Notes from the underground

Urban infiltrators are the "hackers" of older technologies, exploring the old bones of tomorrow's ruins.

IN UPSTATE NEW YORK, a library room lies under several feet of ice. The ancient typewriters are frozen; the railroad record books (for this is a railroad library) are scattered across the floor, brittle and irretrievable. One floor down, the water comes up 8 feet, almost to the tops of the doorways, and to move among the pitch-dark rooms you scoot yourself along, trusting your weight to the thick black ice. Twenty stories above, giant glass-and-iron clock faces, gears long gone, gape over the broken, decaying town of Buffalo, unwelcoming home to this, the abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal.

If this sounds like a great place to spend a Sunday afternoon, you might be a hacker.

Urban exploration—the practice and obsession of exploring man-made spaces where people do not normally go—has a lot in cultural common with the variety of practices the media lumps together as hacking. That makes this story an allegory, a fable if you will, about hacking. This is also a perfectly self-sufficient news story about urban exploration. And this is a disclaimer that tells you, dear readers, that if you're going to do either of these things you'd better be a good and responsible citizen about it; like hacking, urban exploration has gotten a bad reputation because some people have no sense and others have no respect. (If you do your part, I'll do mine by apologizing for using, occasionally, the word "hacking" to describe the diverse actions and motives behind unauthorized intercomputer explorations. Thus loaded down with politically correct descriptive terminology, we press on.)

THE THOUGHT OF wandering the hallways of an abandoned hotel or wending one's way through sewer and steam tunnels leaves some people cold: There's dirt involved and, occasionally, danger. As with computer infiltration, someone can get hurt or trapped, particularly if they're inexperienced or incautious; as with computer infiltration, there are laws against it, sort of. Depending on the structure in question, an explorer might face a trespassing charge, a traffic citation (!), or simply a befuddled cop who knows you're doing something you shouldn't but can't quite tell you what.

Ninjalicious (how much more name do you need?) is worried that the reporter is going to accuse him of dangerous and reckless behavior—not for scooting along the 8-foot ice in the Buffalo building but for publishing detailed accounts of his travels online. "The usual format lazy writers adopt when writing about urban exploration is: 'Look at the wacky things these characters do. Why do they do these crazy things? "Because it is fun," says a guy. Aren't they nutty? Well, actually their nuttiness is going to get a bunch of people killed because it is on the Internet, so watch out.'"

Ninjalicious manages the Urban Exploration Web ring (www.infiltration.org) as well as the 'zine Infiltration. He's been cited for relatively minor traffic-style violations (like a $65 ticket for trespassing in a Toronto drain system). On the other hand, associates of his at Jinx Magazine, a journal of "danger, adventure, and the underground," and partners in the Buffalo venture risked arrest recently when they scaled the Broadway Bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx. (No hope of charming their way through the barricades, as so many hackers have learned to do with the technique known as social engineering; the last time that crew got caught midexploration they were on the roof of Grand Central Station, with four fire trucks and two dozen cops ready to bring them down by any means necessary.)

If their hairy description of near-capture wasn't enough mayhem to put off the amateur crowd, the detailed description of climbing the rickety girders through an ever-thickening coat of bird poop probably did the trick. The dozens of urban-exploration sites online whet the appetite for burrowing into Paris' abandoned metro stations and under Canberra's streets, but they also sate it. Seeing the scattered debris of a once-grand hotel ballroom or the steam tunnels beneath the University of Washington is sometimes enough to help the surfer differentiate between spaces that retain their mystery and spaces that are merely . . . empty. Not every off-limits space is a revelation; not every hacked computer reveals secrets more significant than that of its hackability.

DANA COX TAKES PAINS to remind me that the Bill Speidel Underground Tour in Pioneer Square is in most respects a walking tour of various basements; you won't see any frozen libraries or long-hidden secret tunnels. It is, however, a fine way of sneaking "some very traditional oral history" into the average tourist's diet of Duck Tours and trips to Ivar's. Back in the early days, when Speidel himself first started leading people around the basements (formerly first-floor rooms) of Pioneer Square's buildings, he did find occasional traces of transients, but those days are long over.

Still, 200,000 folks go down under each year; something must be working. Tour guide Cox, who points out that Seattle's underground was a remarkably lively scene not only during the Klondike gold rush but afterward as home to various Chinese-run gambling dens, thinks this is history that's not too dusty to make a human connection. Between the not-your-usual-antiseptic-museum surroundings and the whiff of Naughty Old Seattle, the tour keeps otherwise ordinary folks voluntarily breathing the musty air of the otherwise off-limits.

The boundary between urban explorers and curious passersby is as porous as that between curious crackers and the casual surfer who types in a random URL "just to see what happens." In Portland, generations of otherwise incurious citizens passing by the Lovejoy Ramp noticed the intricate painted murals created by Tom Stefopoulos, a Greek immigrant and former commercial artist in Seattle who ended his days as a crossing watchman for the Portland rail yards. Uncommissioned and for years unprotected from the elements and vandals, the murals stood elegantly decaying as the ramps were demolished. Community activism saved the columns, which are currently being restored and will be placed in their own Gas Works-style riverside park one day.

AND THERE IS BEAUTY in catching a structure off-guard, as it were, whether the structure is a derelict subway station or someone else's server. Anyone who's driven by the Kingdome recently has to be struck by how much more interesting the building looks as it dies, with its exposed girders oddly echoing Safeco Field's roof structures. The Kingdome in its final days is inviting in a way it never was when it was it was an impregnable concrete bunker. Seeing the building undone reminds us that once we celebrated very different qualities in the buildings we venerate.

The falling gods of speed and steel are kind in memory, and just as other cities have buildings that are much more beloved after their tear-down than they were when standing (New York's Penn Station first among equals), maybe the Kingdome will look better to us as we peel away the claustrophobic walls and the crappy sightlines and refit our memories. By the 26th of March, the demolition team will know the Kingdome better than anyone but its architects; the final urban exploration of the Dome is leading inexorably to the ultimate hack.

 
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