Driving through Kansas City, it doesn’t take long to find dilapidated, out-of-use buildings. To some, this is the sign of a failed business or struggling economy. To others, this is an opportunity.
Around the Western world, from Kansas City to Lithuania, small groups of adventurous individuals enter abandoned structures to see what secrets lie within. Dubbed “urban explorers”, these people are the explorers of the postmodern age, combing through buildings we’ve left behind.
Urban explorers aren’t looking to steal any leftover valuables, nor to vandalize or destroy property. Instead, they’re fueled by a desire to “look behind the curtain”, take a peek at the past, and perhaps take a few good pictures along the way.
This is no child’s game, however. Danger can take many forms: drug users, squatters, asbestos, rotting floors and even the police pose a constant threat. This is because the urban explorer’s hobby is outside of the law, with trespassing being a given.
The explorers, or “urbexers” as they like to be called, adhere to a strict credo to avoid legal ire:
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
It’s dangerous to go alone, so urbexers form secretive communities in their cities. Fostered by the internet, they plan meetups, share locations and relevant warnings, share their best pictures and enjoy the company of intrepid and curious people.
An aspiring explorer myself, I had the opportunity to interact with a small but enthusiastic group of urbexers from Kansas City. I cannot name names or give much information; due to the legal issues and incidents caused by the uninformed, most desire to remain anonymous. One person, however, consented to an interview. Going by the web handle “Shauntay”, they offer some of their thoughts below:
Q: What got you into urban exploring? How did you find out?
I would notice abandoned buildings on the outside. They looked so alluring and mysterious. I wondered, “What are they like inside?” But I didn’t have the nerve to go in alone. In 2005, there was a listing in the Pitch (weekly newspaper) about a meeting for “urban explorers”. That’s when I met the group. They had met for the first time only a couple months previous.
Q: What keeps you into the hobby?
I’m nutty about abandoned buildings. We keep finding new things to explore. In 2018, we found an abandoned theater, a metal foundry, two abandoned hotels and more. If there’s not new stuff, I’m happy revisiting some of the old places.
Q: What is the community like, specifically in Kansas City?
Almost all are young white males. In 15 years, I saw only one black person exploring, a female. There have been a couple Asians and Hispanics. Women are welcome, but not many come out. Once when we met at a bar, I counted 10 men and two women. There are a few women who have been in the group forever. In recent years, the person who has made the most stuff
happen is a woman. There is a range of backgrounds, from blue collar gearheads to techies. Also a range of incomes and political viewpoints.
Q: What dangers have you encountered while exploring?
The danger is that you can be arrested for trespassing. I do not see much physical danger. If the floor looks rotten, then don’t walk on it. These old buildings are not going to fall down just because I walk through.
Q: How do you feel about the illegal nature of urban exploring? Why the anonymity?
I don’t care that it’s illegal as long as I don’t get caught. I don’t break into buildings. I don’t take anything. I’m not hurting anyone or anything. The anonymity is because people have day jobs.
Q: Anything you would like to tell UMKC students about what you do?
We are in the rust belt, so there are many opportunities. You can use Google Maps’ satellite views to zoom in on old railroads, industrial areas or riverfront areas. Abandoned buildings are not difficult to spot. Then go there and see how much you can see. There is a website for Kansas City urban explorers, which Google will find for you.
University News encourages students considering urban exploring to remain aware of the physical and legal risks involved. Check out www.unews.com to find more pictures provided by urban explorers.