Somewhere under the weeds, among the illegally dumped tires and the empty beer cans littering the ground, are the bones of a giraffe and an elephant named Maude.
Back in the 1940s, the 300-acre site just southeast of the city limits was home to imprisoned moonshiners who grew crops and raised livestock to feed their fellow inmates at the nearby federal penitentiary. The sprawling property was also used as the burial ground for animals from the Atlanta Zoo whose bodies were too large to be cremated.
Later, after the city bought the compound in the '60s, it served as a temporary home for a parade of vagrants, drug addicts, drunks and others unlucky enough to be sent by a city judge to pick field peas, milk cows, can vegetables, butcher hogs and cook meals at the Atlanta Prison Farm.
But today the property is home to a collection of deteriorating and burnt-out structures grown over with kudzu.
On an overcast and muggy Saturday morning, while the rest of Atlanta goes about its weekend, a handful of backpack-wearing adventurers clutching flashlights and camera equipment arrive with the ironic goal of sneaking into this former correctional facility — easy enough since there are no fences or padlocks in sight.
The group passes building after crumbling building until it encounters an open door to a room in which some of Atlanta's most familiar taggers and graffiti artists have left their marks. Scrap-metal thieves stripped the place long ago, leaving only bunk beds and hand-me-down books. Vandals have obliterated the light fixtures, community toilets and windows, giving kudzu an easy entrance into the damp rooms. Stairways lead to a long hallway lined with the cells where prisoners once slept and played chess on grids carved into metal tables. Two years ago, a fire — perhaps started by the squatters who are said to occasionally take up residence in the remaining buildings — consumed the roof, opening the rooms to the elements. The floors are covered with ash, charred beams and warped pipes.
"This hallway always give me the willies," says Ben, 29, a web designer and freelance photographer. Nearby, A.J., 28, dressed all in black, carefully composes a photo of elaborate graffiti depicting prisoners sulking in the cells. For Chris, a 19-year-old college student who drove down from Chattanooga, this is his first visit to the iconic site.
The three are members of the most organized group within Atlanta's loose urban exploration community. The group calls itself SPECTRE, a fittingly geeky moniker when one considers that many explorers are computer programmers. (SPECTRE's not an acronym, in case you were wondering.)
Just hours earlier, they were tip-toeing through a shuttered DeKalb County school. Next, they might try to sneak into a vacant warehouse, an obsolete factory, an empty mental hospital or any of the hundreds of other abandoned structures scattered across metro Atlanta. As always, the motivation is to witness the peculiar, haunting beauty of buildings in decay, to experience the occasional adrenaline rush of going somewhere off-limits and to feel the weight of the space's accumulated history.
"It's a landscape unlike anything you'll see in the normal world," says Ben, who began exploring a decade ago when he lived near Detroit. "Especially because these locations were built by a previous incarnation of government, when people believed in building beautiful-looking insane asylums. The entire idea of these places is a forgotten one in our society."
An abandoned car battery plant. A cavernous paint factory. A picturesque collection of railcar maintenance buildings. A familiar Sears distribution center-turned-municipal office building. All of these sites are well-known to Atlanta's urban explorers, who trade tips for locating the all-important point of entry of any given property and share photos on online message boards.
As with many 21st-century subcultures, disparate pockets of recreational trespassers didn't realize they constituted an actual scene until they connected on the Internet. First described and codified in the early aughts by the print and online 'zine Infiltration, "urbex" is now an international trend, with popular websites and online forums hailing from Canada, the U.K., Europe and Australia.
Now nearly anyone with Internet access (including the police) can log in to message boards such as the Urban Exploration Resource and view photos and factoids about locations ranging from the skull-lined Catacombs under Paris to the ghost villages in the Chernobyl fallout zone to the storied state mental hospital slowly crumbling in Milledgeville. One urbex adventurer even documented one of Saddam Hussein's palaces while stationed in Baghdad.
Because trespassing is illegal, several of the explorers interviewed for this article asked CL not to use their full names or run photos showing their faces.
K.C. Budd, a thirtysomething Internet security professional, says he collided with other abandoned building enthusiasts four years ago when, under the urbex moniker Phreakmonkey, he posted a collection of photos taken at the Atlanta Prison Farm shortly after buying his first digital camera.
"I got an instant flood of emails," he recalls. "Half were from people who wanted to know how to find the place and the rest were from other urban explorers blasting me for giving away their secrets."
Eventually, Budd joined a local urbex group and spent weekends driving around seedy industrial areas or scouring Google Earth maps of Atlanta looking for deserted warehouses and derelict factories. Since those early days, he guesses he's visited a few dozen sites around Atlanta, including the now-leveled Ford plant in Hapeville, an abandoned textile mill off I-20, and a slew of long-vacant public schools in varying states of disrepair. Like some other explorers, he's not above occasionally asking property owners for permission to tour particularly well-guarded sites, as when he was shown around City Hall East a few years back.
Civilized societies have long been drawn to ancient ruins for historical and anthropological reasons, but the appeal of modern wreckage and urban decay is a fairly recent phenomenon. In war-ravaged European capitals such as Berlin and Budapest, some of the trendiest nightclubs are so-called "ruinpubs," located in abandoned or neglected buildings. Atlanta's Goat Farm has become a popular cultural venue, as much for its crumbling infrastructure as the artsy vibe. And many of the city's hottest restaurants, boutiques and loft complexes offer a sophisticated, edgy environment with exposed brick walls, bare concrete floors and visible I-beams, an industrial aesthetic harkening back to the deconstructivist approach of the early Bauhaus movement.
Today's urban explorers push that attitude an additional step, seeing beauty not just in a sanitized repurposing of a dilapidated structure, but in its ongoing deterioration. Their preferred destinations are those hidden in plain sight, buildings and sites that the rest of society ignores as we drive by.
Budd, a self-described "reformed hacker" who moved to California last year, has even given urbex seminars to convention halls packed with fellow computer geeks, dispensing such dollops of wisdom as: The best way to find abandoned factories is by following railroad tracks.
"My impression is that the urbex community is much larger than it realizes," he says.
Large, perhaps, but not exactly diverse. The majority of explorers are middle-class white guys with techie backgrounds. Computer hackers are particularly drawn to the pastime, possibly because they're already comfortable with virtual trespassing. If any women are active in the Atlanta scene, CL didn't find them.
SPECTRE was formed last year after several Atlanta-area explorers who'd been trading tips via the Urban Exploration Resource website held a meet-up to start planning monthly outings. The resulting organization helped reboot a local community that launched a few years back, but had dissipated as members started families, moved away or simply lost interest.
Each member comes to a meet-up armed with a list of previously visited locations and, ideally, hitherto unknown ones.
"The best way to get respect in this scene is to discover a new site," says Budd.
There also are props to be earned from following the urbex code. Rule Number 1: No souvenirs. Dedicated urban explorers follow the Sierra Club mantra — "Take only photographs, leave only footprints" — to help ensure that those who follow will be able to see the same wonders.
Also, to that end, they're secretive when talking to outsiders. Favorite sites are given code names on message boards and exact locations are typically only revealed to trusted urbexers — or after a structure has been demolished, as in the case of Brook Run, the abandoned Dunwoody psychiatric hospital that resembled the setting of an '80s horror flick.
Even when SPECTRE holds an outing, members meet first at an off-site rendezvous point so any newcomers can be vetted and told the ground rules before that day's site is revealed to the full group.
"We don't want the vandals to find out about the locations," says T.K., a Marietta freelance photographer. "We don't want people breaking windows or bashing lights. We don't like taggers. We don't like people who burn stuff down. We're a pretty protective lot."
Adds Ben: "If you start broadcasting locations and how to get in, word starts getting out to people who don't have the location's best interest in mind. There are buildings in Atlanta where we've been going for ages and slowly watching them rip up walls and destroy things."
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