Updated: May 1, 2014 6:37AM
It’s called “urban exploration,” and it’s rising in popularity in this region.
Also known as urban spelunking, or “urb-ex,” it’s the adventurous exploration, inspection and photo documentation of abandoned ruins and buildings, especially in Gary, considered ground zero in Northwest Indiana. It can be dangerous, even illegal, but it’s thrilling and addictive nonetheless.
“For many, it’s a certain type of art. For me, it’s all about a certain beauty,” explained Cindy “Cupcake” Bean, a talented amateur photographer from Lake of the Four Seasons.
Curious photographers, history lovers and adventure-seekers are flocking to mine these forgotten urban sites. Some to put a feather in their cap, others to capture unique artwork and a few, such as Bean, to find a sense of solace amid the carnage of time, neglect and disrepair.
“These decayed buildings and abandonments have battle scars, but they are a place of peace for me,” the soft-spoken mother of four told me.
She and her husband, Larry, have been photographing abandoned sites in Gary and Chicago for three years. Schools, hospitals, stores, churches, you name it. Her compelling photos capture apocalyptic-looking scenes of neglect and emptiness yet, somehow, often with a gritty charm or urban artistry.
“It started as just a hobby for us,” said Larry, an Illinois native whose South Side of Chicago accent still is audible.
“My mother used to take me to do this back in the late ’70s,” Cindy added. “It just wasn’t called urban exploration back then.”
“We’re not going in there to tag these buildings or vandalize them,” Larry said. “We respect these structures.”
“I also enjoy seeing the different perspectives from different photographers,” said Cindy, who primarily uses a Nikon D610, bouncing between a wide angle and macro lens.
Sporting dirty coveralls, several cameras (no tripod) and an insatiable curiosity, Cindy makes the pilgrimage to these structures as often as possible. Sometimes four or five times a week.
“There are energies that you can feel inside these old buildings, especially churches and hospitals,” Cindy said.
She has spent more time in old, abandoned churches than populated ones, she joked.
“I feel more comfortable there,” she said. “It’s still a church even though there is no congregation. I still see hope and faith inside their walls.”
Hope and faith are sometimes hijacked by junkies and criminals who also are attracted to such places. One former halfway house that Cindy visited was littered with hypodermic needles, matches and other drug paraphernalia.
“That building is still someone’s reality,” Cindy said.
She once heard footsteps there on an upper floor and smartly fled with her husband.
“We don’t want to run into people like that. We just want to take photos,” Larry said.
I asked if they were ever fearful of being in danger, beyond falling through a broken floor or scraped by fractured window glass. They both chuckled.
“Well, it’s usually not the best of neighborhoods but people can be very friendly,” Larry said. “They usually give us directions or share their memories of the building.”
“But,” Cindy warned, “urban exploration is not something I would recommend for others to do without doing their homework first.”
Gary officials recognize that some abandoned buildings are not merely eyesores and they have historical significance or aesthetic value for filmmakers, photographers and urban explorers. But they frown upon urban exploration if it means infiltrating abandoned buildings in the city. They cite public safety concerns while warning adventurous photographers and 21st century explorers to do so at their own risk.
“Gary welcomes filmmakers, photographers, urban explorers, tourists and other guests. However, all visitors are expected to follow the rules and obey the law,” said Ben Clement, executive director of the city’s office of film and television.
“Gary appreciates everyone showing interest in our unique architecture and the beauty of many abandoned structures. But entering abandoned buildings and city-owned properties without permission is trespassing and can be prosecuted as such at the discretion of the municipality,” he said.
“Visiting or exploring any abandoned building can be dangerous, so prior to granting permission to enter those properties, extreme caution is urged and a hold-harmless agreement indemnifying the municipality from risks associated with filming and expeditionary activity is required,” Clement added. “Proof of insurance coverage is also required in some instances.”
Bean is careful not to identify her photos with exact descriptions, though she has been sharing her photos with a Facebook group called Northwest Indiana Memories. That’s how her work was spotted by the Portage Community Historical Society.
Beginning Saturday, from 1 to 4 p.m., Cindy’s photos will be publicly exhibited (through June) for the first time during the society’s grand opening at the Alton Goin Museum, just off U.S. 6, east of County Line Road. For more info, call the museum at 762-8349 or visit its Facebook page. To view Cindy’s photos online, visit her Facebook page.
Last week, while installing her exhibit, Cindy paused thoughtfully to best explain her affinity for urban exploration.
“I find it liberating,” she finally replied. “It frees my soul.”
Hear Cindy and Larry Bean in their own words. Watch the video at http://posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.
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