Intern Issue 2016: Urban exploration in Tampa Bay: Still a thing

The city Google Maps doesn't know about.

When you come across an abandoned building, complete with graffiti and obviously home to a plethora of ghosts, do you feel an innate urge to peer inside? Does the sight of peeling walls make you itch with artistic zeal? Does asbestos turn you on?

If your answer to any of these questions is a hesitant “maybe?” then you might find your destiny as an urbex ninja.

Urbex, or urban exploration, is the practice of venturing into abandoned structures or areas in a community. Participants enter deserted factories, amusement parks, or maintenance tunnels. Yes, urbex has been around since the 1980s; actually, it’s been around since Org the Neanderthal first scoped out neighboring caves for a more private place to jerk off. Urbex is basic exploration, evolved to satiate adventurers in an age where everyone knows everything. And yes, it’s still a trend. — in fact, it’s slowly worked its way into the pop-culture lexicon, especially here in the Bay area, thanks to social networking.

“There are spots everyone knows about,” says one local explorer, “you can find them online.” One Reddit thread discusses the 3-story Victorian "treehouse" in Hernando that was a favorite before it was torn down. Other urbex-focused websites provide algorithms for prospective adventurers.

Enter your city: Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater/etc. Enter how much danger you want to be in: None. And search.

Luckily for beginners, the Bay area has various “public” sites to explore. No trespassing involved, only fear. But for the more experienced, these safer options may seem dull. According to Jake, an urban explorer extraordinaire, “It’s about being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. The colors are different; the sound is different.”

Hardcore explorers work off tips from the urbex community or go out themselves in search of new sites. They experience their surroundings uniquely, always on the lookout for an accessible manhole cover or air vent. Jake’s advice for scouting locations boils down to:

1. Wear sensible clothes/shoes, comfortable for fleeing premises

2. Don’t breathe too deeply

3. Be smart — people have fallen through floorboards

4. Watch for squatters (if found, offer Doritos or run)

Some people assume urban explorers tag or deface the properties they visit. But urbex swears by the same mantra as nature lovers: Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

Jake participates in urbex for the adventure and adrenaline, but there are other motivations. Some explorers are history geeks who research what sites were used for and who inhabited them. Others are artists or photographers. But escape might be the most poetic motivation. “You kinda change realities while exploring,” says Lantz, a St. Pete native. “You’re in a building that used to have purpose, and while exploring, you put purpose back into it.”

Thanks to social media, urbex photography has grown more popular in recent years. Floridian photographer Bullet says his love of photography and urbex developed side-by-side. “There's just something beautiful about the decay, about what was left behind.” For the past seven years, his website Abandoned FL has documented “forgotten and lost places all over Florida.” It’s complete with detailed historical analyses of each site and updates on their status. Bullet even explored the infamous Dozier School for Boys.

One exploration into a state hospital was particularly memorable. “Our point of entry was blocked by a security truck, so we decided to hike around the property and find a way in. The hike was about 5 miles... in the rain, crawling through briar patches, traversing ravines... hell, we had to shimmy across because a sinkhole opened up near the fencing.”

If dilapidated buildings don’t sound beautiful to you, go check out Bullet’s Instagram. His current campaign, “Autopsy of Architecture,” features out-of-state abandonments. There are teddy bears still perched atop moldy pillows and bowling alleys scattered with mismatched, dusty rental shoes. His feed is a virtual art gallery.  

But Bullet has a love-hate relationship with Instagram. “Instagram works on fads. Before, it was shooting rooftops. Once that was exhausted, people moved on to shooting abandoned places. That fad is finally dying,” he says. But if urbex’s Instagram presence is dwindling, the practice itself is not. “I hope for people to view my photos as something more than just the flavor of the month. And if they don't, I'll still be urban exploring.”

To cool people, urbex is also known as infiltration and reality hacking. To lame people, it’s also known as illegal... sometimes. When buildings haven’t been marked as public or demolished, UE becomes legally ambiguous. Is urbex just glorified trespassing? Maybe, in some cases. Is modern society just a glorified game of Sims, populated by scroll-obsessed, consumerist, binge-watching homebodies? Definitely. Urbex encourages curiosity and real, physical experience. It’s a throwback to the days parents could forget about their useless children until suppertime because they’d be out playing in the woods. Why is it that today, this type of exploration feels so subversive?

There are real dangers associated with urbex, just like any other activity, ever. Some of the more intense sites described online are tagged with warnings of gang activity or violence. But for explorers, hazards are a key part of the thrill. Most of the urbex websites include "do not try this at home" disclaimers. But according to one explorer, “You’re not trying anything at home. You’re trying it outside, in the world.”

I was only disappointed by everyone’s lack of ghost encounters. It seems there is a startling shortage of paranormal urbex-ers in the Tampa Bay area. I believe I have found my calling.

Savannah Pearson is a freshman at George Washington University; she plans to major in English and Creative Writing.

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