Time, by that point, had begun to dissolve. Over the last three days, we had already trekked through a train tunnel, trudged through a dilapidated military complex and scavenged an abandoned mental hospital.
Our biggest challenge—an abandoned grain terminal—stood 20 stories above us.
This is the exhilarating life of an Urban Explorer. Urban Exploration, or “Urbex,” is a hobby where groups of people share an obsession with exposing the hidden city that lies above and below the known one around them.
Andrew Lynch, a 28-year-old Bostonian, is a passionate and experienced explorer.
“Urban Exploration is exploring and documenting the city that people don’t see every day,” says Lynch. “In other words, it’s finding places off the beaten path and getting into them.”
In just 10 years of exploring, Lynch has already climbed the George Washington Bridge, hiked through active train tunnels, rummaged through abandoned subway stations and searched numerous rotting buildings.
"For too many people,” says Lynch, “urban living consists of mindless travel between work, shopping and home, oblivious to the countless wonders a city offers.”
Urban Exploration, however, is not just a distraction for rowdy teenagers. This peculiar hobby has a set of rules and can pose consequences if they are not followed. The dangerous nature of this activity presents various risks, including not only physical danger, but also the possibility of arrest and punishment.
“Explorers should only leave footprints and only take photos,” says Lynch. “You need to do your homework. You can’t be stupid and you can’t get caught. You need to come out of the whole experience with a respect for the place and the process.”
One way explorers are able to respect “Urbex” is by taking pictures and posting them on online forums.
“Taking pictures justifies the experience,” says Lynch. “Places look so cool. That’s the allure of it. Without having a picture you don’t have much to remember it by.”
Some of the more popular Urbex blogs include infilitration.com, ltvsquad.com and nycexposed.com. These websites offer fellow urban explorers a venue to appreciate and discuss each other’s photos.
The group of explorers I was shadowing referred to themselves as “Underg7ound” (pronounced UHN-DER-GROUND). The 7 referred to the number of members in the group.
On this particular outing, I would be accompanied by three of those seven.
The trip’s conceiver, Adrian Nugent-Head, 20, a sociology major at Wesleyan University, is one of the group’s photographers. Eric Lee, 20, a health science major at Gettysburg College, is the group’s main photographer and videographer. Lastly, Eddie Owens, 20, an engineering major at Princeton University, is the group’s scout.
If this excursion to the Red Hook Grain Terminal could surpass the excitement of the last couple of days, then it undoubtedly needed chronicling.
Sunday, 5:43 a.m.
At La Bagel Delight, we eat our last meal: bagels with cream cheese and iced coffees. This small, homely, New York-style bagel shop opened just 13 minutes earlier. A hefty employee in a butcher’s apron shuffles over to turn on the neon “Open” sign.
We step outside the café to find the streets eerily deserted. The air is unusually brisk for the end of March. The explorers are in a cheerful mood.
“Our entire childhoods, we have played sports next to this building,” says Owens. “We grew up around it. When we finally get in, it will be the crowning moment of our group.”
Driving to Red Hook, a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, Eric is huddled over his many different cameras. Adrian speeds down Court Street in his black SAAB. Music from the radio plays in the background. Nobody speaks.
Our goal is to be at the top of the building by 6:58 a.m. The photographers want to take pictures of the sunrise. We will ascend with backpacks, lens cases, masks and flashlights.
“When planning for an exploration, I like to drive past the building beforehand or see photos online,” says Lynch. “Sometimes I’ll just walk around, get the feel of the land. My goal is to look out for potential security guards or any visible points of entry.”
Unfortunately, little is known about the Grain Terminal. Not many have breached its borders. A fence made of huge concrete blocks surrounds the terminal. We have no idea what to expect. We’re going in cold.
“There she is,” says Adrian.
The car pulls to a stop next to an empty park. Above us towers a colossal, ash-colored grain elevator, 429 feet long with silos 12 stories high that has sat vacant since 1965.
The grain elevator, which opened in 1922, was used for washing, drying, cooling and storing grain before it was loaded onto freight ships. This massive frame of redundant industry stands defiant in the face of its long-overdue demolition.
There are two large control towers at the top and one large smoke stack. The back of the building borders the Gowanus canal.
Our 6:58 deadline seems unlikely.
This monolithic structure sits just out of our reach behind a line of concrete blocks. We search the base of the wall for an opening. No luck. We attempt to climb the wall. It’s too tall.
Time is of the essence. Soon all of New York will be covered in sunlight and we will be spotted easily.
Our only option includes shimmying along a sea wall over the Canal and swinging ourselves lithely under a rusted steel grating.
The cold murky waters of the Gowanus Canal lapping around the structure’s edges give it the sense of an island fortress.
Once past the fence, we scan the site for an entrance into the building with no avail. We find ourselves standing on the ruins of a broken wall. We can see inside the terminal. What separates us is a five-foot gap of water.
We need a bridge.
“We had this idea to grab a big steel ladder,” said Owens. “It was pretty heavy! We actually had to pass it through a part of the building that had broken off in order to get it over a floor and then to get it down another floor because it wouldn’t fit. Oh my god […] we tried so many things. Finally, we got in, though. That whole experience was so strenuous!”
After nearly three hours, we are finally in.
The other explorers scurry across the makeshift bridge like children at recess. I can tell they have wanted this for a long time.
Round concrete columns line the entire floor as far as the eye can see. Light filters in from all sides, casting long shadows across the floor. Rusted machinery is scattered throughout the room. Graffiti lines the inner walls.
But what really gives this building a mystical feel is the silence. In contrast to the daily cacophony of the city, this space is calm. There is a sense of peace.
The shutters of the photographer’s cameras echo throughout this cavernous relic.
“Detail is important,” says Lee. “Every nook and cranny needs to be documented. If you can catch the light at just the right moment, that’s the difference between a great and an average photo.”
After over an hour, we are finally ready to move up from the ground level.
Adrian begins to climb the corroded metal stairs that lead to the roof. Steps fall out beneath us, dropping hundreds of feet below. The higher we get, the more graffiti we see.
At the end of our climb, as we poke our heads out of a hatch onto the roof, a stunning, 360-degree view of the city opens up. In the foreground lays a sprawl of athletic fields and narrow streets lined with brownstones.
The Statue of Liberty stares at us from her island in the Hudson River. Red Hook is the only part of New York City that has a full frontal view of the Statue of Liberty.
In the distance is Manhattan’s luminous skyline. To the right, cars and trucks crawl along the elevated Prospect Expressway. An F train climbs its way up the elevated subway platform. Airplanes bank steeply towards JFK Airport.
Sitting atop this beautiful structure, looking out across the Hudson River, I am at ease.
“Enjoy this view,” says Nugent-Head. “Who knows how long it’ll be here.”