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The ugly beauty of urban exploration

They capture stunning images amid rust belt ruin. But are urban explorers also urban exploiters?



Saint Laurence Catholic Church, which began its life at 71st and Dorchester as a monument to God, is ending it as a monument to white flight. Built in 1911 for the Irish of the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, the church began to empty out in the 1950s, and was finally deconsecrated in 2002; the mostly Protestant blacks who had moved into the neighborhood couldn't provide the members or the money to keep it open.

Now Saint Laurence's faithful consist of scrappers and graffiti taggers. The stunning Romanesque building is also a magnet for urban explorers, who infiltrate abandoned churches, hospitals, schools, theaters, and factories, photograph the remains, and post the pictures online. This pursuit is particularly midwestern, made possible by the factory closings of the 1980s and the blight that followed. In addition to Chicago, the other "urbex" hubs are Detroit and Gary, places where fabulous manufacturing wealth paid for Gothic or art deco landmarks that were left to rot when the manufacturing disappeared. A cross between housebreakers and historians, urban explorers have their own guidebook (Access All Areas by the late Ninjalicious), their own publication (the zine Infiltration), and their own online hubs (Chicago Urban Explorers on Facebook and Chicagoland Urbex Photography on Of course, the activity is discouraged by building owners and is the scourge of security guards, which is all part of the thrill. But poking around crumbling architecture can prove fatal. In 2012, for instance, a 16-year-old north-side boy, Jose Morales, was killed when he fell through a ceiling at the old Ravenswood Hospital.

Slideshows The trespasses of Chicago's urban explorers

Check out the ugly, beautiful images of rustbelt ruin taken by Chicago urban explorers.

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For Eric Holubow, an urban explorer who lives in West Town, the risks are worth taking if it means he's able to snap stunning pictures of forbidden zones, shots less adventurous photographers can't access. In September, Schiffer Publishing will release Holubow's art book of his trespasses, Abandoned: America's Vanishing Landscape, which follows in the tradition of Detroit Disassembled and Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America in bringing urban decay to coffee tables. It's a magnificent document of a number of dissolute Chicago landmarks: Edgewater Medical Center, Lawndale Theater, Michael Reese Hospital, the Brach's candy factory, and the aforementioned Ravenswood Hospital, among others.

On Memorial Day, Holubow ventures out to the South Shore neighborhood with his camera equipment to shoot Saint Laurence. "They're in the process of tearing the church down, but they don't work on Memorial Day," he says. "Wait a few more days, it might be gone."

Saint Laurence's front doors are sealed with no trespassing stickers, so Holubow heads around the back, plodding across a jumble of bricks—all that remains of the church rectory. Reaching an open window, he hoists himself up, climbs through, and drops into a vestibule. The 33-year-old is fully equipped for urbex: he's wearing hiking boots and canvas cargo pants, to avoid cutting his legs on fencing or other jagged surfaces; he carries a tripod; his backpack contains his Canon 5D-MK II and a headlamp, for the inevitable tenebrous spaces.

It's five in the afternoon, and the forsaken church is lit only by a declining sun, glowing weakly through the windows. The walls are peeling, the confessional doors have been stripped away, and the pews are a heap of boards. But there's remaining beauty too: frescoes, at Sistine height, depict myriad angels and the Last Supper. Soon these will be ripped down by the backhoe sitting idle outside. In the stillness of the deserted building, Holubow ruminates on his fascination with empty churches. It's an opportunity, he says, to witness the struggle between the temporal and the eternal, a house of God being corroded by earthly forces perhaps more powerful than religion: racial conflict and the free market. "There's a large cultural history being erased," he says.

Rain begins to fall, leaking through Saint Laurence's broken windows and dripping down the church's fractured columns.

"This is just so beautiful," Holubow says, setting up his tripod in front of the battered organ in the balcony. On the floor below there's evidence of Saint Laurence's late-in-life transformation into an African-American Catholic church: a bulletin featuring a black Jesus.

One of Katherine Hodges's earliest urbex adventures occurred with a Meetup group called Chicago in Decay, which organized an expedition to the old Brach's candy factory. "There's that thrill of being somewhere you're not supposed to be," Hodges recalls. - ERIC HOLUBOW
  • Eric Holubow
  • One of Katherine Hodges's earliest urbex adventures occurred with a Meetup group called Chicago in Decay, which organized an expedition to the old Brach's candy factory. "There's that thrill of being somewhere you're not supposed to be," Hodges recalls.

A strategist for Leo Burnett, Holubow got hooked on urban exploration in 2005, when he was working on retail ad displays for a manufacturing plant at 31st and Kedzie—across the street from the defunct Washburne Trade School. Fascinated, Holubow sneaked in.

"That place was epic," he recalls. Abandoned includes a photo of Washburne's cafeteria, littered with fallen ceiling tile, looking like a sort of baked salt flat. After that, Holubow broke into the Lawndale Theater, where he was confronted by a naked squatter who put on a pair of pants, grabbed a hammer, and chased the photographer out of the building. To gain entry to Edgewater Medical Center, Holubow donned wading boots and walked through knee-deep water in an underground tunnel. In a psychiatric hospital outside of Detroit, he was caught by security cameras and paid a $500 fine for trespassing. But Holubow has turned his hobby into a lucrative sideline: a print of the City United Methodist Church in Gary, whose missing walls give it the look of a World War II French cathedral, sold for thousands of dollars at an art fair.

Urbexers are sometimes accused of exploiting poor communities by reducing them to ruin porn: images of decay deprived of the people living among it. "So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them," writes Wayne State University English professor John Patrick Leary in the well-circulated 2011 essay "Detroitism," published in the art and politics magazine Guernica. Holubow believes the explorer's motivations should be considered. "Are you doing it just out of sensationalism, and to get a response, or is there a larger purpose or mission? Are you going in there to treat the site with respect? Are you going in there to raise awareness of it?" Holubow views his urban exploration as a photography practice preserving evidence of the results of man-made structures left to nature. Even this young country, he likes to say, has ruins as dramatic as those in Greece or Rome.

"There's a certain intrigue with a beautiful vacant building. There's value in it. There's not a lot of places you can see something like that."—Joe van Dyk, director of redevelopment for Gary, Indiana

Detroit and Gary have taken different approaches to the ruin tourists. Detroit, home of the Packard Automotive Plant and Michigan Central Station, has generally frowned on the practice; city officials and businesses are wary of perpetuating the city's image as an international symbol of urban decay. Meanwhile, Gary is looking for economic opportunity in urbex tourism; the former model of industrial might is considering preserving City United Methodist and Gary Screw & Bolt as "ruin gardens" to drum up much-needed revenue.

"As I understand it, you take a place that is abandoned but has historic characteristics, and you highlight those historic characteristics—you don't tear it down, but you make it something that tourists might be able to enjoy," Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson says. "I do accept that that might be an attraction here in Gary, just like a golf course or some of the other things you might want to do, especially while we're trying to determine whether or not we're going to fix [the buildings] up or tear them down."

"It is a beautiful building," Joe van Dyk, Gary's director of redevelopment, says of City United Methodist. Like his boss, Van Dyk looks at the old church and sees financial promise—a chance for the struggling city to capitalize on the urban exploration already taking place. "There's a certain intrigue with a beautiful vacant building. There's value in it. There's not a lot of places you can see something like that," he says. "There is a danger with falling brick, but it wouldn't take much to secure."

A frequent explorer of Gary's fabulous ruins, Katherine Hodges posts her photos on the blog City of Destiny, and on a Flickr account under the handle Katherine of Chicago. During a trip to the "Magic City of Steel" in 2010, Hodges visits Gary's old Sheraton, which was closed in the 1990s and has proved difficult to demolish or redevelop—a perfect circumstance for urbexers. Entering the deteriorating building is a cinch: wearing eyeglasses and a backpack, she strolls through a hole in one wall, right into what was once the hotel's restaurant. In the kitchen, saucers are scattered beneath a dishwasher conveyor belt. Cattails grow out of the stagnant water in the deep end of the rooftop swimming pool.

Hodges snaps a few photos, then it's on to the next spot, City United Methodist, where she encounters two other urbex parties. The building looks like it was shaken by an earthquake: the brick walls are split open, exposing vistas of overgrown trees.

Like Holubow, Hodges came to urbex almost by accident. Forever in the habit of carrying a camera around the city, she one day wandered into an empty warehouse at North Avenue near the river and took photos for a class at Columbia College. Several years later, after joining Flickr, she connected with a (now defunct) Meetup group called Chicago in Decay, which organized an expedition to the old Brach's candy factory. "It was just really, really exciting," the 37-year-old recalls. "Definitely, there's that thrill of being somewhere you're not supposed to be, and also just seeing this massive industrial facility up close."

When Westinghouse Career Academy closed in 2007, Hodges was living in nearby Humboldt Park, and visited the school almost every Sunday to document its demolition and pick over the remains; she still has several boxes of schoolbooks, cheerleading uniforms, trophies, and chemistry lab equipment. Her favorite sites these days are a building at 48th and Halsted she calls "the Float Factory" because it's filled with old parade floats, and another at 119th and Vincennes, which she calls "the Garland Factory," a dumping ground for dollar-store overstock.

To Hodges, the great ethical quandary of urbex isn't about trespassing on private property. "It's a more of an issue of being an outsider to the community you're exploring. It's mostly white explorers going into black communities," she says. Hodges says her exploits are motivated by historical curiosity, but she's keenly aware she might give the impression of being a voyeur getting her kicks in blighted buildings that are a nuisance to people who have to live next to them. "As an outsider, the dilemma I have faced is, you're outside the building, and someone from the neighborhood says, 'Are you from here?' 'No, I'm taking photos . . . I'm just another tourist coming through.'"

Now at Gary Screw & Bolt, Hodges pushes aside some branches and ducks through a breach in the fence that's like a rust belt version of C.S. Lewis's wardrobe: she passes through the hole and into a posthuman future. Not for nothing has this former factory been featured on the History Channel show Life After People. Ten-foot-high drifts of work clothes sit moldering on the factory floor. Large trees grow through fissures in the concrete. Hodges raises her camera and takes a photo. A suitable caption for the oddly beautiful snapshot: "Nature always bats last."

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that the trip Katherine Hodges takes to Gary, Indiana, happened in 2010.

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