A 'forgotten' world: Canada's urban explorers revel in the disheveled
'Urbex' enthusiasts venture into abandoned buildings, the underbellies of bridges, storm-drain networks, and high-rise rooftops. They often come away with breathtaking photos (and bragging rights).
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Brandon Wang’s curiosity for forgotten urban spaces brought him to the Internet. Wang, a budding photographer, was 15 years old when he started looking up abandoned structures online to visit.
“I think showing what’s been forgotten has a lot more meaning than what people see on their daily routines,” said Wang.
There was the McBarge, the abandoned floating McDonald’s that served guests during Expo 86. There was the rotting Surrey Public Market, which closed to the public in 1998. There was the old power station that sat on Buntzen Lake.
Wang quickly discovered he wasn’t the only one on the hunt for forgotten corners of the city.
Enter the world of “urbex.” Short for “urban exploration,” urbex is the hobby of visiting areas of human-made environments off the beaten path.
Explorers venture into abandoned buildings, and those still in use, like hotels. But it’s more than just buildings – urbex fodder includes hard-to-access locations like the underbellies of bridges or storm-drain networks.
In an older city like Paris, explorers are fond of catacombs. In Vancouver, popular locations include abandoned houses, industrial structures and high-rise rooftops.
Image-sharing app Instagram was Wang’s gateway to this community. There’s inspiration from around the world; a search for urbex on Instagram shows over 3.8 million images. But Instagram also hosts strong local communities of explorers sharing tips and planning meet-ups.
“I find it interesting that this online Instagram community has created an offline community,” said Andrew Bishop, a 17-year-old Instagrammer who likes shooting architecture.
Vancouver’s community is especially welcoming, according to Logan Newman, 19.
“I find most Vancouver photographers and urbexers very open to meet others with similar passions, especially compared to stories I’ve heard from Toronto,” he said.
However, meeting Instagrammers in person can be weird at first, said Wang. He’s 18 today, but was 15 when he started approaching photographers online.
“You can look at people’s posts, but you can’t see their faces and you don’t know how old they are. But they turned out to be really nice, and a lot of them now are my close friends.”
A 2006 sociology master’s grad from UBC called urban explorers today’s version of 19th-century flâneurs, romantic observers and documentarians who muse about people, change and life in the city.
The intrigue of walking into “a history textbook” was how Kyle Mistry, in his mid-20s today, got into urbex when he was 19 and living in Toronto. He stumbled upon an abandoned, graffitied motel with old photos inside from when it was still operating.
“It was my first taste of an abandoned relic in the middle of the city,” he said. “It was a product of the past that was relatively intact of how things used to be.”
While there is controversy around urban exploring, which could include trespassing, there are ethics for hobbyists. Some are explained in Infiltration, a Toronto urbex zine published between 1996 and 2005.
“It’s like hiking or camping: take only photos and leave only footprints,” said Mistry. “Don’t destroy anything, don’t wreck anything.”
Many longtime destinations for local explorers have vanished in recent years: wartime ship HMS Flamborough Head on North Vancouver’s waterfront was scrapped in 2014, the McBarge was towed out of Burrard Inlet for repairs in 2015 and the Surrey Public Market was torn down in September.
The Surrey market was a favourite of Wang’s. But he says he’s not stumped. There’s always more out there to explore.
“There are a lot of places that have been forgotten,” he said, “but not that forgotten that I can’t find them and take a look.”