Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Philly Trip (Urban Exploration in Philadelphia)

     The Philly trip was unique in that it was the first trip I had planned with the sole intention of exploration in mind. We had gathered up our money through the months and invested it in a visit to a different city, and we had decided on Philadelphia. Coming from New York, we had seen all types of security. Therefore, the sites we found were much easier to get into than the ones we had back home. However, there were still tense moments and tales of escape.

After spending time settling down in our hotel during the first day, we met up with an old exploring partner, a Philly native, to walk through the ghetto of Philly until we reached the Reading Viaduct, an elevated segment of rail, though the track had been removed a few months prior to our visit.

     However, the view of the city at night was stupendous, similar to walking on the Hell Gate bridge viaduct, and some tire swings hanging on rusty trestle were a fun introduction to the city. Against our native partner's will, some of our group ascended the trestle towers, and even knowing that it was not a late enough hour of night to ensure our invisibility, we went for it.

 To our great dismay, we quickly learned a few negatives about the city. For one, public transport was incredibly expensive. For another, it didn't run on a 24-hour system. The train was closed by the time we reached the station so we sought a bus, and were stopped by a neighborhood watch car, the passengers asking us why we were running. We told them that we only needed to catch our bus, and they left us alone. When we got in the bus, we saw that the locals were all falling asleep even though it was barely past midnight. It suddenly became very clear to us why New York is known as the city that never sleeps.

A loud knock at the door interrupted my sleep in the morning. 
"Who is it?" one of my friends yelled.
"Philadelphia Police," responded a gruff voice. My heart skipped, and I wondered what was going on.
Of course, my fear turned out to be illogical as it was merely one of my partners who had been locked out of the hotel room, messing around with us. The above structure is the abandoned Divine Lorraine hotel, and it is fortunately not the hotel we stayed at, but unfortunately, not a hotel we managed to explore, as we were told that there was no way to sneak into the building.

When we hit the town, we walked until we reached the abandoned City Branch tunnel, and from here our day's adventure began. The tunnel has an abandoned spur and an active one. Following the active one leads to a darkened freight tunnel, while going too far in the abandoned one led directly to a police precinct. Some graffiti artists we had seen at the mouth of the cave warned us of a girl getting arrested because she walked too far into the tunnel. Keeping a steady limit on where we would walk, we checked out the tunnel.

  Afterwards, we continued walking the freight tracks, having to hop over and hide behind rocks when we heard the train come rumbling towards us. The long whale of a vehicle slooooowly dragged itself on the track, and as we ran alongside, it seemed that the freight cars would never end. However, if eventually did end. 

Along the track, we spotted a work truck on the railroad and bolted away from the area, only to return to the track half a mile later via the woods. Eventually we walked on an overpass that spanned the length of a picturesque river. What was not so beautiful, however, were the grates we were walking on, which frightened us as we could see directly below the thin beams that "supported" our weight.

 Crossing the river we found our way into the massive abandoned Tastykake factory, which had once been a bakery. Though the relic was left exposed to the elements, adjacent stores still sold Tastykake products, and I bought one simply for the novelty.


 The true splendor of the Tastykake factory was to be found on the roof, climbing the water towers and watching the sun set from there. 

I promised my friends that there would be no more track walking, and insisted that we would do some climbing instead, but to their dismay there had been a hell of a lot more track walking as we met with another native explorer who was a huge railfan. In total, we walked at least ten miles that day.

The stretch we walked over was intriguing as it ran over a river, some roads, and by factories, all of which glowed at night. Again, the tallest point of the stretch had metal grates, which we kept telling ourselves were meant for fat workers to walk on and should thus support our weight. However, this hope was little consolation for the panic that ensued as we looked down, and we knew that if a freight train appeared we would have to climb onto iron beams jutting fifty feet over the water and duck there, a task which is terrifying when winter winds whip, threatening to knock you off your perch. Fortunately, no trains came.

The freight tracks eventually connected to Amtrak and SEPTA tracks, the latter being Philly's official commute track. With six people, we walked the commercial rail and snuck back onto the platform undetected as early as 9 PM, a feat which would be unfathomable back in NYC. 
Though one of our guides knew how to read the rail signals, it was tough to avoid being spotted, and we often only had a moment's notice to bury ourselves into bushes or hide behind pipes as a train rolled by.

Our third and final night in Philly left us with heavy rain, which dampened the streets and our party's spirits as well. However, a faithful member of the crew stayed with me as I promised him some rooftop adventure...we were not leaving the city without seeing it from above first. At a late hour, the rain poured into City Hall as we waited for our contact, who took us into an abandoned bank.

Calculating the right moment, we slipped in through a loose plywood board, shifted our way through a broken glass door, taking care not to get scraped. Down in the basement we saw bank vaults, which had been busted open and their emptiness made any noise inside them reverberate. Then, we walked up the twenty or so flights of stairs until we reached the roof, and the fog descending on Center City illuminated all of the city's lights. I sat on the edge of the roof, watched the passerby and cars below, and let the noises waft up to me.

We went to some lower floors where we discovered twenty year old chip bags, one of which we opened for curiosity, which stank horrendously, and a newspaper even older than the chips. Getting out of the building was a slightly more tricky task as people on the street could see us but we couldn't see them. Praying that our timing would be right, we slipped out, spotted only by a homeless man who clearly wouldn't tell us off.

Philadelphia had shown me how different exploring can be in different cities. Sure, Philly was derelict and decrepit (both the buildings and some of the people), but when I sat on that rooftop watching the lights of Center City change color from two hundred feet above, it made me feel that there was something intrinsically magical about the city.

But my heart still belongs to New York.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Red Hook Cranes

I believe that Red Hook is a wonderful place to explore, in any aspect of the word. It has not only a great number of abandoned structures but artistic pieces and interesting sights throughout. 

I have always wanted to climb a crane, and abandoned cranes are ever-present in this neighborhood.  I had eyed them for a while, waiting for the right time to tackle my ascent (and calculating which cranes I would climb). Our only issue was that in all the pictures we had seen of the cranes at night, they were bathed in ambient blue floodlights, which would silhouette us.

 We finally decided on a freezing windy January weeknight where the deserted streets saw almost no action. Tonight there were no lights and the cranes were simply distant shadows. My friend gave me a single climbing glove to compensate for my frigid inflexible digits.

Getting up our first crane had been an intense stretch, considering that my winter layers were very heavy, but I somehow managed to pull myself up. From the darkness we heard a work truck in the distance and spotted a boat parked in the water. It felt good to be on top.

Then we tackled the second crane. which was a little less straightforward than our first. We had to climb up a series of beams and balance ourselves fifteen feet above the ground, walking around until we reached the stairs. Since the cranes were long abandoned, the iron we stepped on almost gave way under our weight.

There were many cranes to choose from but we stuck to the ones in the shadows.

Some more monkeying around got us into the crane room, with incredibly stale, dusty air.
A weeknight makes for some empty streets and the cranes a calm perch from which to watch the slowly rippling waters.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Seaview Hospital

     The long defunct Seaview Hospital complex out in Staten Island was one that I believed had was being repurposed into a different building.  This was not the case as the many buildings of Seaview stood scattered across the complex, abandoned, and the main attraction, the Children's Ward, stood tall (at least, as tall as an abandoned building could). Like Creedmoor, the abandoned buildings of Seaview Hospital rest on an active campus, but a hike through the woods revealed our target.

The first building we encountered was similar in design to the Staten Island Farm Colony wards, and just as empty. After circling one of the shells for ten minutes, we found that access was to be granted through the blown-out second story window. Of course, climbing up to get there, in the snow, without gloves, was not pleasant.

We were fortunate that this building offered free coat and bag service.

I like to say that this is a general rule with exploring: you will get in using a very difficult method, and after circling the complex, find a much easier entry on the way out. It turned out our arduous climb was unnecessary, as a door was blasted wide open.

After discovering that embarrassment, we rationed that once we had seen one of the smaller buildings we had seen them all, and made our way over to the Children's Ward, which boasted some strange phenomena when we were there. But before that we discovered this sewer manhole, which stunk up a fetid, albeit warm, storm.

Hiking through the woods, we heard a tree creak, adding to the eerie feel of the place, and it seemed liable to fall at any moment. However, we pressed on in search of the Children's Ward. 

The building is here in the background. We were in the forest, but the other side appeared relatively active, with security trailers and work noises persisting. Once inside, we figured not to venture too close to the balconies or windows, lest we be spotted.

Believe it or  not, some of the keys still functioned.

After poking around the lower floors, we checked out the first floor and basement, which were both so well sealed that very little light penetrated it. The first creepy occurrence could be explained logically: there was a rotating fan, still able to spin after years of dereliction. However, this was quite obviously the wind moving it along.

The second happening was not so obvious. There was a heavy sprinkle of metal flakes raining down from the ceiling, no more than ten feet in front of us. I deduced that it was probably caused by an animal sneaking around the pipes. Still, we decided it best not to stay on that floor for long. To make it clear, I don't believe in ghosts or the occult, but this was definitely a bit odd.

This hospital was originally used for patients of tuberculosis, and that is frightening enough for most folks to keep out. However, I was not frightened by the building's past but its security, which were active on the site. This should help you understand why I had a small heart attack when we heard a creaking sound in the dark ground floor.

We all ran back a few steps and retreated into the shadows, hiding behind various items. None of us made a sound as we waited, ears pricked up intently. Then, my partner turned one of his flashlights on. It produced a faint red, and using its light, we tiptoed back to the staircase and made our way up, still shaking a bit from the adrenaline that had started to boil in us, but kept exploring regardless.

Up on the fourth floor I experienced the next oddity: I smelled smoke in the building. Fearing that an arsonist had been sneaking around on the ground floor, I sniffed around to look for the source of the fire. It just turned out to be my partner lighting a cigarette!

A tree grows in Staten Island.
Seaview was quite an experience, but I wish I hadn't chosen such a cold day to go, especially when I didn't even bring gloves. The draft from the busted windows making taking pictures unbearable, and it was warmer outside the building than in it! 

We had to climb an ice-licked ladder to get to the very top of the roof. I threw my hands in my pocket when I finally got onto the roof and put my camera away for the most part, for fear of my fingers getting frostbite. However, I did manage to snap the occasional pic here and there.

Afterwards, we drove back to Brooklyn and had some pizza. Not a bad way to end a day and warm up in the winter if I do say so myself.