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Thursday, December 05, 2013
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Urban exploration can unveil a dark and interesting past
The draws of urban exploration can be tantalising: glimpses into architectural eras, cultures and industry gone and buried - sometimes literally. What are 10 cities jam-packed with fascinating sites of urban decay?
Long before Adolf Hitler was chancellor, he was treated at Beelitz-Heilstätten, a WWI-era military hospital, for a leg wound as a young soldier in 1916. Almost 80 years later, deposed East German dictator Erich Honecker was treated there for cancer. The sanatorium was built in the late 1800s to deal with Germany's tuberculosis outbreak, and the complex is accordingly massive. It later became a German military hospital, then a Russian military hospital, and ultimately the stalking ground of a serial killer named Wolfgang Schmidt.
Iraqi embassy: Quickly abandoned in 1991, furniture, typewriters, books and documents remain.
1936 Olympic Village: Built to showcase Aryan superiority, site of Jesse Owens' multi-faceted victory and, after World War II, barracks for Russian occupiers. The sprawling complex has been silent since 1992.
Spreepark Planterwald: Abandoned amusement park complete with motionless Ferris wheel.
Certainly Europe has no shortage of abandoned grave sites, but the town of Laeken, near Brussels, has a particularly good one. A series of tunnels runs beneath a cemetery in the village - tunnels housing nearly 100 years of the city's dead in vault-lined walls. The crypt was abandoned decades ago when authorities determined the maintenance was too expensive. Icicles hang from streaky skylights. Hazy light falls on inscribed names and dates of the dead, most still entombed there. Some vault covers are absent; dark, empty, coffin-sized spaces dot the walls. Flowers, most dead, some plastic, lie where family members left them on their last visits, lending the place a creepy sense of unexpected abandonment.
Fort de la Chartreuse, in Liège: An abandoned fort constructed in the early 1800s, but never used for defense. It was taken over by the people during the Belgian revolution, became a German prison during the world wars and then an American military hospital after Germany's second defeat.
Hasard collieries, in Cheratte: Coal mine built in the mid-1800s and abandoned in the 1970s, especially noteworthy for its gothic architecture and the mining equipment left behind.
Denver International Airport (DIA) is the subject of some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories of modern times. There are tunnels there - extensive networks running beneath the airport - where few people are allowed entry. These tunnels were built as the main routes of a state-of-the-art baggage-handling system designed specifically for DIA, which failed immediately and miserably. Some conspiracy theorists believe the airport was built as a decoy - a sort of key to the unfolding of the end of days or a secure location for the righteous when that time comes. Secret governments and the Freemasons play into the theories, too. Those tunnels are essential to the story, but there's more: DIA was (somewhat controversially) constructed in what used to be the true middle of nowhere, far from the city centre and general populace; inside, commissioned murals depict apparently apocalyptic messages; and an inscription on one terminal wall seems to loosely reference the New World Order, a famous conspiracy theory involving a one-world government.
Abandoned weapons silos, military airfields and nuclear burial grounds.
Abandoned air-traffic-control tower at what used to be Stapleton Airport, the only remaining evidence of DIA's predecessor.
It's no surprise that the parts of "Motor City" abandoned by the motor makers would offer a lot of ghost-town structures. The Packard plant is one of the biggest. It was built in 1903, closed and converted into an industrial complex in the 1950s, closed again in the 1990s, and finally looted down to nothing. Now, what's left is the damaged bones - brick walls, scattered cinderblocks and beams warped by fires no one puts out; frames of the between-building bridges that sheltered workers in the Detroit winter; mounds of tires, rubble and broken glass; and the occasional truck driven into the building to haul away looted materials, oddly left behind. The structural state of the plant is such that the fire department has been ordered to stay out - thus the fires burning freely.
Belle Isle Children's Zoo: Opened in 1895, closed and then reopened in the 1970s, and finally abandoned in 2002.
The old Cass Technical High School building: Vacant since 2005, when Cass moved next door, and still filled with desks, bookcases and copy machines. Diana Ross and Lily Tomlin both went to school there.
It has oldest subway system in the world, with initial construction dating back to the 1850s, offering urban explorers something most underground railways can't: a seemingly unlimited supply of unused tracks, tunnels and stations. There are long-vacant stations, including Down Street, which closed in the early '30s; and ones like Aldwych, closed to the public in the '90s (but still open to the occasional film crew), both of which sheltered Londoners during World War II bombing raids. Other underground paths, like the well-secured Post Office Railway line that closed in 2003, were in use so recently they offer a tour of lines in near-working condition for the most resourceful of urban explorers.
Millennium Mills: A flour mill built in the 1930s and one of the biggest ever in London, abandoned in 1992 and currently vacant.
Strand Union Workhouse: Built in the 18th century to house and employ the indigent, converted to an infirmary in the 1830s, when social services were cut back. Charles Dickens lived just blocks from the workhouse, and many believe it inspired Oliver Twist.
Minneapolis-St. Paul, America
"Tunnel system" would be a ridiculous understatement. Beneath the city of St. Paul, a massive, varied, nearly pristine world of interconnected tunnels reaches at least five stories deep and goes on for miles. Built in the 1800s in the heart of the city, it includes seven very different but ultimately connected systems, some overlapping in areas, some still in use, serving such varied utilities as phone systems, sewer systems, water and gas lines and power for the city's long-gone electric street cars. Each system reveals different architectural styles, with occasional carvings in the sandstone walls, presumably the work of those building the tunnels.
Ford Motors mining tunnels: Where the auto giant used to mine its own materials for glass.
Cambridge State Hospital: Infamous for abusing its mental patients.
New York, America
In the 1930s, Amtrak ran underground commuter trains from a hub in Manhattan. The tunnels were abandoned when cars reduced the need for that network, and now they're some of the most famous in the world. Between 1980 and 1996, graffiti artist Chris "Freedom" Pape painted murals on the tunnel walls. Depicted in the 2000 documentary Dark Days, the Freedom Tunnel was for years home to outsiders, people no longer able to or interested in living in the world above ground. There was a whole dark city down there, right under Manhattan, now abandoned again but still displaying the art for which it was named and physical reminders of the people who lived there.
Columbia University tunnels: Underground network that once hosted, among other things, the Manhattan Project.
Hospital X: Abandoned network of buildings dating back to the early 20th century. Jacob's Ladder was filmed in one of its tuberculosis wards.
In the late 1700s, an outbreak of infectious disease was traced to a cemetery in Paris. To save the living, the dead were unearthed and moved to old quarries beneath the city. Those quarries are part of the subterranean network known as the Paris Catacombs. Over several decades, every cemetery in Paris was emptied, the bodies relocated to the tunnels that would finally come to house about six million skeletons, stacked against the tunnel walls. The Catacombs are open to the public.
Fort du Portalet, Bearn: Built in the mid-1800s to defend against a Spanish invasion, converted to a German prison during the World War II occupation, liberated by Spain in 1944 and abandoned in the 1960s.
Château Bijou, southern France: An abandoned castle (now protected as a historical monument) built in the mid-1700s and expanded in the early 1900s, noteworthy for its Italian-inspired architecture.
You can't beat the Roman Catacombs for legendary significance: There are those who believe the Holy Grail is hidden in the tunnel beneath the Basilica of St. Lawrence. The Vatican doesn't buy it, but that doesn't detract from the experience. Some of these burial tunnels, which run for hundreds of miles under Rome, date to the first century, when they were built as cemeteries; the Christian burial tunnels date to the second century and have hardly been explored, as the Vatican owns these and seldom lets anybody enter them. Popes and saints are among the dead buried in the Christian crypts.
Manicomio della Marcigliana orphanage: Abandoned in the 1970s, now empty of everything that wasn't nailed down.
Forum of Nerva, public gathering place dating to 97 AD, now underground and accessible via Rome's sewers.
Los Angeles, America
In 1933, Hitler became chancellor, the Nazi party took over the German government, and Winona and Norman Stephens built a Nazi commune in Los Angeles. Herr Fuhrer, they believed, would someday come to rule there. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, though, the place was emptied out, and its inhabitants were charged as Nazi sympathisers. Now, the compound known as Murphy's Ranch, once a self-sustaining community that supplied its own power and water, stored its own food, and had its own bunkers just in case, is a vandalised shell of its former self. It's accessible to the public, and people come to see what remains of a US-based Nazi cult preparing for Germany's victory - and, inexplicably, Hitler's reign from a ranch in LA.
Griffith Park Zoo, founded in 1912, abandoned in the 1960s when construction of the larger Los Angeles Zoo was complete.
Linda Vista Hospital, built in the early 1900s as a medical centre for people injured building the new railroad, now abandoned and frightening enough to have been the filming location for a number of horror movies.
Through almost all of this - abandoned crypts, hospitals, forts and zoos, and orphanages - runs the theme of neglect, and a resulting eeriness to which urban explorers seem irresistibly drawn. There's plenty of it to go around, with abandoned structures and towns and tunnel systems lying unnoticed all over the world, ripe for discovery and recording. All are accessible to those willing to risk fines, prison and death; quite a few are accessible to those who'd rather not. Either way, the hidden world awaits.
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