Beautiful Wasteland, Idolized Junkyard

urban exploration in Providence

by by Jesse Strecker

The door of the abandoned What Cheer Laundry Service building is covered with three posters. One is for a Rod Stewart tour you would think was an ironic imitation had you never seen the pre-digital graphics in his video for "Some Guys Get All the Luck." Another is an advertisement for a company that solves the problems of the overweight, uncomfortable and lonely. The third states plainly, "La Sangre de Cristo Nos Limpia de Todo": the blood of Christ cleans us of everything.

The building stands next to a drive through ATM. Most of the clientele are too concerned with their finances to notice, but anyone who hopped the fence to take a look into What Cheer would get a few perplexed looks from soccer moms and sinister men in Oldsmobiles. Regardless, he wouldn't have much trouble getting in. In the corner of the thick, rotten wood door, there's a hole just big enough for a spindly, curious kid, and a backpack full of spray paint--an enthusiast of an activity known as urban exploration.
The dry cleaning factory on Cranston Street is one of many abandoned warehouses on the west side of Providence where the homeless sleep, graffiti artists rehearse and young people marvel at a history that seems out of reach. Stepping inside an abandoned factory can connect an explorer to the buildings that surround him and the routines that have defined them. For many, this connection with the past engenders a sense of the fragility of the present. The disregard for private property that surrounds much of the culture of urban exploration is often fueled by the realization that once an owner neglects his property, a space ceases to belong to anyone. After developing a relationship with a site that has been renounced by developers who promised a revitalized neighborhood, it can be difficult to watch it torn down to make way for a new development guaranteed to follow the same path.

There is an incredibly wide range of ethics, practices and interests surrounding urban exploration. The most widespread belief espoused in the world of Internet communities portrays urban exploration as a way to reclaim formerly private space as public. People rummage through buildings, draw pictures on the walls and temporarily occupy uninhabited areas in order to turn them into beautiful, appreciated spaces reflecting local histories and contemporary experiences. By reclaiming spaces and using them for art displays and events, explorers turn forgotten spaces into venues for self and community expression. Some RISD students made a show of this idea in the early '90s when they organized a celebration of the pagan holiday Beltain-May Day in an abandoned tunnel near the Gano Street drawbridge: they crowded around a bonfire, chanting and wearing paper-mache animal masks. Despite getting into a skirmish with the police, by holding the event in the tunnel, they revitalized an otherwise lifeless piece of public property.

For some, exploring restricted spaces in urban locations is understood as sport. It even has its own acronym, UE, and a slew of slang names: urbex, vadding and hacking, to name a few. There are websites providing a range of information on the topic, from moralizing manifestos to tips on how to make your way through various obstacles to information about places of interest. But the object of the game is harder to pin down than in most sports. UE's competitiveness usually takes the form of a scavenger hunt involving tasks and acquisition; whoever can leave a tag at the highest point on the Gano Street drawbridge, for example, or take a souvenir from the tunnel system under Brown, wins.

Urban exploration is sometimes a kind of cowboyism, taking pains to explore and utilize the places hidden from the civilized. It's no coincidence that MIT students in the '70s borrowed two terms which referred to exploring computer systems, vadding and hacking, to describe their physical hobby of exploring their campus and city. The term vadding originated from a computer game popular on campus, named ADVENT, in which players navigate their way through a system of virtual tunnels. Hacking, on the other hand, came from the now commonplace enterprise of infiltrating computer systems and altering their sources in order to access features previously unavailable to general users. For many, abandoned buildings, much like the unexplored crevices of computer networking systems, are seen as a new frontier--the waste left over by overconfidence in American industry, soon to be re-colonized by corporations--that should be investigated, appreciated and rescued.

A project by the Providence art collective Trummerkind, for which artists built and lived in an apartment in an unused corridor of the Providence Place mall for nearly four years, offers an example. At a presentation they gave at Brown in December, they described how their project was guided by their "need to efficiently utilize unused space," re-appropriating the language of the developers who converted the previously mixed-use land into a space that's only public as long as the public is there to shop. While Michael Townsend, the spokesman of the collective, has avoided making any explicitly political statements about the project, it certainly raises questions about the mall developers' appropriation of mixed-use space.
But for all the anti-gentrification and anti-commercial values of most explorers, the celebration of decaying buildings has a number of complicated implications. Many people in the communities housing these buildings view them as blemishes on their neighborhoods. While most would not prefer to be pushed out by a new development in their place, they'd rather have the buildings go. For example, despite housing some of the best graffiti in the Providence area, the Shooters Nightclub near India Point Park is considered by many a blight that should be either sold or converted into a friendlier public space.

Going to abandoned sites can make one feel some discomfort for the role that middle class urban youth, particularly college students, play in displacing native residents by encouraging unregulated development. Coming across the private spaces of others is even more jarring to explorers and can alert them to the fact that their exploration can be a lot like slumming, only without exoticizing anybody. However, after a few visits, it eventually becomes possible to conceive of--if not understand--what it's like for someone who has to live there. Some knowledge of local homeless havens, or really any local geography away from College Hill, can be eye-opening.

A new non-alignment movement
For every view on the ethics of urban exploration, there's a blog or zine somewhere offering it support. Some sites will include sections about their personal morals, while others attempt to stay away from ethical debates and stick to stories, photographs and lists of abandoned locations. It is true that these websites are, by the very fact that they encourage illegal activities, full of ethical statements. However, a crucial aspect of the online communities is that these debates, for the most part, take very little prominence; it is very easy for a viewer to navigate around them and find the information he is seeking. Like the activity itself, the largest purpose these communities serve has been to help people realize new uses for the space around them. The meaning of the activity has largely remained a personal undertaking.

Decay, preservation, development, decay
Global competition for factory jobs has left Providence as a utopia for industrial grave-robbers and explorers, but the city's plans for growth and gentrification are quickly building over urban decay. Abandoned property sat idly while Providence's notoriously corrupt mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, was busy outdoing Don Imus on his radio talk show and assaulting a man with a lit cigarette, an ashtray and a fireplace log. Since the election of Mayor David Cicilline, however, there have been efforts to clean up Providence by tearing down, or converting abandoned buildings in and around the city into luxury condos and state sponsored affordable housing. Most of the warehouses in Olneyville were abandoned until 10 or 15 years ago, when young artists started renting floors in factories for studios and living spaces. Business have been opening in warehouses as well, and will probably end up pushing the artists farther into the frontier of the poverty line, trailing them at every corner.

While Providence continues to be a great city for abandoned sites, deserted places will continue to disappear until the city's next period of rejuvenating destruction. However, such transformations are not boundaries to exploration. On the contrary, a static city is more of a hindrance; really, the whole point of crawling around in places some people don't want you to go is to find new paths through a constantly changing landscape.

JESSE STRECKER B'10 likes to travel.