[Hpn] Abandoned Buildings Attract Urban Spelunkers
William Charles Tinker
Sun, 14 Nov 2004 09:57:00 -0500
November 14, 2004
Abandoned buildings attract urban spelunkers
Historians, photographers -- most of them young -- explore a living city's
By Mary Owen
Detroit Free Press: Knight Ridder/Tribune
Published November 14, 2004
DETROIT -- A wooden board studded with rusty nails covered a shattered
window, but a crowbar made it just an inconvenience. One by one, James
Tantalo and four friends gingerly slid in.
On a recent, overcast Sunday afternoon, the five adventurers switched on
MagLites and started walking. Kate Gumbis, 20, of Wyandotte, Mich., offered
dust masks to everyone. They declined, but she put one on.
It was pitch black inside the abandoned Ft. Shelby Hotel.
Explorer Alan Pastor, 20, of Lincoln Park, Mich., led the group beneath a
fallen ceiling, past empty soda cans and into the spacious lobby at the
mouth of a staircase. Their flashlights showed only glimpses of the faded
grandeur of the hotel, which opened in Detroit in 1918 and closed in the
Suddenly, someone's camera flashed and -- for only a second -- illuminated
high ceilings, a reception desk and elevators.
"Cool," they gushed.
Tantalo, 23, of Plymouth, Mich., and his friends are urban spelunkers, a
modification to the term spelunking, which refers to cave exploration. Urban
spelunkers are a loose network -- connected mainly through the Internet --
of mostly young historians, photographers and amateur anthropologists who
have found a playground among abandoned buildings.
Tantalo has the luxury of Detroit's vast collection of empty pre-Depression
buildings and factories. Counterparts in other cities make do with sewer
tunnels, underground subway systems, forgotten train stations and empty
"Detroit is a special place," said Tantalo, a Ford Motor Co. computer
support technician. "There's always something to discover. It's like an
The city is considered the top destination for building spelunking,
according to explorers.
"For fans of abandoned building exploration, Detroit is the No. 1 city in
the U.S., hands down," said the Webmaster for the popular Toronto-based
urban exploration Web site, Infiltration, who would only identify himself as
Ninjalicious via e-mail.
The fascination with Detroit's buildings has turned into an illegal and
sometimes dangerous hobby.
Yes, urban spelunking is trespassing. And, yes, it can be dangerous. Anyone
could be lurking in abandoned buildings. The building's infrastructure could
wither without warning, and there is asbestos everywhere. And for owners of
Detroit's empty buildings, explorers are a nuisance and a liability.
The latest fascination is Tiger Stadium, local explorers said. The building
closed in 1999, and millions of dollars are being spent in security to keep
"Yes, trespassing is a problem," said Howard Hughey, a spokesman for Detroit
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "People can get hurt. There's definitely something
wrong with trespassing, even if it's for an appreciation for what's there."
Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns
the Michigan Central Depot, said the company doesn't track trespassing
arrests, but added that the number of visitors has declined since it hired a
security company after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The building is not open for people to walk through," Stamper said. The
91-year-old train station has been one of Detroit's most popular spelunking
spots for years despite the barbed wire and no-trespassing signs.
"Just because it's a building that's fascinating, doesn't mean people can
trespass in it," Stamper said.
Joe Van Esley, whose Plymouth-based real estate company has been trying to
sell the Ft. Shelby for years, expressed frustration over repeated efforts
by explorers to break into the building. The building owners have been
scrutinized in the past by city building inspectors for not properly
boarding up the building.
"We've boarded up the building a couple times," he said. "We try our best.
We're the victims here."
As for safety, urban explorers argue that's a priority -- just like in any
other extreme activity like rock climbing or whitewater rafting. Be
prepared, do the research and don't be foolish, they say.
Each explorer has his or her own injuries, broken bones and cuts that
require tetanus shots. Explorers said they almost never come across muggers,
drug dealers or homeless people in downtown Detroit buildings. But often
there is evidence of someone living there, such as mattresses, clothes and
radios. In one building, someone is keeping a small and tidy book
collection. Explorers said they are more likely to cross paths with other
Take only pictures, leave only footprints: That's the urban explorer motto.
The exceptions are small artifacts, like the Ft. Shelby's reservation cards
or pieces of wallpaper. They would be committed to ruin otherwise.
"By taking these artifacts out and taking photographs, that ensures that
it'll be around as long as we're around," Tantalo said.
Inside the Ft. Shelby on the recent Sunday, the group found notes with phone
messages and hotel keys still in cubbyholes behind the front desk. They
ventured into the handful of crumbling and empty ballrooms on the first
floor, then headed upstairs to the more than 20 floors of hotel rooms.
Forging up a narrow stairwell near the fourth floor, they noticed that
entire walls are missing, completely removed by looters seeking bathroom
fixtures and piping.
Phone books left behind date to the 1970s, and Gumbis looked to see whether
her grandmother is listed.
A rusted 17-gallon container read "Survival Supplies, Furnished by Office of
Civil Defense, Department of Defense Drinking Water" sits near a skeleton of
a wall. Broken glass was everywhere.
On some floors, light shined through the broken windows into the rooms and
into the hallway. The group separated, but stayed within yelling distance.
Near the 16th floor, they opted to head straight for the roof, skipping
exploration of the remaining floors. Then Gumbis demanded that they stop --
the dust was affecting her breathing. The explorers paused, then forged
Eventually, sunlight greeted them at the doorway. They have reached the top,
where seven or eight small trees and some grass grow -- part of Detroit's
>From the roof, they saw the Detroit River and several of the city's landmark
buildings. They enjoyed the view for a half hour, snapped photos and
discussed dinner. Then they headed back down.
As a result of the secrecy of urban exploration, it's almost impossible to
know how many people spelunk or their demographics.
Ninjalicious said he's had a gradual increase in interest since he started
his urban exploring Web site and magazine in 1996 and 1997, respectively. He
said his Web site gets about 2,000 hits a day.
"The growing interest in urban exploration -- which is largely a pursuit of
beauty and authenticity -- is at least partly a reaction to the increasing
ugliness and phoniness of cities and suburbs," Ninjalicious said recently
via e-mail. "Some people think of urban exploration as an extreme sport
pursued by macho adrenaline junkies, but it's actually more popular among
Tantalo, who makes casual monthly trips into buildings, agreed. His group
often includes friend Pastor, who works as a restaurant dishwasher, and
Tantalo's girlfriend, Gumbis, who works at a hospital. They were introduced
to spelunking by a group in the Toronto area.
Some groups have taken exploring beyond Detroit to an old paper mill in
Monroe and a former mental hospital in Traverse City, Mich., for example.
One site, the Northville Tunnels near Sheldon, Mich., drew explorers for
decades until it was torn up in 1999 to build a golf course and houses. John
Wagner, 35, an electrician from Dearborn, Mich., started going to the
tunnels almost 20 years ago and now runs the Web site
Wagner and his colleagues said there are few Detroit spots they haven't
ventured into, and he said they have pushed the limits of the hobby to
include vacant portions of buildings still in use.
They mean no harm, he said.
"If these building owners cared, they would do something with their
buildings," said Wagner, a married father of three. "For us, there's nothing
like sitting on the roof and looking out onto the city."
Serious explorers are adamant about being distinguished from vandals,
looters and graffiti artists.
And they don't want to be mainstream. Urban spelunking Web sites have been
abuzz about an upcoming Discovery Channel reality series about exploration.
Parts of the pilot, "Forbidden Zone," were shot in Buffalo last summer.
Spelunkers add that the popularization of the hobby ruins the subversive
nature of building exploration, said explorer Paul Mush, a 20-year-old
college student from Westland, Mich.
"We do it so other people don't have to," he said, smiling.
Copyright © 2004, Knight-Ridder/Tribune (KRT)