Friday, January 24, 2014

Urbex Lite

United Crushers, Dinkytown, Minneapolis
Recently, a friend and I "walked the Green Line," a light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul which starts service in June. Along the way, many structures caught our attention, including the "United Crushers" grain silos in Dinkytown, Minneapolis.

The silos have been disused for years. There is no "United Crushers," this is not a division of ADM (the Archer Daniels Midland Company); this is carefully applied graffiti.

Later, I fixated on the pictures in a blog entry describing a visit to the top of this abandoned structure. This type of exploration is clearly illegal and dangerous, but I find the whole idea quite exciting. Behind the facades of our cities, there are new layers to be explored, exposed, and explained.

Urban Exploration

Urban Exploration, UE, or Urbex is the term used to describe the exploration of structures that are generally off-limits. UE is often illegal, but its explorers adhere to a code of conduct that includes no vandalism. Web sites, describing UE exploits, are maintained by smart people who want to understand and share places hidden in plain sight.

In recent times, the nearest I have been to being an Urban Explorer is wheeling my bicycle across a rail bridge just north of Downtown Minneapolis.

At best I would call this Urbex Lite. It is a thrill knowing I am breaking the law and taking some risks. Boards are rotting, gaps are ready to swallow my bicycle wheels;  I can see the Mississippi beneath my feet.

A train trundles past, and nobody cares.

Vicarious Urban Exploration

I am a virtual Urban Explorer.
There are some amazing explorations of the Twin Cities on the Web; e.g., here and here. I love the drama of blacked-out eyes, code names like Max Action and Slim Jim, and careful use of flash photography at night. Through their eyes I can explore abandoned hospitals, systems of tunnels, and all sorts of out-of-bounds structures around the Cities.
I can research what goes on inside a building. For example, after we passed United Crushers we saw a nondescript sign on a nondescript building. The sign simply stated this was the MAST Laboratory of the University of Minnesota. Later I learned we had walked past an earthquake simulator.
I have been reading about some fascinating urban explorations by an expatriate living in Japan. The pictures are compelling, letting me (virtually) explore abandoned museums (NSFW), theme parks, hospitals, and industrial facilities.
I'm inspired to sharpen my senses to be more aware of the abandoned world.

Micro Urban Exploration

I don't want to miss all the little details of a city, so I almost never take cabs. If my hotel is 3 miles from the train station, I walk.

Every block of every city tells stories.
  • Women sweeping sidewalks in front of their homes
  • Smell of hot electrical equipment wafting from a light manufacturing facility
  • An old streetcar tunnel that goes 10 feet before a wall prevents further exploration
  • Colonial symbols cast into a manhole cover, the colonists long gone
  • A breeze rising through a grating, pushed by a train deep underground
  • Homes in a subtropical place, built by immigrants to look like the homes they left behind
  • Alone, in a pedestrian tunnel under a river
  • A cup of coffee in an empty cafe in an anonymous neighborhood
  • Sideways looks from an old couple
  • People in a park on a Saturday
  • Kids happily waving to this gaijin, shouting "Harro, harro"
  • Supermarket aisle filled with packages containing products unknown to me
  • Choking vapor of spices, tempering in oil, venting into a back alley
  • The urgent electronic sounds promoting fast boarding of a bullet train
I will never understand some of the experiences in this stream of consciousness, but they are all vivid.  I love the idea there are places, just beneath the surface, playing by mysterious rules.

The 21st century is about life in big cities. Urbex Lite, experiencing urban life's minutiae on many levels, is an exciting journey.

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