No Trespassing: The Dangers and thrills of urban exploration


Jocelyn Moreno

No Trespassing: The Dangers and thrills of urban exploration

By Kendrah Villiesse

As a curious child, Michael Kinsch was fascinated with hopping over fences to see what was on the other side. He often hung out at Chicago’s Damen Silos, an abandoned site encompassing multiple 15-story grain silos from 1906. 

Kinsch said used his exploration to relax from everyday life. 

After learning about the history of Edgewater Medical Center, the birthplace of both Hillary Clinton and serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Kinsch, now 19, hopped into his car on a cold December night in 2016 and entered the abandoned building. 

“I just walked into the building, and I thought it was so cool; there was so much history. It had this nice ‘60s architectural vibe to it,” Kinsch said. “I went home, and I [thought to myself that I had to] take pictures or do something; I [had] to show this to people.” 

Using his dad’s camera, Kinsch headed back to the medical center, capturing the abandoned building room by room.

Not knowing where to share the photos, Kinsch decided to post them on a Facebook page called Forgotten Chicago, which shares old photos of the city with others. One photo in particular caught the eyes of many Chicagoland residents. 

“I had a picture of a piece of cardboard that said ‘1991 Edgewater Dinner Dance’ from the hospital, and it had a bunch of photos on there,” Kinsch said. “Someone messaged me saying ‘Hey, I saw myself in one of the photos.’ I actually met up with that person and gave her the photo that was in the hospital from 15 years ago.” 

Urban exploration—also known as urbex—is the art of entering and documenting locations abandoned or unseen to the general public. But participating in the hobby comes with sometimes fatal risks. Despite this unpredictability, it’s become a popular pastime, especially for photographers or those looking to get more views on YouTube, with some urbex videos reaching upwards of a million views.

Kinsch said he enjoys urban exploration because it gives him a chance to learn about Chicago’s history and architecture while creating connections with people based around the buildings he has photographed. 

What explorers find most fascinating is that the urban jungle has areas that have been untouched for years. It is a world that no one really experiences, according to Matt Wilson, economic development planner at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

“People are curious to see what was in these former spaces and what would happen to a building when no one’s in it for 20 years,” Wilson said.  “It’s a time capsule in a lot of ways. People can get a view into the past, but it’s also a part of the fascinations about how these spaces deteriorate.” 

Abandoned sites, such as Brach’s Candy Factory, 401 S. Cicero Ave., are a great representation of what Chicago used to be, Wilson said. They illustrate the manufacturing industry Chicago once supported and maintained. 

“The world’s constantly changing, [and] manufacturing jobs have left Chicago and gone to other lower wage countries,” Wilson said. “What we are left with [are] these abandoned sites.” 

The factory, which was one of the largest confectionery plants in the country, closed in 2003. It was later used for filming scenes in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Night” in 2008. Since then, Itasca, Illinois-based ML Realty Partners LLC has taken up the challenge of turning the factory into a warehouse center. 

Wilson said he may not have seen Brach’s Candy Factory while it was still open, but he now has the opportunity to see what the space looks like and compare it to old photos. By viewing the deterioration, you are also paying homage to the past, he added. 

However, urbex doesn’t always end in good memories and pictures to share. Exploring there abandoned and forgotten places sometimes ends in blood.

Known for pushing limits, Noel Warren, founder of YouTube channel Backyard Exploration, started his hobby by visiting an abandoned sand mine in his hometown of Festus Missouri. 

Capitalizing on his curiosity, Warren created his YouTube channel, which now has more than 42,000 subscribers and for which he takes big risks. For example, he has climbed one-inch wide conduit pipes up to buildings’ top floors and through windows just to film. 

“If you’re the kind of person who’s willing to push the limits—I have done some stupid stuff,” Warren said. “It’s just a matter of time before you get hurt. Some of us are willing to do it.” 

The Missouri sand mine Warren and his friend Jordan Brock explored frequently  was a place of curiosity because it included a garage and a natural cave. The mine had been decaying for years, and walking around inside was extremely dangerous. 

Warren recalled a time when while walking across the cracked floorboards, Brock’s foot slipped and fell through the floor, impaling his shin on a nail. They were stuck two miles into the cave. With the two-inch nail in Brock’s shin, with his shoe and clothing drenched in blood, Brock and Warren were eventually able to navigate their way out of the mine. 

While no one would call Brock lucky for leaving the mine with a nail stuck in his leg, the trip could have gone much worse. Eric Janssen, an urbex photographer who explored abandoned places as well as still-populated buildings, was shooting rooftop photos Oct. 16 on the top floor of the LondonHouse Hotel in Chicago when he plunged to his death. 

Dangers beyond rotting floorboards and precarious perches can increase depending on the location and who might be hanging around. While some YouTube videographers claim the abandoned buildings they are exploring are haunted, what’s more likely is encountering living dangers­—squatters in the buildings.

“These places are also in very bad neighborhoods,” said Eric Holubow, author of “Abandoned: America’s Vanishing Landscapes”—a book filled with 200 images of America’s forgotten sites.

Holubow said he has encountered many people who have said they have been robbed during site explorations.

Urbex explorers also risk getting caught by authorities and ticketed for trespassing. Luckily, trespassing is usually considered a misdemeanor crime, so they are likely to be asked to leave and fined rather than arrested. 

Although it is a misdemeanor crime, the penalties involving trespassing vary from state to state. In Illinois, the crime is usually considered a Class B misdemeanor, which could result in a six-month jail period and a fine, according to state law.

Although the law varies across all 50 states, there are some commonalities between state laws involving trespassing, according to Peter DiCola, a law professor at Northwestern University. He also said urban explorers should be aware of the laws in the state they are in before entering a building. 

Seph Lawless, a pseudonymous urbex photographer from Cleveland, Ohio, was indicted for criminal trespassing after releasing his abandoned malls photobook, “Black Friday,” in 2014. However, Lawless said he believes the charges were a result from an ongoing concern around urbex. Cleveland police were more interested in his photos of North Randall Mall in Ohio. 

“[The photos] started to get really big and a lot of kids were going into that particular mall,” Lawless said. “Detectives [told me], ‘A bunch of kids are getting hurt, and parents [were getting] outraged.’” 

Lawless said the primary reason he gets arrested is because he is capturing buildings that are not up to code and exposing the property owners’ lack of upkeep. 

Holubow said he has been ticketed for trespassing and escorted out of buildings by security. 

Trying to get permission when he can, Holubow said it is not always possible, nor are people willing to give it to him. Holubow uses a variant of the criminologist’s broken windows theory to locate buildings: If the windows are broken, there’s a good chance the building is abandoned. 

Anthony Ernewein, creator of Ace’s Adventures, produces a YouTube channel that documents his vacant malls explorations with his friend, Nick Morey, and the channel has more than 9,000 subscribers. Despite the consequences, urbex is worth the risk, Ernewein said.

“It is a matter of risking [being ticketed and fined] to document something that is extremely important to be documented,” Ernewein said. 

Ernewein said he constantly receives comments on his videos from viewers advising him to stop exploring these unsafe places. Ernewein recalled filming in locations where there were bullet holes, places to fall through the floor, as well as asbestos and mold. 

“We wholeheartedly feel that it’s worth the risk to try and document these places,” Ernewein said. “So many times, these big companies come in, and they just want to tear these places down and don’t give a damn about them.” 

With the growing number of urban explorer enthusiasts, the sites are getting more visitors who are drawn in by videos, Holubow said. But that works to the urban explorer’s disadvantage because it results in possible heightened security at the locations. 

“When I started 12 years ago, there were people who were doing it then, but I don’t think it was as prevalent,” Holubow said. “The rise of social media has made that more [popular], so it’s encouraged people to get into it more.” 

With smartphone cameras, people have realized how simple and quick it is to take and edit a photo or video while they are urban exploring, Ernewein said. 

“Anything that’s abandoned, there’s a wide gamut of it,” Ernewein said. “With the YouTube platform, there’s also been a lot more popping up here and there, so it’s growing exponentially.” 

By using photography or videography, Wilson said the buildings are being documented, and the stories of their downfalls and history are told. 

“A lot of great photography work has been done to capture the current conditions of spaces that had long been out of use and seen a lot of deterioration,” Wilson said. “Capturing that deterioration is kind of an art form in its own.” 

It’s fascinating to see through urban exploration how people throughout different eras once lived and to get a grasp of their cultures that are hidden from public view, Holubow said. 

Using his videos as a history book, Ernewein said his YouTube channel is a place for him to see what these places looked like 20 years prior. He also gets to see the deterioration of the buildings and capture the risks of entering and exploring abandoned buildings in urban cities. 

“[In urban] exploration, there’s a little bit of risk—a kind of adventurousness to it,” Ernewein said. “You’re kind of in your own little world; when you’re in that place, there’s no people there— it’s pretty much free [space to] roam [and] explore. It’s like an escape.”