At last count, there were at least 40,000 abandoned properties in Philadelphia—a number that grows daily in this still-floundering economy. Mostly, they’re bleak monuments to urban blight and the city’s horror and shame: burned-out, boarded-up rowhouses whose crumbling walls often shelter those coming to the end of their days via needle, bottle or pipe. Monstrous concrete skeletons that rain down rubble and asbestos upon impoverished neighborhoods. Filthy, weed-choked lots where the raped and murdered are left to ignobly rot.
And yet, within that grim reality, there is beauty—mysterious, haunting, nostalgic and bittersweet beauty, perhaps—lurking in some of the city’s abandoned spaces. Factories, churches, banks, hotels, hospitals, theaters and mansions. Places that fuel the imagination of what Philadelphia used to be and how its people, our people, lived and worked.
Like those who are endlessly fascinated by the steadily deteriorating wreck of the Titanic, or who travel to Pompeii or Athens or Cairo to stand in the ruins of ancient cultures, I’m obsessively drawn—camera in hand—to the ruins in our own backyard, to experience and document parts of our own nearly forgotten history before they’re torn down, or they collapse, and are gone forever.
I remember first being intrigued by forsaken Philadelphia while riding into the city on the R7 from Levittown as a kid in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The destination was the Franklin Institute or the zoo or the Vet for a Phillies game, but as I looked out the window at North Philly I was captivated by the forlorn warehouses and empty homes and deserted factories—a blur of bricks, smokestacks, broken glass, creeping vines, and graffiti that passed by.
My interest in public and private city spaces eventually led me to study architecture in college, with an eye toward urban planning or maybe preservation/restoration, though I ultimately gave that plan up for a career in writing and photography. Still, the thrill of exploring and photographing abandoned spaces—inspired by a few friends and a handful of other photographers who were doing the same thing—soon grabbed me. When I moved back to Philadelphia in 2007 after more than a decade in New York and Seattle, my chief hobby became walking and driving around Philly and the immediate suburbs looking for abandoned places to check out, and in the past few years I’ve covered virtually every square inch of this city.
I suppose some people call what I do “urban exploration.” There’s certainly a small community of like-minded folks in Philly doing similar things. I don’t belong to any urbex group—typically I fly solo or with my girlfriend, who’s an extremely talented photographer and lover of abandoned places. In fact, one of our first “dates” nearly four years ago was exploring the gorgeous remains of the 19th-century Shawmont Waterworks along the Schuylkill River. But we follow the two most important urbex rules: No breaking and entering, and take nothing but photos (and leave nothing but footprints). Yes, sometimes it’s technically trespassing, but when there’s an open door and the owners are long gone, or long disinterested in the property, it’s almost impossible to resist the curiosity and temptation to see what’s inside.
And when you pass over that threshold, it can be mind-blowing. Colors and textures, ravaged by time and the elements, are alien and extraordinary. The feel and energy of the space—sometimes inspiring, sometimes sad, sometimes creepy—is always palpable.
Hidden by trees and brush, Shawmont, before it was sadly demolished this summer, felt like a majestic temple in the jungle (or something out of an Indiana Jones flick); shafts of light puncturing holes in the high ceiling and the huge, vine-shrouded arched windows, illuminating the checkerboard stone flooring and the hulking, rusted machinery below once used to pump water from the river to Roxborough. At a carpet factory in Kensington built nearly 200 years ago, staring up inside a dusty, cob-web-filled elevator shaft at the wooden slats and chains beneath the carriage a few stories above—and seeing the archaic rollers and ancient furniture laying around—instantly takes you back to the city’s industrial heyday. At a vacated old church in West Philly, only the glow of the early morning sun through a cross-shaped window lit the dim foyer—a truly unforgettable sight.
To be sure, it’s a perilous obsession. You can fall through a rotting floor. You can encounter squatters, dope fiends, scrappers or hostile neighbors who don’t understand why you’d want to take pictures of some abandoned building when there are sunsets, flowers and Liberty Bells to photograph. Or you can discover something that looks abandoned but really isn’t. A couple years ago, when I was photographing the outside of what I thought was a vacant factory in South Philly, a cop drove by, stopped, and began questioning me; soon, a few Homeland Security officers rolled up in their black SUVs. Unbeknownst to me, I had been taking photos of a still-active chemical plant. After an hour, a background check, and the thorough examination of my camera they realized I wasn’t a terrorist and sent me on my way (with a warning never to return, with or without camera).
Since then, I’ve been extra cautious and mindful during my explorations of forgotten Philly, but I’ve hardly stopped doing it. After all, obsessions like this aren’t easily abandoned.
Ever think to yourself: Hey, I wonder where I can have a threesome and then promptly forget about it? Well, one of our writers thinks he's found that place. Want Mexican food that doesn't burn on the way out? Of course you do. More of these questions and answers have found their way into this year's Better Than Best issue. And what's better than best, you ask? We have no idea. We just knew we couldn't use Best Of, because another publication in this town has it on lockdown. But that doesn't mean we didn't put an enormous amount of effort into bringing you the most random hidden gems Philly has to offer. Because we did. And we think we've got a pretty good list going on here.
PW's Summer Guide 2014