Urban Relics From New York’s Abandoned Buildings


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Julia Wertz takes pictures of abandoned buildings in and around New York City. This is P.S. 186 in Harlem, which has been vacant since 1975. (Photo courtesy of Julia Wertz)

By Stefani Kim

Brooklyn cartoonist and urban explorer Julia Wertz finds abandoned spaces fascinating, but not for the reasons you might expect.

Although the lore of paranormal activity within abandoned buildings continues to pervade popular reality shows like “Ghost Hunters,” you’ll never catch Wertz prowling deserted hallways for sounds of the undead.

“It’s not real. It’s folklore,” she said, describing her view on the likelihood of spiritual presence in deserted buildings. “I think these places deserve a modicum of respect. It makes it seem like a joke.”

Wertz is serious about the pursuit of abandoned spaces. She mines newspaper archives and books for historical information about these empty buildings before even setting foot inside.

On Wertz’s website, Adventurebibleschool.com, there are dozens of photos depicting the interiors and exteriors of abandoned buildings. These include shots of jagged shards jutting from window frames, a rumpled bedspread littered with paint chips, and walls covered with cracked and peeling paint. These images provide a comparison to the hopeful, sepia-toned pictures from the past on her website.

“I do extensive research on the places I go,” said Wertz, 31, “and to then be able to explore them is almost a form of archaeology, which is enormously satisfying for history nerds.”

Her interest in urban exploring began as a child in Northern California, when she graduated from investigating a drainage pipe in her parents’ backyard to cutting class to hang out at the decommissioned Skaggs Island naval station. By her 20s, though, Wertz was confronting serious illness. In 2003, she was diagnosed with lupus that was followed by years of struggle with alcoholism, rehab and relapse, leaving exploring by the wayside. Between 2007 and 2010, she published two comic books— “Fart Party Volumes 1 & 2,” depicting Wertz’s post-college adventures in San Francisco and New York—and two graphic memoirs based on her life. A third “Fart Party” volume will be published in September.

But the Brooklyn-based Wertz rediscovered exploring when she got sober in 2012. She launched the Adventure Bible School website—named after a camp she attended in childhood—in July 2013, posting pictures from abandoned buildings including schools, hospitals and theaters.

Contemptuous of modern-day ghost hunters who camp out in abandoned mental hospitals hoping to record the unearthly screams of former patients, Wertz visits places like Greenpoint Hospital in Brooklyn and Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, as a way to record and preserve patient testimonials.

“I’m also a recovering alcoholic, and I see a lot of patients committed for alcoholism and given treatments that were totally ineffective, because alcoholism wasn’t understood or properly treated back then,” she said.

“It’s hard to read [the] files of people who had no business being in an asylum, yet they were still committed and often died in them,” said Wertz.

From digging in dark asylum basements she has discovered and photographed patient memorabilia, like a lithium handbook chronicling a man’s struggle with bipolar depression. One page illustrates a man’s battle between manic and depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder with dueling cartoon thought bubbles, one a superhero, and the other, a man withdrawn and curled up in a ball. Wertz would not reveal how she gains access to buildings or whether she keeps the records she finds.

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A deserted stairwell and hallway at the abandoned Greenpoint Hospital in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of Julia Wertz)

Documenting a mental hospital can take time, particularly in a location like Greystone, with its main Kirkbride building sprawling over 675,000 square feet and its history going back to 1876. Wertz recently posted photos she took a few years ago, after a decision was made to demolish the former psychiatric hospital. Some of these photos show odd items like a Greystone patient’s drawing of a skull wearing a Nazi helmet, and a deer carcass dangling from a meat hook. “There are certain places I’ve been to dozens of times, mostly because the size of them means they take multiple trips to photograph,” she said. “And then if I’m looking for artifacts, it can take years of repeated visiting to feel like I’ve really seen and rooted through the whole place.”

One of the most memorable New York City buildings Wertz has visited is Harlem’s P.S. 186, a 100,000-square-foot school that closed in 1975.

“The way the building has aged is pretty spectacular,” she said. “The windows have been missing for years, so there’s a lot of plant growth indoors, which is a bizarre sight in the middle of Manhattan.” 

Her photos show images such as indoor plant growth, schoolbooks with covers made illegible by dirt, and a boiler with a façade that’s faded and peeling.

Earlier plans to demolish and redevelop the school fell through. But in December, the school was acquired by Monadnock Construction and Alembic Development Corporation, which plans to build apartments as well as create a space for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem on-site.

For the most part, Wertz is content to explore buildings on her own or with a few select friends. She’s not part of the urban exploring community, which she said is, “comprised of males in their teens and 20s.”

“As a female in my 30s, I don’t have much in common with most of them,” she said.

She won’t reveal future exploring trips “since it’d basically be telling you about a crime I’m going to commit in the future,” since she is trespassing.

But she said a book, half-comic, about the places she’s photographed might be forthcoming.

For now, she’ll continue to delve into the past.

“It’s fun to run around in a place you’re not supposed to be and see things you’re not supposed to see,” she said.

Stefani Kim is a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Her website is http://www.stefanikim.me/menu.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

Trash and Decay as Art

The inside of Gowanus Bat Cave in Brooklyn in October, 2012. (Ryan Kailath)

The inside of Gowanus Bat Cave in Brooklyn in October, 2012. (Photo by Ryan Kailath)

By Parker Brown

Growing up in the 1980s, Ian Reid was a skateboarder and graffiti artist. He used to tag many of the abandoned tunnels lying under Manhattan.

But now that the lifelong Brooklynite is in his mid-30s and has two kids, he’s given up skateboarding and graffiti; instead, he pursues a more noble art: taking photos of the places he once tagged, as well as of other abandoned spaces around the city and world.

Reid is an urban explorer and photographer, exploring spaces in the city that are often off-limits and left to ruin. In a way, his life typifies the journey of urban exploration itself: Urbex, as it’s often called, started in the 1970s as a fringe movement frowned upon by authorities, but has evolved into something that young and intellectually-oriented people do when they have a free weekend. There are now entire communities, online and off, dedicated to the art of exploring — and photographing — the spaces that are all around us, yet go unseen and ignored.

Ian Reid, an urban explorer and photographer, poses above Gowanus Bat Cave in Brooklyn in October, 2012. (Ryan Kailath)

Ian Reid, an urban explorer and photographer, explored Gowanus Bat Cave in Brooklyn in October, 2012. (Ryan Kailath)

Urban exploration is now treated as a sort of high art by the thousands that do it (the actual number isn’t known). Some are drawn to it for its aesthetics and find in it a place to escape from the freneticism of the city, not unlike the spiritual solace sought in nature.

But the spaces sought out by modern explorers are different; the effect of nature on forgotten buildings can be ghastly, mundane, or even just ugly: piles of old trash, smelly sewer lines, musty shoes, decaying walls, a handheld Family Feud game from the 1990s. These aren’t ordinarily objects that would be paired with a word like aesthetic, but in the modern world of urban exploration, they are. There are academic papers with titles like, “The Aesthetics of Trespass,” and photographers dissect each other’s work in online communities, treating it as serious art.

Miru Kim, a New York-based artist, shed her clothes for a series of photographs of spaces of urban decay for an art project. In the photographs, her pale body is crouched or draped on rusted steel beams or standing in the filth of the underground sewer.

“It’s almost like meditation, in a bizarre way,” Kim told The New York Times. “It feels cathartic.”

Others that explore urban spaces consider their jobs akin to a historian’s, an intellectual endeavor locating forgotten spaces and stories and seeking to recreate the past.

Steve Duncan, perhaps New York City’s most famous urban explorer, gives tours of the city and sometimes lectures at the New York Explorer’s Club, a swanky society on the Upper East Side dedicated to exploration of all kinds.

Duncan’s lectures attract hordes of wealthier people interested in urban exploration as an academic topic and possibly a personal undertaking.

“We don’t usually have graffiti artists come to our events,” said Chris Hirokawa, an executive assistant at the Explorer’s Club. Instead, urban exploration attracts those who are seeking something from the spaces they visit other than marking them up.

Ian Reid finds meaning in his visits to long-ago closed asylums and hospitals. “People did live there at some point in time, and it’s very interesting to me. And sometimes you find records and things about the place or the people that were there, and you kind of get lost in the fantasy of it: What if I was here?”

(Here’s another article in our series, about urban explorer Julia Wertz and her fascination with hospitals.)

Caption TKTK (Ryan Kailath)

Caption TKTK (Photo by Ryan Kailath)

But the modern attraction to urban exploration belies its past, which began with graffiti artists, according to a member of LTV Squad, a New York City-based group dedicated to urban exploration. Control, as he likes to be known – he didn’t want his real name to be used for fear of offending others – said that the demographics of urban exploration have definitely changed.

“Growing up here in the 70s and 80s, next to no kids I knew had the money to get a camera. Even with one, developing film cost money,” he said in an email.

“In general explorers here are a little whiter, slightly older and have way more money.”

Control pointed to a video of famed graffiti artist Michael “Iz the Wiz” Martin exploring New York’s subway tunnels in the early 1980s to showcase some of the first urban explorers in the city.

And Steve Duncan, who has been exploring the city since his late teens, told a group during a TEDx talk in 2012 that at the beginning of his exploration he had more base motives for exploring the city.

“I would go into places that are off-limits because they are off-limits,” he said. “I was basically a recreational trespasser.”

While many urban explorers are often still technically trespassing onto public and private property, there is something decidedly less punk-rock about urban exploration now.

Reid said he remembers the days of being in the tunnels, but those days are gone; it’s the architecture and the history that interests him now.

“Sometimes you have a quest for knowledge that the Internet can’t provide,” he said. “And that’s called experience.”

Parker Brown is a journalist and photographer based in New York City. You can find more of his work at brownparkere.com.

Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.