Pushing Boundaries

place hacking cover
Michael J. Rosen’s latest book for TFCB—Place Hacking: Venturing Off Limits–explores the phenomenon of place hacking, sometimes generically referred to as urban adventure. I asked Michael to share a few thoughts on writing the book and on what intrigued him about the topic. (And for those of you with subscriptions to Booklist, read this enthusiastic review.) Michael says:

Now that space and the oceans, the infinite and the infinitesimal, have lost much of their mysterious allure, where do we discover the wonder of new perspectives, the beckoning of the unknown, the lure of challenging adventures? Where do we look to fulfill our human urge to be awed?

Around the globe, a loosely knit group of passionate individuals and groups—call them urban Sherpas, place hackers, or simply trespassers—feel that the only exploration available now is among the pre-existing frontiers of history, architecture, and civilization.

When I try to describe the mission or the mantra of this furtive community, which seeks to explore the very spaces that have already been designed, built, populated, and, in most cases, abandoned, I co-opt—corrupting, more accurately—what Captain Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard of the spaceship Enterprise said of their mission: “To boldly go where no one’s allowed to go.” And with a similar mix of authority and irreverence, my new book, Place Hacking: Venturing Off Limits, surveys the subterranean topography of abandoned mines or missile silos, the suburban, concrete jungles of derelict prisons, boarded up hospitals, and staff-only sanctuaries. This form of exploration—or re-exploration—does not seek to discover for the first time, but, rather, to uncover how fate has refigured each place. So the adventures are not only into forbidden spaces but into time, as well.

“Urban explorers, far from being naïve, superficial spectators, are temporal alchemists, churning the past, present, and to some extent the future, into new and exciting forms that I believe we can all learn from.” Those are the words of Bradley Garrett, considered one of urban explorer most accomplished and articulate champions. One of my book’s seven chapters is a sustained interview I conducted with Bradley last year.

The goal of these new explorers? Primarily, it’s to witness: access some ancient or abandoned, awe-inspiring or arresting place; experience it by recording, photographing, writing, or celebrating with friends; and exit without being arrested. (Indeed trespassing is the one permissible violation. Most adhere to The Code of Ethics that states, among other things, no breaking-and-entering, and no graffiti or other desecrations.)

Some urban explorers seek out abandoned parts of cities—such as Detroit, Michigan—or entire villages—such as Beichuan, a town in the Sichuan province of China, devastated by an earthquake in 2008. Others seek the prohibited, inner sancta of industrial complexes, subways, or government buildings.

Many explorers look to find or reveal beauty in the “opposite” of what’s considered magnificent, cultured, new: in the desuetude and destruction that time and the elements, politics, neglect, and abuse wreak upon the frangible materials of design and imagination.

Those who practice buildering want to embrace the height of a skyscraper…not by hopping in the elevator to the top floor but by climbing its exterior.

For B.A.S.E. jumpers, to appreciate the breathtaking span of a great expansion bridge is not to drive a car across it but to scale its tallest strut and leap to the water in a wingsuit.

Those who practice draining or tunneling, focus on the bowels of a city—kayaking or wading among drainage systems.

For rooftoppers, it’s the gobsmacking perspective of shooting images from the vantage of a scaffold or a construction crane 50 or 100 stories in the air.

Indeed, along with athletic challenges, “casing the joint” strategies, inventiveness, sheer amusement, and bragging rights, documentation is key to this movement. Photographs. Videos. Blog posts. Furtive “conventions” and pop-up gatherings.

For someone who has plenty of writing creds but utterly no street creds in this area—indeed, I’m a law-abider who’s averse to heights, edges, risks, and conflict!—I discovered a genuine sense of exploration as I followed the (mis)adventurers of these place hackers from the security of my desk chair.