In Defense Of Ruin Porn: Our Fascination With Abandoned Spaces Goes Deeper Than Thrill Seeking

Photo by Gretchen Esbensen. Used with permission.
Photo by Gretchen Esbensen.
Used with permission.

As a young girl, I spent a lot of time exploring outdoors. The large marshes on either side of my peninsular community were one of my favorite places to visit, not least of all because doing so went strictly against my parents’ rules. I loved them because they felt like a whole other world – they were a strange in-between land. To my knowledge, they weren’t private property, but they weren’t deliberately accessible public space either. There were the telltale signs of teenage rebellion – this was the place the cool kids came to smoke pot, make out, and drink. They made makeshift gathering spots – the flotsam and jetsam was arranged as seating for those who claimed a part of the reeds for themselves. Today, wandering around the marshes of my childhood home feels like any regular hike, if not somewhat damp. When they were off limits, however, there was a distinct sense of adrenaline tied to “not being allowed” to be there. In breaking the rules, I was expressing a kind of autonomy, and testing the boundaries of my parents’ authority.

The people who spend their free time exploring the little-known, often not publicly accessible parts of our landscape call themselves Urban Explorers. Some people climb bridges, some drop into storm drains, others crawl around in the catacombs, explore abandoned sites, or scale the tallest buildings all over the world. They are part of a global community, and my friends in the network have contacts in every major city that can get you to the best rooftop, the oldest storm drain, or the creepiest abandoned hospital campus.

There has been an increase in the visibility of the UrbEx community in recent years, and with this comes the addition of more adventurers, ready for a something new. This evidence of greater access to the world of “off limits” urban exploring lies in the proliferation of blogs, videos, interviews, Instagram accounts, and yes, arrests. For some UrbExers, this is a neutral thing. Others are highly protective of the exclusive access they have enjoyed in places that have remained largely unknown. Others, such as veteran explorer Moses Gates, are happy that the habit of exploring is on the rise and increasing our public knowledge of the world around us: “The more people do it, the more it gets ingrained into the culture as a whole.”

I have written about exploration as an important way to channel personal growth. I think exploring is a fundamental part of the human condition, and I would argue that this applies to spaces we are prohibited from visiting as much as to spaces we are simply curious about. I have started reflecting on some of my own adventures, wondering about what motivates people to explore and, in some cases, put themselves in danger to do so.

Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley

While I am fascinated by the allure of accessing spaces like the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, or the eagles of the Chrysler building – I won’t lie about how that stuff terrifies me. Instead, I find myself drawn to places like the marshes: in-between zones and lonely spots; the untidy, sometimes forgotten about places that often go unnoticed, spots that are shabby or overgrown.

Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley

About two years ago I had the immense pleasure of finally going down a dirt road in my neighborhood I had wondered about as a child. At the end of it, I found some empty houses – repurposed by youngsters far braver than my teenaged self as a hideout, a hangout, and curious den of (by most standards) illicit and illegal activity. I don’t know what exactly went on and can’t speak to their connections to the space – but I do know the feeling of finally understanding something about a place I had always felt was a little in between.

A lot of explorers get questioned regularly about the legality of what they do. Trespassing is often involved. In very high-profile spaces, like famous bridges or in-process skyscrapers, authority figures will go to great lengths to persecute people who aren’t supposed to be visiting, or who aren’t visiting in the monetized and “officially-approved” ways. In cases of abandoned sites, I think one of the things that appeal to me most is the vague sense that there is no authority to speak of. Abandoned sites have been just that, left to rot. Sometimes, this is a matter of waiting for the opportunity or the funding to rehabilitate or build something else, but in other cases, it is unclear if the property owner cares. It can be freeing to escape to a place where there is an apparent lack of structure or regulation, particularly in a culture increasingly fraught with overzealous policing and blurred rules on privacy.

Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley

It turns out, there are a lot folks out there interested in the beauty of abandoned spaces. Will Ellis, author or the recently published Abandoned New York, gave a talk in Queens about his explorations of New York City’s forgotten spaces and the appeal that draws Ellis and others like him to the warehouses, hospitals, and parks that go unused in the country’s largest urban environment. He enjoys the feeling of reclaiming public space, and seeing the evidence of others who have come before on their explorations.

Will also spoke about the historic precedent: people would visit the ruins in Rome and Greece to think and reflect amidst the decay. These layers of history, the feeling that abandoned spaces also function as time capsules is an important aspect that deserves consideration. The layers of history they contain: different uses, conflicts, controversy, and the intimate personal ties of the people whose families may have once visited or inhabited them helps the public connect to abandoned places. The historic elements they contain, though perhaps changed over time by other visitors, offer rare glimpses into their strange and storied pasts that we don’t always get to see in history books, or museums, and that we certainly don’t get to experience first hand.

Photo by Gretchen Esbensen. Used with permission.
Photo by Gretchen Esbensen.
Used with permission.
Photo by Gretchen Esbensen. Used with permission.
Photo by Gretchen Esbensen.
Used with permission.

The impermanence of abandoned sites is another thing that intrigues both Will and myself. In a place like New York City, where development and redevelopment seem ubiquitous, finding unused land and buildings is a rarity. More often than not, you find an intriguing abandoned house, medical building, theatre, hotel, or derelict pier and when you return, it has been cleared away – replaced by something newer and shinier. When you are exploring, the feeling that what you find is something that you might never see again is exhilarating. Poignantly, Will also notes that it can feel “like you are constantly saying goodbye” in many ways. It is true, I have felt that sense of loss as I watch new development supplant the mechanic shop that for so long stood in my hometown first as a thriving business, and then as a colorful reminder of its heyday, or the subdivisions that grow in the same neat and tidy rows of former fields watched over by old barns sagging in on themselves. I know I am romanticizing the past but I found a beauty and a kind of memorial in their decay – I can’t help but feel that new chain stores are somehow less than that memory.

Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley

I keep exploring, keep finding new places to remember. So that I, and the others who go before and after me, can keep that memorial going even if only in the photographs we take, or the stories we tell.

I believe that people are fascinated by abandoned space for many reasons, and that the attraction to exploring things that lay outside of the public realm is multidimensional. These spaces expose possibility – we see them as non-static, as decaying – they are being reclaimed, digested, and returned to something else. These spaces give us room to break boundaries in the way we create our own public realm, and it is significant to us that they are unplanned. A friend of mine, commenting on her own attraction to abandoned space noted that their beauty lies in this chaotic nature of their existence; they have become beautiful by chance, and often it can be difficult to see at first. For her, these spaces are beautiful because they seem more genuine. That they weren’t even supposed to happen offers an important contrast in a highly manicured world. These spaces are beautiful not only because of their aesthetic, but also because they offer a sense of magic and mystery – a promise that there is still something that feels wild in this world. TC mark

Photo by Roxanne Earley
Photo by Roxanne Earley

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