Urban Explorers Face Sewage, Rats, Vertigo, Claustrophobia and Cops
Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole a hundred years ago. Everest is littered with oxygen tanks and suffers from traffic jams. But exploration is still happening around the world. It’s just that some of the most interesting expeditions are now much closer to home—right in the heart of the city, in fact. And the challenges aren’t just physical but social and legal: security cameras, trespassing laws, and the common sense that tells you not to jump into sewer systems.
These recreational trespassers call themselves urban explorers. Some focus on abandoned buildings, wandering through defunct hospitals and power stations half-reclaimed by nature and taking post-apocalyptic photos. Some scale monuments in the off hours, when the tourists have gone to bed. Some delve into city infrastructure—subway tunnels, bridges, even sewers. It would be a stretch to call it a movement, but there are clusters of urban explorers around the world and they keep tabs on each other through images posted to message boards. Every so often a group will start doing truly amazing things, and their images will break out into the wider world. Right now, that’s a band of Russian kids who recently scaled the pyramids and the Notre Dame cathedral. A couple years ago, it was a group in London that explored every abandoned station in the Tube.
Bradley Garrett, a researcher at the University of Oxford, had the good luck to be embedding with that London crew from the beginning. Doing research for a PhD project, he became a scribe of the tribe on their urban adventures. In his new book, Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City, he recounts his group’s journeys to derelict power stations, mid-construction skyscrapers, a boneyard of mothballed jets, and the nooks and crannies of London’s infrastructure. Garrett’s book, and its excellent photography, makes clear that urban exploration manages to combine both vertigo and claustrophobia, with people perched on beams hundreds of feet above the city, trapped in elevators, and outrunning rapidly rising sewage. It also bears the mark of its origins as a doctoral thesis, with frequent references to Guy Debord and the theories of various philosophically minded geographers. It’s sort of like Jon Krakauer meets Gilles Deleuze, or a really adventurous W.G. Sebald.
Obviously, I had hoped to speak with Garrett in, say, an abandoned subway station when he came to New York, but it turns out he’s awaiting trial in London.
“They arrested me on a plane last August,” he says over the phone. “They made such a huge scene.”
Garrett had just landed at Heathrow when police boarded the plane and led him off in handcuffs. He’d been posting images from his explorations of London infrastructure for the previous four years, including photos of abandoned Tube stations. Transport for London, which runs one of the most secure and expensive transit networks in the world, was not pleased.
“Transport for London was of the mind that there’s no way we could’ve accessed those Tube stations without doing damage, and that once in there we must have had more nefarious purposes, like stealing stuff,” says Garrett. Police seized his computer, camera, hard drives, and notebooks, and spent eight months combing through them, looking for evidence that he’d caused damage. They didn’t find anything, but ended up leveling a lesser charge of conspiracy to commit criminal damage.
“They’re trying to match up places that have been damaged at some point in a four year period with places we visited, which is ridiculous,” says Garrett. Urban exploration has a sort of leave-no-trace ethic, in which it’s okay to enter through a door left accidentally unlocked, or a window that’s already broken, but not to pry open the door or smash the window. “That’s why I call it place hacking,” says Garrett. “The loophole already existed. We just exploited it.”
To Garrett, the city is a space coded by law and social convention, ready to be infiltrated and subverted, much like a hacker plays with a computer program. One of his favorite hacks is to put on the fluorescent vest of a maintenance worker. Dressed like that, he says, you can go almost anywhere, no questions asked.
His book also faced legal threats. ”I got a letter from Transport for London telling me that they’re concerned about the contents of my book and that it’d encourage copy cat-ism,” says Garrett. “It’s incredible that they would go to those lengths to stop someone from talking about what’s in their transit system.” Though they threatened to take legal action to stop publication, Verso, Garrett’s publisher, says nothing came of the threat.
[A spokesperson for Transport for London said they could not comment on an ongoing legal proceeding. ]
It’s funny to think that Explore Everything would inspire hordes of copy cats. As fascinating as the abandoned Tube stations are, getting to them required rappelling down ventilation shafts, running along train tracks, and wading through muck. On other expeditions, Garrett crawled along a rain-slick bridge hundreds of feet above a Scottish channel, almost fainted from fumes in a derelict submarine, and shooed away sewer spiders with a bottle of champagne. He’s seen some amazing things and had harrowing adventures, but urban exploration’s mass appeal is probably limited.
Garrett sees the crackdown on urban exploration as a sign of the city’s increasingly strict division into spaces you can and can’t go. When it comes to security, the trend is obvious: London has installed thousands of CCTV cameras since the 7/7 bombings, making it one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world. As Garrett’s experience shows, people who go places they aren’t supposed to face dogged prosecution.
But Garrett also worries about the privatization of public space. “I feel like what’s happening is that there’s a corporate clampdown on space that’s happening all over the world right now, where all the public space we used to have is turning into private space,” he says. (It’s worth noting that the vast majority of London’s oft-cited 1.8 million CCTV cameras are privately operated.) “Corporations are dictating where we can walk, where we can take photographs, where we’re going to live, where we’re going to work, and it all starts to feel a little tyrannical.”
Most urban explorers aren’t explicitly political. They’re thrill seekers or photographers, looking for adventure. But Garrett believes their sport is partly a reaction to the alienation that comes from living in intensely regimented urban space, an attempt to see up close all the places you’re locked out of during the day, or would never think to go, and that their exploits can prompt people to think about the economic, social, and political forces that organize the city. “It feels like we’re democratizing that space a little bit,” he says. “We’re making it more visible, we’re highlighting its accessibility, we’re highlighting sometimes the egregious expenditures, but we’re also just making it a playful space, where people can be out in the middle of the night and take pictures, things you’re not supposed to do in these corporate zones.”
Garrett’s first brush with wider celebrity came from one such foray into a corporate zone: the Shard. His crew had repeatedly summited the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, while it was under construction in 2010. When he posted the pictures in the spring of 2012, they immediately went viral and wound up splashed across various UK tabloids. Garrett writes that office towers and luxury skyscrapers like the Shard represent “engineered exclusion,” spaces reserved for “bankers, bosses, businessmen, advertisers, marketers, media and, increasingly, ‘tech people.’” Part of the reason the Shard photos went viral is that they satisfied people’s thwarted curiosity about the buildings in whose shadows they live. Plus, they looked amazing.
On the phone, Garrett cites a New York-based explorer, Moses Gates, who compares urban exploration with mountaineering. “If you grow up next to a mountain, it’s expected that you’ll climb that mountain and see the view,” Garrett says. “But if you grow up in London with a skyscraper next to your house, it’s never expected that you’ll climb the skyscraper and see the top. If these places are going to impose on us, the least they can do is let us climb to the top.”
Garrett hopes that his legal ordeal will end up making people think about the way space is used in the city. “I’m trying to leverage this fiasco,” he says. Part of the reason he thinks Transport for London is so upset is that now people know about the abandoned tube stations and will want access. There’s a banker interested in turning them into nightclubs and climbing gyms, for example. “I think his plans are kind of ridiculous, but at the same time it’s cool that we’re talking about it,” Garrett says. “So far it’s causing people to have the conversations we wanted them to have.”