What are urban explorers?

By: Josh Clark

Urban Explorers' Motivations

The imposing abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium at Waverly Hills in Kentucky.
The imposing abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium at Waverly Hills in Kentucky.
Photo courtesy Pam Culver

Why would anyone want to traipse around crumbling factories or wiggle through narrow underground shafts? Abandoned buildings and other neglected structures are viewed by most people as dark, dangerous places. But peel away the layers of graffiti, broken windows, drug paraphernalia and the occasional corpse: There you’ll find the allure that beckons urban explorers.

Many abandoned sites are eventually torn down -- perhaps the greatest role of the urban explorer is to serve as a building’s last witness. Buildings are created with people in mind; they’re constructed to serve some function that benefits us. But when buildings are abandoned, these sites cease to have any sort of purpose. By gazing upon these structures as art or historical monuments, urban explorers give them a new purpose. Most people who undertake urban exploration consider the journey as an end in itself. The experience of scoping out forgotten areas is reason enough to explore. But there are also more specific reasons that people seek out man-made structures.


Some appreciate the old architecture and ancient machinery. For other people, it’s the thrill of just standing still in a silent, untraveled place. Others find beauty in the type of decay that can be found only in neglected buildings.

One class of urban explorers considers itself curators of a lost past. These documentarians take their role seriously. One UE Web site,, is dedicated to cataloging the crumbling remains of downtown Detroit’s golden age. The site is filled with histories of the area’s buildings and photos of incursions made within them, after they became neglected.

Urban explorers who appreciate history find it in plentiful supply in abandoned spaces. All old structures have pasts, and there are some pretty colorful ones left neglected around the world. For example, the enormous, abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium at Waverly Hills in Kentucky still has a morgue, which stands as a reminder of the more than 60,000 patients who died there [source: Murray State University]. Beneath Columbia University in New York, urban explorer Steve Duncan was perhaps the first person in nearly 60 years to lay eyes on an abandoned laboratory, where early experiments in the Manhattan Project (which produced the atomic bomb) took place [source: New York Times].

In derelict buildings like these, what were once common, everyday items take on new meaning. An old desk, a ragged doll, a defunct elevator motor, a row of seats, personnel files -- all of these things serve as reminders of the sites’ past incarnations. Wandering in these spaces, the explorer's mind reels, imagining what they were once like.

For those explorers with an appreciation for architecture, there's a veritable gold mine to be found in forsaken districts. Many older structures feature intricate handiwork that is rarely seen in today’s construction. UE offers an escape from the homogeneity found in newly built shopping malls and homes -- like the abandoned, cathedral-like small pox hospital on New York’s Roosevelt Island or the campy signage that still adorns Columbus, Ohio’s abandoned Linden Air drive-in movie theater [source: San Francisco Chronicle]. Exploration reveals the period details found in old movie palaces and theaters and the decadence found in historic hotels, like the ornate balconies that adorned the walls of the grand ballroom in Detroit's Booker-Cadillac hotel. This kind of observation isn't too far removed from urban anthropology, in which people study society by examining its discarded past.

Whatever his or her motive, an urban explorer finds adventure in these abandoned sites. There's a peacefulness in these empty, concrete caves that isn't like the solitude found in the woods. It's an experience opposite of nature; instead of finding reassurance in the renewal of the seasons, the urban explorer finds kinship with the past.

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