Documenting History With Urban Exploration

The exterior of the abandoned Terrence Building is pictured in Rochester, N.Y. on Sept. 9, 2017. Photo by Pawan Khake
Explorers walk through the abandoned subway tunnel in Rochester, N.Y. on Sept. 9, 2017. Photo by Pawan Khake
The tunnel of the abandoned subway is pictured in Rochester, N.Y. on July 30, 2017. Photo by Lloyd McCullough, in promotion of Sentinel (Sofa film 2018)
The area where an entrance to the abandoned subway was demolished under Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is pictured in Rochester, N.Y. on July 30, 2017. Photo by Lloyd McCullough, in promotion of Sentinel (Sofa film 2018)
Student Parsuree Vatanasirisuk explores the abandoned subway in Rochester, N.Y. on Sept. 9, 2017. Photo by Pawan Khake

In recent years, thousands of American cities have been striving to create an antithesis to the suburban sprawl of the mid-20th century. With new downtown developments and increasing cultural and economic opportunities, cities are hoping to revive their former glory. Although these opportunities are positive, new development often occurs at the expense of sacrificing older structures. Luckily, urban explorers are working to document and preserve the culture and history of these buildings long after they’re gone.

Urban exploration is an ephemeral art, constantly evolving in a cyclical nature as buildings are constructed, abandoned, explored, then demolished to make way for new establishments.

“Cities are dynamic spaces ... there’s a dynamism about human habitation in urban areas, where change is a constant — it changes with the market, it changes with people’s wants and desires, it changes with people’s expectations about their own lifestyles,” said professor M. Ann Howard from the Science, Technology and Society Department of COLA.

Though not a native of Western New York or the Finger Lakes region, Howard came to the area to serve as the Monroe County Planning Director, a position that familiarized her with the area. In her time here, she’s seen buildings come and go with the development of new infrastructure and preservation of the old as Rochester has strived to become a friendlier city. She notes that filling in the Inner Loop has been a major change for the city; by removing the barrier between downtown and the neighboring areas, the city is encouraging development and a return to its former vibrance.

“We’re following a pattern that’s very common in cities like Rochester, where focusing on downtown will inspire more people living, working, playing downtown and all of the opportunities that result from that — I think those are all positives,” Howard said.

However, she emphasizes the importance of balancing new development with the preservation of history. Howard acknowledges Rochester’s commitment to restoring and retrofitting historic buildings, particularly those on Main Street.

“This is an important statement not just about our history, but it’s an important statement about preserving the architectural aesthetic of a downtown ... these are magnificent buildings and they add something to the treescape that modern construction doesn’t add,” said Howard.

For Howard, one of the most tragic changes in the City of Rochester was the demolition of the Claude Bragdon Railway Station (Union Station) on Central Ave. in 1965, which occurred at a time when transportation by train was changing. But more recently, several other significant transformations have occurred downtown.  They include the retrofitting of the Sibley Building (which converted a former major regional department store into a mixed-use building), the razing of RG&E’s Beebee Power Plant near High Falls and the demolition of a section of the former subway bed this past spring. 

While urban exploration is frowned upon by many for its illegal nature and the vandalism that often occurs, it has become an effective way to help preserve the history and culture of places like this long after they’ve been removed from the landscape.

“In places ... that are undergoing unprecedented changes to the built environment, urban explorers are often the only people to document sites before they are demolished, providing a visual and ethnographic record of a site and sparking discussion about future preservation needs,” wrote Kaeleigh Herstad, a Ph.D. candidate in Indiana University’s Department of Anthropology. Explorers are interested in understanding history and documenting the life cycle of structures to “[take] stock of and [acknowledge] loss when city officials would rather focus on ‘progress’ and redevelopment," according to Herstad.

For Rochester, explorers have been able to immortalize the history of the Beebee complex and the subway, both abandoned for decades. With the demolition of Terrence Tower — the abandoned, 16-story structure formerly part of the Rochester Psychiatric Center — scheduled for 2018, another site rampant with history will soon be eternalized in the photos taken and stories recorded by those who ventured beyond its boarded-up entrances