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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Urban Exploration


The Boston Globe ran a piece the other day on exploring some of the abandoned sections of the subway system.  The "T", as it is known to all who inhabit Boston, is the backbone of the public transportation system in that city.  A reporter followed a historian of the T into a number of essentially secret and obscure sections of the tunnels (legally, and accompanied by Transit Authority police) to see some of these long-lost areas.  The Globe even posted a neat little video which you can see here.

The article shows us something that an entire sub-culture of people have been doing for years.  Termed Urban Exploration, or Urbex, for short, people have been crawling around in old factories, grain elevators, subways, abandoned buildings, and tunnels for years.  The allure is described in a Wikipedia article on the topic as the beauty of decay in abandoned spaces.  There have even been television programs on the Discovery Channel and documentaries on these intrepid explorers.  Most of the time, we become aware of them only when someone falls down an abandoned elevator shaft to their death.  Obviously, prowling around old, abandoned structures can be extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal.

So why do such articles continue to pop up in newspapers such as the Globe?  What is it that fascinates even those of us who are not likely to put on a headlamp and prowl in the small hours of the morning?  This is probably the modern equivalent of the nineteenth-century Egyptologists who wanted to see what no one else had seen in a very long time.  Of course, the Egyptologists had the added incentive of possibly finding golden treasures and beautiful art objects.  Not so for the urban explorers.  I think what we find is ourselves, or maybe our former selves.  We find out how we constructed our world for function or sometimes even beauty.  We love the idea of seeing the things that we built decades or centuries ago but have been lost to the common eye.

I have written about this before in my post on the abandoned Michigan Central train station in Detroit. I am as curious about these places as the next guy.  Maybe we even need to have a certain number of these abandoned artifacts left for just the purpose of exploration.  If we pulled down every last abandoned structure, we would lose something.  Certainly, we would clean up a lot of eyesores but we would also lose another connection to our built past.  We would still have our histories but we need to have something tangible as well to link us to those former times and our former selves. As we accelerate into our future, it can help to have something to hold onto from our past.

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