City Beat – 10/24/2007

Exploring Forgotten Places
Urban explorers trespass for history, art and thrills

October 24, 2007
By: Liz Bowater

We piled into the car and drove straight to Manteno, just south of Chicago, where I grew up. It took about 45 minutes to reach the exit and another 10 minutes or so through the sleepy outskirts of the town and the cornfields.

Suddenly, there it was: Manteno State Hospital. It stood eerily among the fields, a series of empty buildings with darkened windows.

We stopped the car and got out. It was midnight, and we had no flashlights. I was 16 years old, and these were my first steps into the hidden world of urban exploration.

Urban exploration, sometimes called urbex or simply UE, is insider lingo for exploring and documenting the forgotten spaces of urban landscapes. It extends even further than that, though, and includes adventuring in places that are private or off-limits: catacombs, sewers, transit tunnels, bridges, utility tunnels and roofs.

Technically, it’s illegal. File it somewhere under “trespassing” or “breaking and entering.” It’s an extreme sport in its own right, requiring a good dose of adrenaline and quick thinking.

Urbex isn’t new to Cincinnati. For years, seasoned explorers have been posting pictures and stories from some local favorites: the University of Cincinnati’s underground tunnels, the abandoned subway system downtown, the Peters Cartridge Company building in Kings Mills and the remnants of Surf Cincinnati water park.

All of these sites, coupled with the mess of abandoned buildings around the city, make Greater Cincinnati an exciting place to experience the beauty of decay.

Ron Onrelas of Fairfield is a photojournalism student at Ohio University in Athens, who’s been exploring for more than two years.

“My first exposure to urban exploration was when my dad bought me a book about the abandoned Cincinnati subway tunnels,” he says. “In February 2005, I went on my first exploration to the defunct Surf Cincinnati water park, a place I had visited many times as a kid.”

Onrelas considers the abandoned water park and the Crosley Building in Camp Washington to be among his favorite local sites. His motivation for exploration is part history, part art and part thrill.

“I don’t go to these places to steal or litter them with graffiti, I go to document and discover what’s been forgotten and left behind,” he says. “Especially in Cincinnati, there are many places that have such a rich history and many people don’t even know what’s right under their noses.”

Homer Thompson (not his actual name) of Toledo has a similar motivation for exploring.

“Ideologically, I explore because I am drawn to places that have been, for a lack of a better word, discarded by people,” he says. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the people that walked through the halls of a hospital, across the production floor of a factory or slept in the beds of a house. I want to know their stories, why they left and why they never came back. There is a unique thrill in seeing their footprints in the dust, holding the rusted tools they used.”

Most urban explorers are motivated by curiosity rather than the thrill of doing something illegal and potentially dangerous. In fact, many urban explorers hold themselves to the same ethical standards that naturalists use: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

A high ethical standard, though, doesn’t mean that urban explorers don’t sometimes face the consequences of their actions. Thompson has been arrested once for trespassing and been questioned by the police twice.

“Being totally honest and not trying to run has made all the difference in those situations,” he says.

He’s also been burned severely by chemicals, fallen through ceilings and porches, been chased off a property by a shotgun-wielding farmer, gotten sick from inhaling mold and accidentally walked through a field of toxic waste.

Jason Robinson of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, has been exploring for close to seven years and has similar stories about run-ins with the police.

“After explaining who I was and what I was doing (taking photographs), the officers understood that I was not there to do any harm,” he says. “One of the officers even suggested another site nearby for me to check out.”

Inspired by the idea of exploring abandoned places, Robinson founded the Ohio Exploration Society (OES). On many OES explorations, the group partners with Ohio Paranormal to examine sites around Ohio that might be haunted, which means that Robinson has many frightening stories to tell.

During a night spent exploring the Zaleski State Forest near Athens, Robinson found himself in an abandoned railroad tunnel that seemed to be haunted.

“I was there with a documentary crew at night when we suddenly heard running coming from one end of the tunnel toward us,” he says. “After turning on the flashlight, there was nothing visible in the tunnel with us. We walked to the end of the tunnel and the temperature dropped about 15 degrees. There was a static electricity in the air so thick it made my hair stand on end. After a few seconds went by, the documentary crew took off running through the tunnel back toward their car. Within a few seconds, the feeling was gone. It was definitely an intense experience.”

For urbex enthusiasts, the rewards seem to outweigh the risks. For Robinson, the reason to continue exploring is simple.

“Preserving history of what may otherwise be forgotten is my motivating factor in exploring,” he says. “All too often, abandoned and historical locations are demolished in the name of progress.

‘Let’s tear down this 110-year-old building to make a parking lot.’ I photograph these buildings so those in the future can see what used to stand on the grounds where they now buy their jeans.”

More About Urban Exploring
For more information about Urbex in Cincinnati and Ohio, visit these Web site: *no longer online

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Thank you to Liz Bowater for interviewing the OES for her article for Cincinnati’s City Beat magazine.