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Urban Exploration. Beauty in Decay

As both the birthplace of Fordism and now the unrivaled center of urban decay, Detroit exerts a seductive power. It has become a thriving destination for artists, urban explorers, academics, and other curious travelers and researchers who want to experience for themselves industrial, civic, and residential abandonment on a massive scale. Not surprisingly, so-called ruin tours have become a burgeoning enterprise, providing a useful service for those unfamiliar with the ruins. These can be dangerous places that are structurally unsound, with crumbling or collapsing floors, stairs, ceilings, and vanished safety rails, as well as isolated sites for carjackers and thieves who target tourists with expensive camera equipment. Other hazards include conflicts with scrappers, who strip anything of value from buildings, as well as scavengers, drunks, vagrants, and dogs. In addition, entering abandoned buildings is illegal. For these reasons, many tours start early in the morning and require waivers that acknowledge the possibility of fines and agreement not to sue in case of injury or death. The Detroit police hardly have the resources to patrol all the sites but give $225 tickets for trespassing in abandoned schools. These drawbacks have not stopped hundreds of people from all over the world from exploring Detroit’s ruins. Even television personality Anthony Bourdain toured abandoned buildings as part of his CNN food show Parts Unknown, saying, “It’s hard to look away from the ruin, to not find beauty in the decay.”1

Few of us are immune to the appeal of urban ruins and their complex affects. Urban explorer groups, however, explicitly devote themselves to investigating and photographing urban ruins. The urban explorer movement regards urban exploration as invaluable personal experience and the ruins as beautiful structures that should be left to decay naturally without human intervention. Urban explorers publish picture books and post thousands of photographs onto hundreds of websites. The emphasis on subjective experience engages an aesthetic strategy for surviving in a depressed environment; at the same time, it often leads to an embrace of decline that regards it as not only historically inevitable but even desirable.

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