“Infiltration n.,v. going places you’re not supposed to go in general; covers urban exploration as well as simply dropping in to conventions uninvited and the like.”
By no means would I call myself an urban explorer, not by any stretch of the definition. There’s only been one instance when I dabbled in the hobby, and that was by accident. During a trip to Baltimore in May of 2016, my friend and I were introduced to the Mayfair—a once-elegant Vaudeville-era theater located in the heart of the city. If the bus from New York hadn’t let us out a block away, I’m positive we wouldn’t have seen it.
We took a trip to Baltimore for a concert; a favorite band of ours was breaking up and that night’s show was one of the last. We were staying with a friend of a friend — we’ll call him Rob. Having nothing to do until that night, we asked Rob for suggestions.
“Wanna go inside an abandoned theater?” he asked.
We responded, “Yeahsurewhynot.”
Scaling down the side entrance area of the Mayfair was both an exercise in precision and the future reason for “needing this tetanus shot immediately, Doctor.” The safest way in was through the stage door, located in a 10-foot-deep depression that was once stage-left. Like a playground of unstable landings, terrifyingly sharp edges all concealed with years of overgrowth, it was the poster child for “don’t fucking try this.”
With our half-assed attempt to be stealthy at 5 p.m., we were sitting ducks for law enforcement. Where our best judgement told us to stay out is exactly where an urban explorer thrives and seeks out.
To clearly define the hobby, urban exploration (as described by the infiltration community*) is “the investigation of man made structures not designed for public consumption, from mechanical rooms to storm water drains to rooftops; usually such areas are off-limits.” Practitioners are acutely aware of dangers such as structural, physical and — of course—legal.
The Mayfair had clear entry points and had no doubt seen its share of explorers through the years. The structure had been abandoned for 30 years prior to our visit, but a fire in 1998 destroyed most of the interior. The Mayfair was once one of the most luxurious theaters in the city, and (according to reports) was “painted in rich golds, dramatic reds, and creamy whites all lit by hundreds of lights clustered on crystal chandeliers.” It seated up to 2,000 people, and saw host to those such as jazz legend Billie Holiday and gilded age actor Spencer Tracy. For years it was considered one of Baltimore’s best theaters.
When we walked inside, that history had almost been erased. The three-tiered mezzanines had collapsed into a splintery pile of lumber, the ceiling was incinerated during the fire and the stage curtains were still hanging but in tatters. Some of the blue velvety seats were still aligned in rows, but disappeared underneath the rubble. There was very little indication of its glitzy past. We made our way backstage, through the 19th century Turkish Bathhouse underneath the building (by way of a small opening under the staircase). When inside the grand entrance. Its crusty lead paint concealed the entire floor, while the rest of the structure slowly decayed into itself. Of course, we didn’t stay long; a combination of strange noises in the bathhouse and the looming threat of complete structural failure kept our visit brief.
The Mayfair today sits as only a facade, but the feeling of the experience has stayed with me and sparked my interest in the hobby. The feeling of entering an abandoned location and exploring its history on your own is oddly attractive in both its peacefulness and danger. It’s completely unsafe in every single way. But it’s that sweet-and-sour rush that drives people to pursue the hobby more deliberately. It’s another hobby for the adrenaline junkie, just one reliant on our forgotten built environment instead of jumping out of planes or scaling a mountain. “Urban exploration” as a concept is nebulous, and to create communities around it might seem as arbitrary as to create a community around “taking the subway on a Sunday morning,” but this is exactly what we have.
The first known urban exploration group was known as the Suicide Club, based out of San Francisco in the late 1970s. While short-lived, they’re credited as being one of the first organized urban exploring communities, pulling stunts such as climbing and dining on the Golden Gate Bridge. They disbanded in the early 1980s, but their impact on others was already taking hold. Flash forward to 1996, and 23-year-old Toronto-based Jeff Chapman (aka Ninjalicious) founded infiltration.org and began independently publishing urban exploration magazines, driven by his love of exploring off-limits and abandoned places. Twenty five issues were published leading up to his death in 2005 (including a how-to book on the topic), but his role in the construction of an online community laid the groundwork for future explorers. At the time of his death, a robust urban exploration community had organized itself around infiltration and the various community-driven online forums that the early aughts helped support. Many of them are still active today and boast thousands of members. Today, the community isn’t completely centralized. Sites like YouTube and the internet in general allow for various sects and individuals to operate completely independently of one another. Still, there are some universal rules that one should follow and dangers to be aware of before considering urban exploration. In an attempt to be as thorough as possible while remaining concise, what follows is a reader’s digest version of the rules — the ethics, dangers and potential legal consequences —funneled from various forums across the internet:
- “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” is a mantra repeated throughout various forums and echoed throughout the community. It speaks to the notion that urban explorers should almost be invisible: to leave sites undisturbed and respect the histories that they’re walking into.
- Don’t force your way inside any buildings using tools or by smashing doors or windows — this is breaking and entering. You will almost certainly face legal consequences for this.
- All of these locations have histories and people tied to them. Be respectful; remember that you’re only visiting.
- Many of the buildings that you may try to enter are abandoned and, as a direct consequence, in disrepair. The structural integrity of these locations might be weak and/or compromised. Proceed onto wooden floors with the caution of stepping out onto ice —with the knowledge that it might collapse.
- Always err on the side of caution when exploring a new location. If you’re doubting the structural integrity of any aspect of a building, do not proceed.
- Always bring a flashlight and a face mask. The latter is especially important due to the sheer amount of potential chemicals; mold, lead- and asbestos-related dangers are all present in most old buildings. Asbestos in particular can become airborne very easily. Always utilize quality dust masks when entering a location, and consider using a respirator if the situation seems hazardous enough.
- It comes down to intent or knowledge of the status of the structure. Clearly displayed signs labelled “No Trespassing” will almost certainly work against your favor in court, but to prove that the trespasser had explicit knowledge that s/he shouldn’t be there or of the structures abandonment prior to entry is difficult to prove.
- The defense can be made that the trespasser was unaware of the the structure’s abandonment status. Again, clearly labeled “No Trespassing” signs eliminate this safety net.
- Exploring on federal land such as national parks or military structures is prohibited. Don’t do this.