saw SoCal, on a larger scale, as place I could call home. It was too pretentious, too materialistic, too filled with mischanneled testosterone. Riverside was a place in the midst of thriving, unsustainable gentrification on the road to inevitable economic collapse, a contested border zone caught between violent gang-fueled street warfare driven by teenagers like myself eager to claim identity in primaeval non-places and an increasingly Disneyfied social landscape which wasn’t necessarily conducive to rootedness and largely rejected our aggressive attempts at placemaking.
When I turned sixteen and finally got a car (the hallmark of Southern California freedom), I absconded every chance I had. I usually ventured into the Mojave Desert, a landscape full of dry lake beds washed long ago to a surface as flat and inviting as a dance floor when dry. These are the places where the desert is most itself: stark, open, free, and invitation to wander, a laboratory of perception, scale, light, a place where loneliness has a luxurious flavor… The inhospitable Mojave Desert is, I think, primarily envisaged as a barrier to overcome between places, perhaps even the antithesis of home. For me, as for Rebecca Solnit and Harold Budd, two people I greatly admire, it was always more home than home was, a space I could always find room to carve a place for myself.
However, Marc Explo, Otter, Witek and I had now emerged from the desert, stopping for our successful infiltration of The Boneyard on our way to the City of Angels. There was only one road back to L.A. – U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. We rolled into the ghetto of Los Angeles late and failed to get into the Belmont Tunnel (it had been turned into a museum or apartments or an amusement park or something – it all looks the same) and then succeeded climbing on top of the Queen Mary before arriving at my parent’s house to take our first shower in a long while.
We were looping around to my brother Pip’s house in Canyon Lake. When we arrived, he pulled out tequila, maps and firearms and gave us three hot tips before taking us on a drunken ride in his pimped-out 4×4 golf cart and sending us on our merry way. Tip one was that in the mountains near Big Bear, he knew a series of radio towers we could climb to get proper David Lynch-esque skyline shots of the Inland Empire. Tip two was that there was a water park in nearby Redlands called Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom that was apparently abandoned. Both sounded like great opportunities for me to try and apply my placehacker skills acquired in Europe to home – making place ours by learning it from the inside out – just as Pip and I had done a year back at the March Air Reserve Base Hospital.
The radio tower did indeed turn out to be a wonder. As a bonus, when we pulled up to it, there was a herd of local kids gearing up to climb it as well. We shared our beer with them and climbed the tower together. Afterwards, they went back to their Ford F-350 and started blasting country music and I was unhappily reminded of our current geographic location on earth. I left satisfied regardless, having never seen the IE from that scale. After the successful climb we were pumped to sneak into the abandoned water park. Which didn’t exactly go as planned.
When we arrived Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, it was clear that the abandoned areas of the park had been quickly knocked down and the ground salted, all memory of that failure erased from history (go California!). What remained standing was very much active. However, it was two in the morning, we’d had a few beers up the tower and we were gearing up to head back into the desert, so we decided to run through the sprinklers and hop the fence anyway. Inside, we climbed the first waterslide where we could see the security guard off in the distance talking to a girl in a car. Easy. We climbed down the slides, which were surprisingly unslippery without water, and then grabbed some inner tubes off a big pile and floated around in the pools. Then we turned a corner and hit the jackpot – a snack booth with an open window. I slid through and found a fridge full of energy drinks, a nacho cheese dispenser and a Slurpee machine. Breakfast served. With a car full of fresh beverages, two new guns from Pip, and a few hot photos to tell the tale, we bailed from the Inland Empire again – I had hit my three-day tolerance threshold. Plus, Pip had a final mission for us – he suggested we hit some mines in the Calico Mountains on the way back to Vegas. So we found ourselves back in the Mojave again driving by torchlight into the hills somewhere near Yermo, California, set up camp and built a fire.
Inside the tunnels of an old mine where the extraction of silver from the earth had long ceased, we were soon 10 meters underneath the ground level, climbing deeper into the belly of the earth through long forgotten mine shafts. Outside is was blisteringly hot. Equipped with cameras, a multitude of light sources and an unquenchable thirst to find out what was left behind, we climbed as deep as we could go. The deepest levels of the mines eluded us on this trip but our time was running out and we were not yet done with Vegas. Like gill-breathers, we had to keep moving, stillness would surely mean death for us all in this heat. We popped off a few more rounds and smoked the tires onto I-15 again.
Although I was again a tourist here, passing through this surly desert, we were, as intended, beyond conventional tourism in our Powerslide delirium. But we were also beyond urban exploration. Was it even urban anymore? We were on an adventure pilgrimage, a quasi-spiritual journey, a failing search for a solitudiness, personal, semi-spiritual relation to place where we kept running into plastic and Wal-Mart super stores. Our romantic gaze reinforced the mythology of the desert in the most predictable ways, finding the only place where the Western Frontier still exists as some horrible shattered and lonely revenant, even as we worked to stake our promised claim to the freedom of the American West. It was toxically intoxicating and caused spontaneous moments of frustrated Tourette-like outbursts from the crew.
In my quest to remake home turf utilising a social template I was more comfortable with, all I really succeeded in doing was creating a Frankensteinien iteration that no one understood, just like every post on this site. Although home is posited as relational – the ever-changing outcome of the ongoing and mediated interaction between self, others and place, I am not sure we ever found home on this trip – we remained the urban nomads we have become. Though we did succeed, perhaps, in layering up my relationship with my past in new ways and I always enjoy the process of overcomplicating things that are supposed to be simple like nostalgia. To wit, if we consider home as a set of intersecting and variable ideas and feelings, which are related to context, and which construct places, extend across spaces and scales, and connects places, then maybe I can justify the ways I have always thought of that stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles as an escape hatch, my personal pilgrimage trail of meditative space between two extreme forces of Western capital, violence and rampant resource consumption, the eye of the storm.
For some, the I-15 trail is a right of passage, the road trip that marks the 21 year old transition into adulthood (with the associated benefits of inebriated gambling). To others, the trail itself is the journey to seek. In either case, it’s obvious that the myths of this place go deeper than the notion of ‘a place between here and there’. We can explore the Mojave as a simultaneous destination and journey that speaks to different scales of home and to the fragile geopolitical climate of the now.
In terms of Riverside, well, I readily admit cowardice to my childhood associates. I ran from the Inland Empire and every time I go back, just like this trip, I fail to connect with it in a meaningful way and return to my crew in London. However, I can’t help but think that if I return enough times, trying to carve out a place for myself in my home turf in whatever ways I am able, one day I might be able to return. In the meantime, we headed back to Vegas for one final blowout before Otter and Witek flew back to their respective countries. See you back on the strip.
Explore what’s left. Make what’s not.
“It’s about the risk sometimes.”
Part I: The Sounding
Let’s get those photoreceptor cells warmed up and neurons bouncing people, it’s time for Place Hacking Chicago, where secret spatial knowledge leaks out like early-morning pillow drool through cracks in the urban security infrastructure.
Chicago was a slimy glimmer as Marc and I sped in, sleep deprived, stinky and tweaked out on our successes in Detroit. We had been hearing rumours of an extensive tunnel system modelled on London’s Mail Rail where some fiendish little schizophrenic called Dr. Chaos had hidden cyanide stolen from the University of Chicago back in the early aughts. Apparently it was accessible through manhole covers, gated up with steel doors that had pins we could pop out with a hammer and screwdriver. Next stop Home Depot we figured, we’re going underground.
But Chicago presented those tunnels as false idols to be chased and worshipped by neophyte place hackers looking for lone star epics to boost international credibility and couch surfing bonus cred. Marc and I read the runes and realised our destiny lay in the heavens of the Windy City. We first hit the Hilton Chicago where we were advised the doors to the elevator controls were poppable with a credit card. Within minutes of arriving downtown, we were up the fire escape and on the roof.
But the Hilton’s rooftop, sexy as it was, left us unsatiated. We looked higher and noticed a thunderstorm of epic proportions coming to meet us downtown. It was prime time to climb the highest the midwest had to offer and grab hold of Chicago’s gods – big cumulonimbus death eaters ready to thunder down bolts of righteous over Lake Michigan.
The 40-story Ritz Carlton Residences had the Eye of Suaron on them, a bulbous 360-degree inverted black dome swivelling around and gaping at the piddly four-foot fence into the site. By the time we were standing in front of it, the rain was coming in from five sides, threatening to breach our bags and assault the fragile electronics in our cameras. I looked to Marc. He nodded. We ran across the street and gave the camera the finger as we ninja’d the scaffolding and ducked inside. The first set of stairs was easy to find but hominid specific ultrasonic vibrations on the third floor revealed a fat man in a bright vest reading Maxim at a desk facing the wrong way to actually perform the job he was being paid for. We left him to it and hit the crane to bypass third floor stair ‘security’. As soon as we swung onto the crane we got hammered by the gods of Lake Michigan again. Their wrath was significant at this point. The thunderstorm had intensified into a full-fledged sensory cacophony complete with blue forked lighting strikes jabbing in dangerous proximity as our shadowy figures scaled the steel cage toward the stars. A few floors up, past the stair barriers, we snuck back to the concrete steps and climbed. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed 40 floors but the thing is that if you’re in reasonably good shape at 20 you’re fucked. After that, it’s just sheer adrenaline, fear and unquenchable anticipation that keeps the legs moving. Add to that the fact the we were eating primarily trail mix and woke up that morning (14 hours ago? 20?) on top of a port building in Detroit and you start to get an idea of what we are up against here. We chilled for a second.
Then we heard them. Sirens. Everywhere. They converged on our location and the blood drained from Marc’s face. Without a blink, he cinched his pack straps and said ‘if I’m getting busted, I’m getting busted on top’ and resumed climbing. Cheeky. We hit the stairs with renewed vigour, every turn in the case cranking up the heat, the angst, the fervour. By the time we get the top, I’m locked in a perpetual dubstep stair wobble and my thighs feel like they’ve been skewered and stuck over a campfire until they involuntarily pulsate.
Dripping, panting and wrecked, we walk outside on floor 40 to a nightmare of epic proportions. The architecture is in the midst of supra-environmental contractions rolling in every two minutes, ready to electroporate holes in our cell membranes. The place is heaving and screaming as the gods of Lake Michigan hurl down forks of fury at this giant concrete and metal phallus we just climbed. I am, quiet seriously, terrified that the air ducts, which appear to be zip-tied to the scaffolding, are going to come down on us. And then I see it. Marc Explo is standing on an incomplete ledge being whipped by the rain, defying the gods of Chicago. And the rain stops. And the sirens stop. We look over the edge and there’s nobody there but methamphetamine-addled cab drivers, confused, jetlagged tourists and drunk dudes in loosened ties cruising the Magnificent Mile for violence. Turns out, the sirens probably had nothing to do with us. More false idols.
To this day I still swear Marc assassinated the gods of Chicago. Or maybe he just appeased them with his audacity, for they appeared to linger in wait, providing us with ample opportunity to take our photos in their image, replicating their relentless bombardment for the sake of the Powerslide. In that brief respite between aerial assaults we became the new gods of Chicago and we didn’t intend to take our responsibilities as false prophets lightly. We immediately ran back down 40 floors, bought a beer and popped a hatch in the middle of the one of the Chicago River bridges, toasting those who failed to attend this feckless roadtrip, and those who were on different ones, while the monsoon continued.
The next day we found ourselves working harder than we should have to sneak into an abandoned Brach’s candy factory. The two events of note within that dirtheap of a building were (1) a guy living in a tent on the third floor of the Chewy Candies Caramels® assembly line (who had clearly located a superior ingress/egress route to us) and (2) the fact that the whole factory reeked of marshmallows, nuts and chocolate. If Place Hacking was scratch and sniff, I could have bottled and relayed the smell of derelict chocolate. Since we haven’t uncovered that particular technological wonder just yet, you will have to fly to Chicago and climb over that fence yourself. Sorry.
We saw other places. Events transpired. Sometimes we catalysed them. In other moments we were the victims of dirty tricks and absurd bureaucratic mishaps. I got hurt again falling in a hole somewhere and reinjured my broken rib. Such is life on the road. Then I woke up on a sand dune in Gary, Indiana and Marc wasn’t with me. I found him later at Michael Jackson’s childhood home where he was hanging out with Michael’s cousin Ron (no joke).
Part II: The Legacy
“We must act out of passion before we can feel it.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Fast forward a few weeks to Indianapolis where we gathered with the world’s great place hackers, blaggers, security subverters and professional infiltrators. After hearing of our successes in Chicago, Marc and I headed back downtown on our way to Minneapolis with Witek, Craig, Darlin Clem, Babushka, Otter and Adam. Everything is more fun with friends. Especially friends like these.
After nailing the Hilton one more time (in the middle of the day no less), Marc had this crazy idea to try and social engineer our way up the 72-story Legacy Tower by following in residents, acting like we were headed to a party. We all tried to hold our giggles as the residents in front of us swiped their keycard and we packed our crew into the lift with them. On the 72nd floor, the lock to the roof fell off. Must’ve been some lingering remnant of those false god superpowers.
We collectively decided to wait for sunset to see the city light up from 250 meters above the city streets. As night descended, eight of us perched on the ledge, my heart bloomed. It was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.
The Great Legacy Tower Infiltration, our final mission in Chicago during the 2011 Midwest Powerslide, was a wonder. I left with the feeling that if I were ever to move back to the United States *gasp*, Chicago would be the place. When we walked out the lobby, security opened the door for us and told us to have a good night. Thus is the gift to those who don’t play by the rules.
Cheers to my family for having us over in Elgin for BBQ, a much needed night’s sleep in a bed and, of course, pool time. A huge shoutout to Chicago for being such a bucket of win – that’s some city you’ve built there people.
The spatial revolution is upon us; join us in making place open access again.
The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.
– Kyle Chayka
Detroit’s reputation as a destination for encounters with epic industrial ruins, burned-out residential blocks, dead bodies frozen in ice and hard pipe-hitting thugs ready to elbow you in the face and abscond with your camera gear is internationally gelled in the urban exploration community. When Marc Explo and I started planning our trip to The D, we wanted all that action. But we were also interested in getting beyond stereotypical post-industrial tourism to see what Detroit could offer in terms of live infiltration. Surely, we figured, a city now saddled with a perpetual (and seemingly unshakable) image of crime and desolation wouldn’t mind if we preferred to climb some of their hot new construction projects and wade around in their massive new storm drains. So Marc flew from London, I flew from Las Vegas and we met in the middle of the United States to begin the 2011 Midwest Powerslide.
The queasy feeling in my stomach while I was on the plane to The D told me we were on the right track. I hadn’t seen Marc in 4 months, enraptured as I was by the ceaseless stream of verbiage and audio/visual fornications that were spilling out of my Vegas retreat, where I wrote the bulk of my PhD over the Spring. Truth be told, I was looking forward to seeing the bald Frenchman. As exploration partners, Marc and I seem to create something like a bilateral energy arc that spews sparks of tesla typhoons capable of disabling security cameras and shocking guards into limp-kneed awe. I couldn’t wait to tear the city up with him again and neither of us had ever been to Detroit (minus my failed Canadian road trip nightmare last December which I’ve burned from my memory – a renewed middle finger to the Ontario Provincial Police by the way). After three weeks of scouting in Google Earth for drains, construction projects and derelict industrial areas, unabashedly pillaging leads from the best US explorer blogs and taking a few wild guesses that had the possibility of ending badly, the map we were working off of was so littered with pins for our 4 day trip we could barely see it anymore.
Our first stop was a no-brainer. Michigan Central Station is one of the largest and most beautiful ruins in North America, an icon of Detroit, even in death, much like Battersea Power Station in London. As Leary writes, Michigan Central Station appears to be a potent symbol of decline and the inevitable cycles of capitalist booms and busts. As a result there is a continual stream of tourists idling their rental cars in front to stare up at the monolith through the barbed wire fence. We sped past them in our red Dodge Charger, parked the car and unceremoniously squeezed through a kicked out piece of plywood under a railway in the back. Sneaking through a network of decaying corridors, we made our way to the main building and started climbing. Up top, we got our first taste of the Detroit skyline, only hours after landing. We were immediately impressed. Later, while we were running around playing on the roof, we were slightly shocked when three other explorers clamoured out of the stairwell and greeted us, two from Paris and one from Melbourne. Later, we tried to entice them to squeeze under a fence into the old school building across the street where they found a body of a homeless man frozen in the ice last Winter but they gave it a miss and we went on without them. George, if you read this, I hope you three had an amazing trip!
Lacking any plans for sleeping (of course!), we decided Michigan Central Station was as good a place as any to kip and rolled out our sleeping bags in the main hall. In the morning, we were greeted by two swaggering kids wielding tall cans of cheap beer and 2x4s who had clearly been drinking until 7am. One of them, stumbling and dragging his weapon as we sat up in quickly our sleeping bags and prepared to tackle him, said he was really sorry to tell us that we didn’t look very homeless. We quickly gathered these kids were cool, just a bit hammered and scared – nevertheless we decided it was high time to pack up and start working on tracing our pins. So we bailed from central station and sped off into the suburbs.
I won’t lie, Detroit was shocking. I have a hard time imagining such an economically depressed city existing in the United States. However, everywhere we went, the people of The D were candid and kind, even in what might be considered the worst neighbourhoods, waving at us as we drove down their street and laughing at us when we explained our mission to hobo our way through the American Midwest for the whole summer. Although I’ll try to avoid celebrating the economic devastation the city has experienced, I have to say I felt the place was sizzling with creative energy that somewhere like Los Angeles could never dream of. Monstrous art projects, weird games, quirky cafes and spontaneous happenings were in abundance. At one point, we even randomly found a house covered in stuffed animals that I found out later was part of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. That kind of shit is weird and wonderful, the world needs more of it and, well, I just can’t imagining it happening anywhere else in quite that way. I think that’s also the reason why urban exploration has taken off so much in Detroit. Yes, ruins are everywhere, but the city also has a really raw “if you want it, go for it” attitude that I find refreshing. Artistic liberation always seems to flourish where capitalism takes a fatal dive.
We knocked out the sites on the outskirts of the city pretty rapidly, finding them satisfyingly sketchy and yet feeling increasingly guilty about our ‘targets’. We knew we wanted to see the remains of Detroit’s automotive empire, I mean, leaving the city without seeing it would have been a travesty, but every place we entered was either very clearly a crack den or homeless shelter, incredibly sombre, or filled with other people wielding cameras and spray cans. Everything was trashed. We took the pictures we wanted to get, saw the places we wanted to see, but I couldn’t help feeling that I just was not that interested in ruins any more. It was clear to me, as it has been for the past few months, that exploration is all about the adrenaline rush for me now, the history of places is an afterthought. It’s part of the inevitable fragmentation of being involved in this practice on a more-than-casual basis. Some of us become graffers, squatters or proper artists. Others settle down and quietly slip away. In any case, I don’t think any of us with any common sense or critical thinking skills can abide the hunger for derelict places and photography for more than a few years, it’s got to evolve into something.
However, later in the trip, we rolled into a suburb to relocate an abandoned church. Sneaking in through a back door ripped off the hinges, the place appeared to be trashed. My shoulders slumped until we walked up to the first floor and were greeted with this incredible sight. The Woodward Avenue Church brought the energy right back up.
We spent the night on top of an abandoned port building called Boblo overlooking the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. Earlier on in the day, in the middle of a pretty rough neighbourhood where we were trying to break into a Leer plant, I fell off a fence and sprained my hand, broke a rib and smacked my head pretty hard on the concrete. It was a stupid move that would haunt me for the next 5 weeks and damn near killed me sleeping on the rocky roof of Boblo Port that night.
On day three, Marc and I needed an adrenaline shot so we drove downtown and started scoping infiltration locations. One of the first places we had a look at was the Farwell Building and after a pint in the Detroit Beer Co. (we love you guys!). We decided to give it a crack in the middle of the day. The fire escape was a nightmare, some hellish rusty hunk of shit ripping itself out of the brick under it’s own weight. We ran down the alley and scurried up it, having no idea whether it would hold and, if it did, whether we would run into a swarm of crackheads inside once we wiggled through the broken window on the third floor.
Instead of crackheads, we were rewarded with a surreal central hall that seemed right on the verge of structural collapse. Checking out the adjoining corridors, I felt a wind blowing through a boarded up door and ripped off the plywood to reveal another fire escape, this one leading to the roof. Up top, when it started pouring rain unexpectedly, I stripped of my clothes and danced in the rain (hey, it had been three days without a shower at this point!). Figuring no one was watching during the shower, a stepped onto the ledge of the roof and stared down at the street. As I did, I saw a woman with a stroller look straight at me as she popped her umbrella. Pointing, she yelled, “Oh my god, that little white boy’s gonna jump!” Two minutes later we heard the sirens coming from every direction and scrambled down the building as the police blocked off the street, waiting for the jumper. As we were hanging off the fire escape, trying to get out of the building before they sent cops up to the roof, a police cruiser stopped at the end of the alley. Marc hissed “freeze!” and we hung, the rusty bolts of the fire escape slowly ripping out of the brick. I knew we were busted. And then, miraculously, the cruiser drove off. I still don’t know whether we were seen and dismissed or whether the cops seriously missed us hanging off that fire escape, but as I stood minutes later with Detroit’s finest staring up at the Farwell Building, waiting for my naked self to jump and listening to the cops laughing about “that twisted tweaker that called it in”, I knew I loved Detroit.
As it turned out, Paul McCartney was playing downtown that night so we had free reign in the city while the cops spent their time directing middle class white people into the stadium and reassuring them there were no Muslims there. We went nuts. At 2am we climbed on top of an Italian restaurant and squeezed though an open window to ascend Broderick Tower, the best view we got of Detroit. It was stunning and really gave us a sense of Detroit as a light, bright, vibrant, beautiful place, in contrast to all the archetypal dereliction we had been seeing.
It occurred to me at this point, staring out over the city, that Detroit was in fact far from derelict and we had succeeded at breaking the mould. Ruination is, of course, a large component of the urban landscape now after years of corporate corruption, economic destitution and mass population exodus. However, the city remains full of life, events, cool people, great places to go out and a plethora of sites ripe for infiltration that are largely ignored by tight-jeaned camera-toting dereliction fetishists and local explorers unwilling to carve their own path.
Our final stop, in the suburbs on the way out of town, was a massive drain we found in Google Earth. Our friend Aurelie Curie kindly informed us it was called Red Run while we were en route. I loved Red Run and for reasons known only to himself, Marc despised it and refused to photograph it. Upon reflection, after 4 days in Detroit, sleeping in ruins and walking through endless derelict properties (16 in all) in our quest to find something else, we were both probably more than a little frustrated, despite the successes of the Farwell Building and Broderick Tower. Of course, we had also just knocked out 1 city with 5 more to go on the trip, so maybe Explo was just reserving his superpowers for the upcoming win in the Twin Cities. Stay tuned to find out.
Our trip to Detroit, for me, exceeded expectations. Of course, the most important aspect of place hacking is the exploration itself and no photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present. Dan Austin, editor of the architecture information site Buildings of Detroit notes that artists and photographers from all over the world have contacted him to act as their guide to Detroit’s ruins, help for quick photo and art projects. He writes that these “parachuters” leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay. We did what we could to give Detroit a chance to show it’s true colours to us and eventually it did. It’s not a place I could live but I certainly left with a different image of the place than when I arrived. Even though our time there was relatively short, we folded ourselves into the city, exploiting weak points in the urban armour to get into, and then under, the skin. I will always contend this is the best way to actually get to know a place.
The rest of what we found in Detroit, the other stories behind the photos, are of course ours to keep. Perhaps you could pry them out of us over a beer. But if you want to know what The D is about bad enough, like Marc and I did, you will start pinning that map and make your move. Godspeed explorers!
The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.