What if I told you there was a whole other world you didn’t know about, and it was right here in our own backyard? The only downside is that you may need to break a window, crawl through a hole in a fence or open a door covered in graffiti to enter it. I’m talking about urban exploring.
Urban exploring is where people adventure into man-made structures like storm drains, utility tunnels and abandoned buildings. This may sound like a dangerous activity, and to be completely honest: it is. Not only do urban explorers often risk trespassing charges, but there are also real dangers related to asbestos, broken glass, unstable floors, and collapsing ceilings. So why do these people risk it? I wanted to find out more about the motivation behind this activity, and in my research I found the online forum called KCurbex.
On KCurbex, urban explorers – specifically from the KC metro area – share their own photos and experiences. With an archive dating back to 2005, there is documentation of nearly one hundred different sites. In between the photos of abandoned schools and utility tunnels running under KU, I found some recent posters trying to organize meet-ups. After reaching out to them, I found two members that were willing to sit down and talk with me.
First I talked to Quinton, who is in his mid-30’s and has spent over five years pursuing urban exploring as a hobby.
“What interests me is the curiosity of going to places you normally can’t go, or aren’t allowed to go. Like I’ve seen grain silos before from a distance, but I never knew what the inside looked like or how they worked. And now I do. So being able to learn about the function of different buildings and how they operate is something that’s always fascinated me,” Quinton said.
Urban exploring is like a forbidden fruit. It appears to be this cool, exciting hobby, but those dangers I mentioned earlier are a huge deterrent for many people.
Tyler, another KCurbex member whose adventures have taken him all the way from Topeka to St. Louis, has had his fair share of scary experiences. After sharing his story of almost falling through the floor of an abandoned St. Louis mansion, I asked him what safety measures he takes when he goes urban exploring.
“I use a respirator when I feel like I need it. I don’t normally mess with it unless there’s asbestos in the air. There’s nothing I can do about the floors collapsing, so I just try to step where the rafters are, but you can’t really see those under the floor. Really, I only protect my head with a hat,” Tyler said.
Some of the buildings that are being explored have been shut down for these very safety concerns. In an effort to address blight (the deterioration and decay of older or abandoned buildings) and deter urban explorers from getting into these unsafe situations, Kansas City, MO has recently created a $10 million program that will demolish sites on the city’s Dangerous Buildings list. The community and activities of urban explorers will still thrive in the area despite Kansas City’s firm stance against it.
“The activity you describe is not ‘exploring,’ it is trespassing. Vacant buildings are usually posted with signs that say “No Trespassing” and violators will be prosecuted,” said Chris Hernandez, the KCMO Director of City Communications.
If you catch Tyler or Quinton out adventuring, their toolbox will usually be complete with a phone, flashlight, camera equipment and water. This is similar to most other people in the urban exploring community, but are most often mistaken for those with more destructive intentions, who may instead be carrying spray paint, firearms and illegal substances. It may be hard to believe because this activity is illegal on account of trespassing, but like most other small groups that form their own community, they are generally respectful. The urban exploring motto? “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”