Unauthorized Adventurers Abound Nationwide


Tristan Savatier peers into a labyrinth of machinery illuminated only by stars. He navigates through the darkness of the abandoned French Renault factory, following his friends into a deserted control room, dusty from years of neglect. Apprehensive that police will break up the expedition, they nevertheless continue, turning the corner to discover discarded gas masks and deteriorating blueprints of a steam-powered generator. After snapping pictures, Savatier and his entourage leave the factory, slipping into the cover of darkness.

Savatier is not your typical intruder; he is an urban explorer, a member of a growing subculture gaining adherents around the globe. From abandoned subway tunnels to deserted mental asylums, urban explorers venture into the most obscure recesses of metropolitan landscapes to discover forbidden settings and photograph their findings.

Savatier said he is interested in the element of mystery prohibited locations present. "If a door says, 'No Trespassing,' there might be something behind it that's interesting," he said.

Urban explorers undertake extreme exploits, fueled by the notion that "off-limits" is an arbitrary term. Urban explorer Julia Solis once hosted a formal dinner for 40 guests in an abandoned underground subway tunnel near the Brooklyn Bridge, according to an Oct. 15 article in the San Francisco Independent. In another adventure, Solis entered the deserted Northampton Hospital in Massachusetts, where she said "the morgue had a stained autopsy table, vials and test tubes. The refrigerator trays for the bodies still had blood on them."

From abandoned subway tunnels to deserted mental asylums, urban explorers venture into the most obscure recesses of metropolitan landscapes to discover forbidden settings and photograph their findings.

While Savatier has climbed a Bay Bridge tower and has broken into an anti-atomic bunker in the Presidio, he especially enjoys investigating the catacombs in his native Paris. "Underground Paris is a gigantic Swiss cheese, a network of quarries and tunnels," he said. "It's a playground for adventurers. It's illegal (to enter them), of course."

Adventurers across the nation

New York City is not without its share of urban explorers, either. Web developers by day, daring urban investigators by night, two New Yorkers who go by the pseudonyms "Lefty" and "Laughing Boy" have scaled the no-access roof of Grand Central Station and infiltrated the maze of New York subway tunnels.

According to Laughing Boy, urban explorers distinguish themselves from common trespassers in their appreciation of the sites they investigate. "I would guess that common trespassers are often trespassing by accident, or as a shortcut to where they're going," Laughing Boy said. "An urban explorer is trespassing deliberately and purposefully, to explore an area that can't be accessed any other way. He or she is looking for something, some kind of knowledge or adventure."

Lefty and Laughing Boy differ from trespassers for another reason: Together, they head jinxmagazine.com, one of many Web sites dedicated to urban exploration. Aiding explorers in their quest to educate themselves and others about historical sites, the internet serves as both a comprehensive archive for documented conquests and a far-ranging meeting place for an international ring of explorers. Urban explorers exchange experiences and photographs, the only mementos they permit themselves to take from a site.

'Urban Exploration is Unsafe'

In their quest for the forbidden and unknown, urban explorers often encounter deteriorating buildings or angry authorities.

Officer Mark Gallegos of the San Francisco Police Department said he denounces urban exploration. "You face criminal penalties," he said. "There are reasons why places are closed."

Despite Gallegos's reprimands, Laughing Boy sees the police as partners, not enemies. "The police perform a vital service to us by keeping off-limits areas off limits," he said. "If just anybody could go just anywhere, we wouldn't have any place to explore."

Savatier said that his encounters with police have been mild. "They asked us questions and took our names," he said. "Usually there's just a fine if you don't steal or break anything. They can't put you in jail for taking pictures, so they let you go."

Gallegos admits that police rarely take extreme measures against trespassers. "Sometimes a trespasser will get put on probation, but most of the time nothing happens," he said. "There are higher priorities."

Though the legal penalties are not menacing, Gallegos hopes the threats of physical danger will discourage potential explorers. "You can die very easily while trespassing," he said. "Some buildings have holes or raw sewage on the floor, and you never know who might be in there."

High school freshman Melek Brooks said she believes that government monitored exploring would reduce the danger. "The government should issue permits to certain people and allow them to explore," she said. "If they were given the right equipment, it would be less dangerous."

Laughing Boy pointed out that urban exploration is inherently dangerous. "We explore against the better judgment of ourselves and society, knowing the risks and choosing to proceed despite them," he said. "No one should get involved thinking he or she will be safe. Urban exploration is unsafe."
"An urban explorer is trespassing deliberately and purposefully, to explore an area that can't be accessed any other way. He or she is looking for something, some kind of knowledge or adventure."

Local Opportunities

For would-be explorers, the Bay Area is host to a number of locations to investigate. Savatier recommended the abandoned factories and buildings in SoMa and Chinatown and nuclear shelters in the Presidio.

For those who find a lawful adventure more palatable, the ghost town of Drawbridge, south of San Francisco and the Nike missile site in Berkeley's Tilden Park offer a glimpse into the past.

Closer sites are available for those with less time or ability to travel. "I would want to explore the train tunnels and take pictures of the graffiti art," high school sophomore Cody Drabble said.

To ensure a successful venture, urban explorers say they strive to blend in with their cosmopolitan surroundings. Laughing Boy considers low-profile attire such as business suits to be effective. "We wear suits and sunglasses as camouflage," he said.

Savatier, however, dons construction worker uniforms to blend in. "The way to get people not to notice you is to be extremely visible," he said. "If you take a shiny yellow worker suit and put cones and a big sign around an area, the police will never question you. If you sneak around, the police will notice."

To complete the ensemble, explorers depend on an assortment of vital tools. Savatier carries a pickax to break down concrete walls, a screwdriver to unscrew locks and a Leatherman for everything else. "You can unroll a key ring and use a screwdriver to make a lock pick, or you can smash locks with big rocks," he said. "Bigger padlocks are easier to pick."

Even with all the proper equipment, urban exploration requires a natural inclination towards spontaneity and an inherent taste for adventure. "An urban explorer is someone who would spend a whole night in a really dirty place and take an incredible effort to go places that other people see as pointless," Savatier said. "You have to be ready to grab your flashlight, your tools, a pair of boots and just go."

Katia Savchuk is a Junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco. She is a writer and editor for The Lowell, the school newspaper where this article originally appeared.

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