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Even though exploring often involves jumping fences, climbing through windows and even shimmying up drainpipes, urbexers say they draw the line at prying open doors or breaking windows. Also, they say they eschew such items as bolt-cutters, lock picks, crowbars or even Leatherman pocket tools, which have been known to land an explorer in jail.
"Breaking and entering is a felony, involves destroying places that we love and opening them up to people who have less pure motives than ours," says Ben. "My standard kit includes a camera, gloves, a [breathing] mask and my wits. If that doesn't get me in, I'm not getting in."
Budd says he even shies away from entering buildings that appear recently broken-into, so as to avoid blame for the damage.
None of the urbexers CL spoke with would cop to having been arrested for their hobby, although some have had close calls. Budd says he once got caught by a private security guard who lectured him loudly about how much trouble he was in. When police arrived, they placed the anxious adventurer in the back of the patrol car. After getting in, the officer motioned toward the rent-a-cop and said, "What a dick." Budd was driven around the corner and released.
"In my experience, law enforcement doesn't take simple trespassing very seriously," he says. "If you're just there to take pictures and look around, they usually don't care."
John Lavalle, manager of the city's real estate holdings, concedes that the Atlanta Prison Farm property hasn't been secured. "What we are in the act of doing now is posting signs so folks know they're trespassing," he says. "If someone is caught on city property, it's up to the discretion of the individual police officer what he wants to do."
Katy Pando, a spokesperson for Georgia Properties Commission, says the only place the state has been compelled to step up security to keep out the curious has been at Pullman Yards, the 100-year-old industrial site in Kirkwood where passenger rail cars were built and repaired up until the '50s. It's also recently become a cash cow, the buildings rented out for a number of film and video shoots, including this year's entry in the The Fast and Furious franchise.
Apart from the threat of property damage, the other chief reason to deter trespassers is that derelict buildings are, by their very nature, unsafe. Tetanus shots and stitches are common necessities for explorers and Budd recalls the time a friend stepped into a hole in a floor while backing up to frame a photo. In addition to the obvious hazards posed by broken glass, used syringes, poisonous spiders and crackheads, several of the city's most popular urbex destinations carry the additional risk of toxic exposure. In fact, many industrial sites were abandoned precisely because they became contaminated with asbestos, caustic solvents or other noxious chemicals, explains SPECTRE member Dustin Grau.
On the bright side, Grau says, their very toxicity makes these buildings easier for urban explorers to find. "A great way to search for places is to look at lists of EPA Superfund sites," he says cheerfully.
Not everyone who sneaks into old buildings is a young tech geek looking to increase his pulse rate.
Robert Myers, a 66-year-old retired radio jock who used to spin easy-listening tunes on the old Peach 94.9 (WUBL-FM), became an avid amateur photographer a few years back, quickly gravitating toward abandoned industrial sites and vacant farm houses.
"You can only photograph so many sunsets and waterfalls," he says.
His favorite sites are the Pullman Yards and the Westside's Glidden paint factory, which has become a de facto gallery for the city's graffiti artists, but Myers and his friends also drive around looking for new locations. His shots strive to capture the chiaroscuro effect from light pouring through open doors and holes in the roofs of the vast empty rooms he photographs.
"Some people don't get my fascination with these buildings," he says. "They think these places are ugly."
But for those taken with the odd beauty of a column of daylight piercing a crumbling school gym or ancient machinery waiting silently under layers of dust, the city's urban ruins offer ample payoff.
One explorer excitedly describes the sights from his recent infiltration of an auto assembly plant that's currently considered the Holy Grail of local urbex sites:
"I found whole frames of minivans still sitting on the line," he says. "You can still see Coke cans sitting in various places in the dining hall. Cigarettes that burned up where people just got up and left. Uniforms hanging in lockers."
A large measure of the appeal of many of the sites visited is the palpable sense of history that still lingers.
In the case of the prison farm, some of that history is still underfoot. In one building, scarcely 50 feet from the road, thousands of documents lie strewn across the floor of what might once have been the prisoner intake office. According to a paper picked up at random, one Damien West, born Jan. 7, 1957, was admitted into the facility on April 7, 1988, in possession of "two sets of keys and one honest face."
Scattered throughout other rooms are self-help manuals, the standard-issue slippers worn by inmates and large, rusting tins filled with red and yellow hard candies and stamped with the legend "carbohydrate supplements."
Later on that same muggy Saturday at the prison farm expedition, Ben and his fellow SPECTRE members hop onto a window ledge in the rear of an abandoned elementary school off one of Atlanta's busiest roads.
Closed since the mid-'90s, the old building's bones have withstood the elements, but its innards are deteriorating. The main hallway, where children once raced to beat the morning bells, looks as if it was the victim of a bombing raid. A thick layer of plaster, dirt and dust hugs the floors. Ceiling tiles sag and dangle like mobiles, secured only by strands of metal. An oversized teddy bear keeps lonely watch over a disintegrating classroom. On the stairwell leading up to the undependable second floor, a little doll rests face-down on a step. Moss and small plants have sprouted in what once was the boys' bathroom, coaxed by the sunlight streaming in through broken windows.
"This is where nature has taken over," says Ben. "The mold on the walls, the texture of the paint chipping." The trio shares photography tips in the school's auditorium. A.J. sets up his tripod and points toward a lonely desk near the wall. As Chris moves closer toward the stage, a rat scurries into a hole. Broken tiles crackle with each step. Their flashlights pass over hallway corkboards advising teachers to attend an important pension meeting — in 1995. Some things don't change.
Unless the building is torn down or simply collapses under its own weight, the group will likely return every few months to survey the changes wrought by ongoing weathering, neglect and vandalism. Every fallen stairwell and caved-in roof offers fresh images for the photographer and new challenges for the explorer. And each monthly outing promises another jolt of adrenaline.
Explains Grau: "I guess all of us want to feel like Indiana Jones."
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