Is this a term that you’re quite familiar with, or do you have no idea what it actually means? You’ve probably come across it while browsing some stunning pieces of photography with old factories falling apart. But are all photographers called urban explorers? Or the other way round, do all urban explorers always take pictures while exploring? The idea of urban exploration is on the rise and what once belonged only to a small group of people is gaining more prime time in the media today.
1. The Adventurers Explore Lost Gems
1.1 Media Attention
2. What’s the Thrill?
3. Where Does an Urban Explorer Head
3.1 Abandoned Buildings and Factories
3.1.1 Some notable locations in Toronto
3.2 Ghost Towns and Catacombs
3.3 Utility Tunnels and Underground
4. Caution, Caution, Caution!
5. Heritage Preservation in Toronto
6. Photographer Jonathan Castellino Bio
7. Short Interview with Jonathan
By definition, urban exploration (urbex or UE) “is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment.” Doesn’t sound too exciting? The fearless thrill-seekers from this community would describe it as “diving beneath the city streets and stepping into a completely different world,” a world of abandoned buildings and other unseen treasures of modern civilization. The nature of this activity often presents various risks, including both physical danger and the possibility of arrest or punishment for entering private properties. Therefore this article is merely trying to offer a perspective of the explorer’s point of view but should not encourage you to jump up run to the next empty factory! Serious planning and research (plus a huge measure of courage) are often required.
With the increased media attention, the popularity of urban exploration is on the rise. There are many TV shows based on this idea, such as Urban Explorers on the Discovery Channel, MTV’s Fear, and Ghost Hunting. Film studios have also recognized the potential of the urban thrill; just look for the thriller After set in Moscow’s underground subways that become a trap for a group of urban explorers, or the more recent documentary Urban Explorer, highly praised by many international film festivals. If you want to find out more about the personal stories or where the top locations are, there’s nothing easier than browsing the Internet. You’ll come across many websites such as the Sydney’s Cave Clan from Australia (whose members were even asked by authorities for help in discovering tunnels that could become potential terrorist targets), or the international forums such as urban explorers and the Canadian UER.
The unspoken rule of urban exploring is “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” which pretty much sums up its approach. You can explore — but respectfully. The list of people who are attracted by abandoned sites is long: photographers, historians, preservationists, architects, archaeologists, and ghost hunters. They all agree that there is no greater adventure than to experience the thrill of exploring the abandoned, the decayed, and the long forgotten! “In a world so full of noise (not just aural), these places allow me to find silence“, explains Jonathan Castellino, a keen urban explorer and talented photographer. This essentially captures what there is to love about the practice:
- Time Travel – travelling into the past and discovering what once was
- Beauty in Decay – a certain kind of beauty lies in these old interiors; one might see only darkness and damp spaces, but others see the beauty in patterns of ripped wallpapers and rusty machinery
- Surprise – you never know what’s waiting for you around the corner (but this might turn into something unpleasant, too)
- Alteration of Spaces by Time – there is a lot of inspiration for imagining what the spaces looked like in their best years
Today’s fast development of cities and economic crisis are the reason many businesses close down or simply vanish when former residents all vacate, leaving many buildings empty and in decay. They are mostly waiting for demolition; not many of them have the luck to be given a second chance. What are the usual places to be visited by an Urban Explorer? People research new spots and share new discoveries with others. A lot of the locations are discovered by accident, while others can be visited more often over time.
The biggest group of locations above ground are the many empty buildings sitting in and around cities. When entering, one has to be aware of various risks such as collapsing roofs and floors, broken glass, guard dogs, or the presence of chemicals. Some unpleasant surprises could include squatters that are temporarily residing in the buildings or motion detectors that are set up to monitor unwanted movement in the area. This all sounds pretty terrifying, doesn’t it? But there is also the beauty of empty theatres, ball rooms, and grand halls that make you grasp in awe, giving you a feeling of being frozen in time. These buildings are often attractive for subcultures, so you can see much graffiti on the walls. They become a perfect place for art events or contemporary music festivals, embracing the unique aesthetics (and acoustics) that can hardly be achieved in “regular” venues.
- Owen-Illinois Glassworks (bottle and glass making factory, now shut down and out of business)
- Hearn Thermal Power Station (located near the Leslie Street Spit, it was to become an enormous film studio after sitting still for years)
- Victory Soya Mills Silos (located on Toronto’s harbourfront, a reminder of the city’s industrial port era)
- Kodak’s plant in Mount Dennis (seeing this important site derelict makes many photographers nostalgic today)
- The Wellington Destructor (once burning the waste of the city)
- Tower Automotive (an abandone factory haunting the Junction)
- New York Pork Slaughterhouse (devastated by a destructive fire in 2006)
Ever heard of spooky Ghost Towns that have been abandoned by their residents and make a perfect fit for horror movies? Many of these were once built near major logging and mining sites or farming communities for workers and their families. They were deserted after there was no more work to be done or the railway nearby was removed, and therefore the people lost their connection to the outside world. Catacombs are under many big cities, such as Paris, Rome, Odessa, and Naples and are usually closed for public because of the potential dangers (but still attract urban explorers every year). There is a whole underground city, the City of the Dead, lying under Edinburgh in Scotland! You would be surprised by how many Ghost Towns you might find in Central Ontario! Have a look at the list of Ghost Towns in Ontario.
Some notable locations near Toronto:
- Barber Paper Mill and its buildings (in Georgetown)
“When it rains, no drains!” is the main motto that tells a simple truth that after or during heavy rain, the risks when entering abandoned shafts skyrocket. One could easily get entrapped, washed away, or even killed. Does just seeing movie chases in the maze of underground tunnels make you shiver? This might not be the best location for you then.
As you can see, safety should be the primary concern of every urban explorer. It’s a good idea not to go alone, but for those who like the solitude and some quiet time, always let someone trustworthy know where you’re going! What are the precautions of every experienced adventurer? Using your common sense is not enough! In places where they’re not sure about the current condition, people often wear respirators to shield them from asbestos that might still be in the walls. It makes sense never to touch the machinery or steam lines. Awareness is essential: they must watch each step they take and carefully consider where they go. Explorers swear on taking these items:
- lights or headlamps (enables walking hands-free)
- extra batteries
- gloves (preferably sturdy work gloves)
- backpack (again provides storage for things leaving the hands free)
- good choice of clothes (as much skin protection as possible)
- thick-soled shoes
It’s also wise to pack:
- rope, duct tape, water bottle, pen and paper for notes en route
Urban Exploring should not be looked upon as just a form of trespassing. Explorers share a passion for abandoned buildings and often help to raise awareness (for example with beautiful images from their walks going public). As Jonathan puts it, what is most important is
“understanding the cultural significance of the buildings beyond their original function. Abandoned buildings in Toronto never stand as mere zones of exclusion; rather, they become part of the myth of city, the excitement of innovation, and the hope of recovery.”
These buildings should play an essential role in urban development — we should not simply let them “die” and be burnt to the ground just so that they make place for yet another condominium. It’s a piece of our history. Undoubtedly, there is still big potential for many of them.
Don Valley Brick Works by Wikimedia Commons
There are a few groups in Toronto that are working hard for heritage preservation. One of them is Evergreen, a national charity that is behind the project Evergreen Brick Works that successfully turned a couple of deteriorating heritage buildings into a community environmental centre with many educational activities throughout the year. In 2008, the Artscape Wychwood Barns project transformed the historic Wychwood TTC streetcar barns into a 60,000-square-foot community centre promoting arts, culture, and healthy living. The place is home to a number of artists and their studios, many non-profit, and cultural organizations, and during the summer it hosts one of the best farmer’s markets in the city! But there are still many empty buildings around the area: factories, warehouses, churches, and the infamous Ontario power station at Niagara Falls.
Did you fall in love with these amazing shots we featured? Meet the photographer who is behind them!
Jonathan Castellino’s works are featured also in our article about Rooftopping: Taking Photography to New Heights. Enjoy the breathtaking shots from the rooftops around Toronto!
Jonathan Castellino is a hobby urban archaeologist and photographer based in the City of Toronto. His photographs document the intersection of built environments and cultural landscape, as they speak to social imagination. While focusing primarily on contemporary urban ruins, his work also tends to take a broader perspective, examining the place and meaning of these spaces in urban life. Check out his beautiful photo essays covering many sites around Toronto, forming a unique urban archive of architectural decay. Jonathan also teaches this specific brand of photography to students at a school of restoration arts in Ontario.
ILT: Can you remember when you discovered your fascination with abandoned spaces? What is it that draws you to these places?
J.C.: I was drawn to abandoned buildings from a very young age. There was always a certain romantic allure for me surrounding these mysterious places. I grew up near Graydon Hall Manor in Toronto (then abandoned), and spent quite a bit of my time wandering through its overgrown gardens, trying to climb its decaying walls.
ILT: What came first: your love for photography or your fascination for abandoned buildings?
J.C.: I will often explore abandoned buildings without a camera. When taking pictures, the idea is to allow the photographs to flow from the experience as naturally as possible. Anyone willing to take a few risks can show you what the inside of an abandoned building looks like. I would rather show you how it feels. The majority of the photographs I make are intensely subjective for this reason.
ILT: Do you protect yourself against some of the risks that you take when entering a such a building?
J.C.: Precaution is always necessary when exploring abandoned buildings. There exist many potential harms beyond legal issues. In my experience, the latter are the least threatening.
ILT: Did you have any unpleasant encounters or is there a special story when something really surprised you when entering a site?
J.C.: Good social engineering skills have gotten me through many potentially volatile situations over the years. Any local inhabitants who are sympathetic to my cause I consider curators rather than squatters; I have developed unique relationships with several of them. In Toronto, I rarely encounter anything too shocking (to me, anyhow). Exploring in America is another story.
ILT: Why do you feel many abandoned buildings become the locations for underground and independent cultures because of their attractive old look?
J.C.: Some urban explorers look down on such things as graffiti, urban art, etc; they somehow feel that their niche hobby is holier than others. This is a totally wrong-headed approach to a sub-cultural appropriation of derelict space. The fact is they have no more right to be there than anyone else.