What are urban explorers?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh. Chuck, say hi.

Chuck Bryant: Hi, Josh.

Josh Clark: This is Stuff You Should Know. You put Chuck and I together in a room and press record, and you get Stuff You Should Know, just like that.

Chuck Bryant: It's that easy.

Josh Clark: We should put like a star twinkle in there. Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, Josh.

Josh Clark: Have you ever passed by like an old store, something like that and you just felt drawn to go look in the window, just kind of peer in it?

Chuck Bryant: And old store that's closed down?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: Exactly, an old unused store of some sort, like an old grocery store.

Chuck Bryant: Oh yeah.

Josh Clark: And you look inside. And really, it's just kind of like some pillars that hold the ceiling up, maybe, if you're lucky, a couple of shelving units.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: That's about it, right?

Chuck Bryant: I do. I'll get into this a little later, but I'm way, way, way turned on by this subject we're going to be talking about today.

Josh Clark: Really?

Chuck Bryant: Uh-huh. I'm way into it and I've done it.

Josh Clark: Turned on?

Chuck Bryant: Well yeah, sure, intellectually.

Josh Clark: Okay. I gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: I was like that's a weird thing to be turned on by. Have you ever - okay. Well wow, my whole intro is just shot. Let's talk about urban explorers, shall we?

Chuck Bryant: Sorry to derail you.

Josh Clark: No, you're fine. You're fine. So okay, so we're talking about urban exploration.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And let's just give a little background here, a little definition, right here.

Chuck Bryant: Well, urban explorers are people that it doesn't always have to be urban, meaning city. It's basically when you go and explore any abandoned structure, correct?

Josh Clark: Almost always abandoned.

Chuck Bryant: Almost always abandoned structure. And you see what's there. There's some ground rules. You're not supposed to take anything.

Josh Clark: No. There's some real codes of conduct that have cropped up that are really strict. So basically, you've got urban exploration really starting in earnest in the 1970s, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right, in San Francisco?

Josh Clark: Yeah, this group called the Suicide Club. And I'm not entirely certain, but I think Ken Kesey was a member. And they used to go tour old utility tunnels and old hospitals and stuff around San Francisco. They also used to do, and I think this is where they got their name. During storms, they'd jump into San Francisco Bay. And apparently, there was one seawall that had some heavy chains linked to it. So they'd hold onto the chains and just get whipped around by the waves.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Yeah. They did other weird stuff. They had dinner parties on Golden Gate Bridge.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that was really cool.

Josh Clark: And also, you could go a little further back than that. In the 50s, students at MIT used to tour underground steam tunnels around campus and everything. But most people credit Suicide Club as the people who really started to do urban exploration.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But it took about 20 years before it really started to catch on. And so you got the 90s. And now, all of a sudden, there's that code of conduct, the code of ethics, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which were?

Chuck Bryant: Like I said before, you're not supposed to take anything. What I thought was interesting is there's this old saying with camping and wilderness exploration, which is, "Take only pictures, leave only footprints."

Josh Clark: That's the Sierra Club.

Chuck Bryant: Is that?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: It's the same thing with urban explorers. Even though a lot of people would just say they're just ratty old buildings, they have a lot of respect for it, it seems like.

Josh Clark: Yeah and there's a lot of people that they have to contend with. You have homeless people who find these ratty old buildings to provide shelter. You've got people who - I've never understood the compulsion to spray graffiti.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Especially when you suck at it. I've got a can of black pain t, and look, I can write.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And it just looks awful. If you're a graffiti artist, totally different!

Chuck Bryant: That's different.

Josh Clark: But just spray painting something for the sake of spray painting it.

Chuck Bryant: Right, your tag.

Josh Clark: I don't understand it. Especially if your tag sucks, I don't think you should do it. I think you should either work on your tag or just quit, all together.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Okay. So they've got all these other people that actually, probably give them a bad name, urban explorers. And when I say them, I'm referring to a vast network of people who are either totally independent, loosely or very tightly knit.

Chuck Bryant: Right, thanks to the Internet.

Josh Clark: Yeah, the Internet has really helped, which is probably why it started to really take off in the 90s.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that makes sense.

Josh Clark: These people are, like you said, they're drawn to abandoned or unused or neglected man-made structures.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I am.

Josh Clark: Yeah. But they're not the ones that are doing the graffiti.

Chuck Bryant: No, because that's against the code of conduct. Don't break things.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you can't use wire cutters to make it past a fence.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I like that one.

Josh Clark: You certainly can't kick in a door or anything like that.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: I read about one guy who found this old mining office. It was like a 19th Century office and he found these reams of really personal, personnel files, way more personal than you, or I would hope my personnel file is. And he just sat there and read them and quietly put them back. I think he found some X-rays and things there, too, of people with black lung, just really interesting stuff, but he didn't take anything. He put them back where he found them. So that's another one too. So all of this stuff kind of forces you to get creative, right!

Chuck Bryant: How you get in.

Josh Clark: How you get in, but also what you're doing while you're there. If you can't take anything to show your friends, that logically leads to documenting it.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And there are tons. If you go onto Flicker and type in urban exploration, urban explorer, urban anything about urban whatever, as long as it has to d o with UE; it brings up some really cool stuff.

Chuck Bryant: I haven't seen that.

Josh Clark: Oh you've got to. And of course, my favorite website of all time, Forgot in Detroit, which I make you look at, probably what once a month.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I love that site.

Josh Clark: Even though it hasn't changed in a decade, yeah, that's the same thing too. One of the aspects of urban exploration is to document this crumbling present that's actually very much rooted in the past.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So what have you explored? I'm curious.

Chuck Bryant: Well I don't know when this all started, but I was really young. I thought most boys were like this, but I was way, way into exploring things. My dad's a photographer. He used to take my brother and I out to the country, in Georgia, to photograph old barns and things. And my brother and I would always explore these barns. I guess that's kind of how it started. And there's something about a large - I'm not sure. You could probably study me, clinically, because any time I'm in a large empty building, I get really excited. It doesn't' even have to be an old abandoned building. I've taken a tour of a stadium, let's say. Sanford Stadium at UGA, when no one else was there, and being out there with no one else, there's something about it. It thrills me.

Josh Clark: Really?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Have you gotten into this a little more? Have you taken it to -

Chuck Bryant: Well, yeah. When I was about 13 or 14, my family used to vacation in Florida, in Pensacola, Florida and there was an old fort there, the campground, called Fort Pickens. 1843 is when this thing was built. And it was in service until about 47. And we made torches, just like you see on TV with this stuff, the cloth wrapped around the end. And the battery there on the beach, you could sneak through the bars. They were like prison bars. And my brother and I did this. And we explored all these rooms and tunnels from the civil war. Guys had stuff scratched on the wall and painted on the wall.

Josh Clark: Was it like a prison?

Chuck Bryant: I don't really know. I actually looked today to try and find out exactly what part of Fort Pickens we were in. I think it was the battery. I don't think it was a prison. But they would have the bars, so obviously the enemy couldn't get in.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: Into their stuff.

Josh Clark: Unless they were 14 year old boy enemies.

Chuck Bryant: Right. But yeah, so we explored the heck out of Fort Pickens. It was really, really cool. And then I did it again, probably about eight or nine years ago, in Atlanta. I lived in some warehouses on the west side of Atlanta. And my friend and I got into one that was empty and kind of boarded up. And we found all these old blueprints for Marta, our subway system here for when Marta was first being pitches to the city, in the 70s and all these old plans and blueprints and letters and things like that.

Josh Clark: Sweet.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. So I'm way into it.

Josh Clark: I guess so.

Chuck Bry ant: I mean not way into it. I'm obviously not in a club. And I don't do this regularly. But when I have done it, I just think it's really cool.

Josh Clark: Do you have a handle?

Chuck Bryant: I don't have a handle. I didn't take anything, though. And I didn't even know that was the rules. I just didn't want to disturb anything.

Josh Clark: It sounds like you were a true urban explorer.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, so I've done it a few times, and I would do it again at the drop of a hat. If someone knew of a place, if you called me up on a Friday and said hey man, I know this empty shopping mall; I would go in a second.

Josh Clark: I'm glad you said shopping mall. There's one that, actually I want to plug another site, UER.ca, Canadian Urban Exploration Resources Site, and they basically, they allow people to post documentation of their own explorations. And there was one that I was looking at in Atlanta. I think I showed you, too.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Of the old Avondale Mall.

Chuck Bryant: Right, which is right near where I grew up.

Josh Clark: Whoever did that just did a spectacular job of documenting this mall that was clearly in its heyday in the 80s. Everything was very pastel-ish. There's huge mirrors everywhere. It is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen in my life. And now it's gone.

Chuck Bryant: There's a Wal-Mart there.

Josh Clark: Which is another point of urban exploration, as far as I understand it? You're catching a last snapshot of something before it dies.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Because we, inevitably, tear just about everything down.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And this is keeping it for posterity, not in its form of when it was in its peak or functioning, but almost like after its aged and right before it dies, you're kind of capturing that.

Chuck Bryant: One last look.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: I guess it's this point that we should say we do not recommend urban exploring because it is, in fact, trespassing and it is illegal. So we're not saying you should go out and urban explore just because your friend, Chuck, has.

Josh Clark: Not only that, but it's very, very dangerous.

Chuck Bryant: It can be, yeah.

Josh Clark: By definition, a neglected building is a dangerous place.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: There's such things as building inspectors, but they only inspect functioning buildings.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So if you take the function out of a building, there goes the building inspector and you have no idea whether you're going to fall through a floor or have a floor fall on you from above, which would make it a ceiling, I believe.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Actually, someone passed away not too long ago. Is that correct?

Josh Clark: Yeah, in Australia, there was some kids that were exploring a sewer system. And there was a sudden storm. And this storm water just came hard and fast, swept them off their feet and pinned them against a grate.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, that's horrible.

Josh Clark: Where it was exiting into the ocean and they drowned, pinned against this grate. So yeah, you could -

Chuck Bryant: It can be very dangerous.

Josh Clark: It can be, so yeah, I think that was a good move, Chuck. I think our legal department is really going to appreciate that.

Chuck Bryant: Don't listen to me.

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Chuck Bryant: Listen to me, but don't do what I say.

Josh Clark: So we talked about shopping malls, right. There are actual - there's other mundane things like that, like an old office building or something like that. For some reason, if you take people out of a building and leave it there for ten years, anything is interesting, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: But there's also some destination spots for urban exploration. Have you heard of Danver State Hospital?

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: Have you ever seen the movie, Session 9?

Chuck Bryant: I have.

Josh Clark: You've seen Session 9?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: You're the only other person I've ever met who saw Session 9.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I brought that up for our asbestos article because it's an asbestos team in the movie that's going to this abandoned mental hospital. Very creepy movie!

Josh Clark: Yeah, it is very, very creepy. But that's filmed at Danvers.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: And there's another place that's in Massachusetts, and it's an abandoned insane asylum, which is just creepy enough.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark

This thing is huge, old gothic architecture, old brick.

Chuck Bryant: I would love to walk through that place.

Josh Clark: Well there is one that's similar that you could walk through, which actually, technically takes it off of any urban exploration list because one of the things is it has to be off limits to truly be urban exploration. There's a place called Waverly Hills in Kentucky. It's a tuberculosis sanatorium. And I think it was around for 30 or 40 years. In that period of time, 60,000 people died there.

Chuck Bryant: Uh.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it was bad. They had this little morgue that's still there, white tiled. There's old time hospital gurneys everywhere, old timey wheelchairs. It is beyond creepy. And that's actually open for tours. I think there's a couple that either bought it or bought the rights to give tours there.

Chuck Bryant: That's cool.

Josh Clark: Waverly Hills in Kentucky would be a good place to go if you're into that.

Chuck Bryant: I love it. I think part of it has to do with being scared. I like that feeling. It's an exhilarating feeling to be somewhat frightened. I'm not talking scared out of my wits or anything. I don't like that. But there's something about an element of danger, being scared and being in some large dark place alone that just I don't know. I get a kick out of it.

Josh Clark: I agree. Well you and your brother, take your own advice. Be careful if you're going to do it. If you did, don't say that we told you to do it.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: Okay. Well that's urban exploration. And this is listener mail. Okay. So Chuck, what do you have for us?

Chuck Bryant: Josh, I have a couple of quick corrections this week. We're not always right.

Josh Clark: That is a lie.

Chuck Bryant: We do the best we can with facts, but sometimes we think of things on the fly and don't exactly have it at our fingertips. We have a couple of corrections in our podcast about - which one was it with the magic bullets? Was it where's the best place to get shot, when we talked about Kennedy?

Josh Clark: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Chuck Bryant: And you mentioned that you thought it was a Senator who was shot with JFK in Dallas.

Josh Clark: And of course, it wasn't.

Chuck Bryant: No, and you should have known this one, Texas Governor, John Connelly who was actually in the car with him.

Josh Clark: Why should I have known that one?

Chuck Bryant: Because that was a big event in our nation's history.

Josh Clark: I agree. But wow.

Chuck Bryant: I'm not scolding you. I didn't know it either, so what am I saying?

Josh Clark: Who is that from?

Chuck Bryant: That was from Dave Barton.

Josh Clark: Thanks, Dave.

Chuck Bryant: Thanks, Dave. And then Carrie Klinger, who is a dentist, here in Atlanta, actually says she wanted to comment on the inconsistency with the one about the FDA and herbal substance regulation. We compared Tylenol, over the counter Tylenol to Tylenol III, which you need a prescription to get. And the reason you need a prescription is because Tylenol III is regular Tylenol with codeine added, which is a narcotic.

Josh Clark: I don't even remember saying that. Can we play the clip real quick? Exactly, think about how you perceive Tylenol and then how you perceive Tylenol III that stuff with codeine.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which is pretty much like 800 milligrams of Tylenol, I think.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Something like that.

Chuck Bryant: That's from Carrie Klinger, and like I said, she's a dentist and she said it's not a matter of a difference in dosage. It's a much different drug, with a narcotic in it. So it's subject to regulation. And she says that she prescribes it whenever she takes a tooth out. And I'm actually in the market for a dentist, so I -

Josh Clark: I've got one for you.

Chuck Bryant: I want to go to Carrie Klinger, here in Atlanta and get some codeine.

Josh Clark: That's awesome. You're med seeking, you realize.

Chuck Bryant: Well I'd need it in case I had a tooth out.

Josh Clark: Have you noticed we're huge in the dental community?

Chuck Bryant: We are. That's two letters from dentists.

Josh Clark: Yeah, that's weird. All right. Well thank you to Carrie Klinger and -

Chuck Bryant: Dave.

Josh Clark: Dave thanks Dave. And if you want your letter read, make sure it's witty and clever and send it to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.