Cover Story: Exploring Atlanta’s modern ruins

A new subculture finds beauty in decay

Somewhere under the weeds, among the illegally dumped tires and the empty beer cans littering the ground, are the bones of a giraffe and an elephant named Maude.

Back in the 1940s, the 300-acre site just southeast of the city limits was home to imprisoned moonshiners who grew crops and raised livestock to feed their fellow inmates at the nearby federal penitentiary. The sprawling property was also used as the burial ground for animals from the Atlanta Zoo whose bodies were too large to be cremated.

Later, after the city bought the compound in the ’60s, it served as a temporary home for a parade of vagrants, drug addicts, drunks and others unlucky enough to be sent by a city judge to pick field peas, milk cows, can vegetables, butcher hogs and cook meals at the Atlanta Prison Farm.

But today the property is home to a collection of deteriorating and burnt-out structures grown over with kudzu.

On an overcast and muggy Saturday morning, while the rest of Atlanta goes about its weekend, a handful of backpack-wearing adventurers clutching flashlights and camera equipment arrive with the ironic goal of sneaking into this former correctional facility — easy enough since there are no fences or padlocks in sight.

The group passes building after crumbling building until it encounters an open door to a room in which some of Atlanta’s most familiar taggers and graffiti artists have left their marks. Scrap-metal thieves stripped the place long ago, leaving only bunk beds and hand-me-down books. Vandals have obliterated the light fixtures, community toilets and windows, giving kudzu an easy entrance into the damp rooms. Stairways lead to a long hallway lined with the cells where prisoners once slept and played chess on grids carved into metal tables. Two years ago, a fire — perhaps started by the squatters who are said to occasionally take up residence in the remaining buildings — consumed the roof, opening the rooms to the elements. The floors are covered with ash, charred beams and warped pipes.

“This hallway always give me the willies,” says Ben, 29, a web designer and freelance photographer. Nearby, A.J., 28, dressed all in black, carefully composes a photo of elaborate graffiti depicting prisoners sulking in the cells. For Chris, a 19-year-old college student who drove down from Chattanooga, this is his first visit to the iconic site.

The three are members of the most organized group within Atlanta’s loose urban exploration community. The group calls itself SPECTRE, a fittingly geeky moniker when one considers that many explorers are computer programmers. (SPECTRE’s not an acronym, in case you were wondering.)

Just hours earlier, they were tip-toeing through a shuttered DeKalb County school. Next, they might try to sneak into a vacant warehouse, an obsolete factory, an empty mental hospital or any of the hundreds of other abandoned structures scattered across metro Atlanta. As always, the motivation is to witness the peculiar, haunting beauty of buildings in decay, to experience the occasional adrenaline rush of going somewhere off-limits and to feel the weight of the space’s accumulated history.

“It’s a landscape unlike anything you’ll see in the normal world,” says Ben, who began exploring a decade ago when he lived near Detroit. “Especially because these locations were built by a previous incarnation of government, when people believed in building beautiful-looking insane asylums. The entire idea of these places is a forgotten one in our society.”

An abandoned car battery plant. A cavernous paint factory. A picturesque collection of railcar maintenance buildings. A familiar Sears distribution center-turned-municipal office building. All of these sites are well-known to Atlanta’s urban explorers, who trade tips for locating the all-important point of entry of any given property and share photos on online message boards.

As with many 21st-century subcultures, disparate pockets of recreational trespassers didn’t realize they constituted an actual scene until they connected on the Internet. First described and codified in the early aughts by the print and online ‘zine Infiltration, “urbex” is now an international trend, with popular websites and online forums hailing from Canada, the U.K., Europe and Australia.

Now nearly anyone with Internet access (including the police) can log in to message boards such as the Urban Exploration Resource and view photos and factoids about locations ranging from the skull-lined Catacombs under Paris to the ghost villages in the Chernobyl fallout zone to the storied state mental hospital slowly crumbling in Milledgeville. One urbex adventurer even documented one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces while stationed in Baghdad.

Because trespassing is illegal, several of the explorers interviewed for this article asked CL not to use their full names or run photos showing their faces.

K.C. Budd, a thirtysomething Internet security professional, says he collided with other abandoned building enthusiasts four years ago when, under the urbex moniker Phreakmonkey, he posted a collection of photos taken at the Atlanta Prison Farm shortly after buying his first digital camera.

“I got an instant flood of emails,” he recalls. “Half were from people who wanted to know how to find the place and the rest were from other urban explorers blasting me for giving away their secrets.”

Eventually, Budd joined a local urbex group and spent weekends driving around seedy industrial areas or scouring Google Earth maps of Atlanta looking for deserted warehouses and derelict factories. Since those early days, he guesses he’s visited a few dozen sites around Atlanta, including the now-leveled Ford plant in Hapeville, an abandoned textile mill off I-20, and a slew of long-vacant public schools in varying states of disrepair. Like some other explorers, he’s not above occasionally asking property owners for permission to tour particularly well-guarded sites, as when he was shown around City Hall East a few years back.

Civilized societies have long been drawn to ancient ruins for historical and anthropological reasons, but the appeal of modern wreckage and urban decay is a fairly recent phenomenon. In war-ravaged European capitals such as Berlin and Budapest, some of the trendiest nightclubs are so-called “ruinpubs,” located in abandoned or neglected buildings. Atlanta’s Goat Farm has become a popular cultural venue, as much for its crumbling infrastructure as the artsy vibe. And many of the city’s hottest restaurants, boutiques and loft complexes offer a sophisticated, edgy environment with exposed brick walls, bare concrete floors and visible I-beams, an industrial aesthetic harkening back to the deconstructivist approach of the early Bauhaus movement.

Today’s urban explorers push that attitude an additional step, seeing beauty not just in a sanitized repurposing of a dilapidated structure, but in its ongoing deterioration. Their preferred destinations are those hidden in plain sight, buildings and sites that the rest of society ignores as we drive by.

Budd, a self-described “reformed hacker” who moved to California last year, has even given urbex seminars to convention halls packed with fellow computer geeks, dispensing such dollops of wisdom as: The best way to find abandoned factories is by following railroad tracks.

“My impression is that the urbex community is much larger than it realizes,” he says.

Large, perhaps, but not exactly diverse. The majority of explorers are middle-class white guys with techie backgrounds. Computer hackers are particularly drawn to the pastime, possibly because they’re already comfortable with virtual trespassing. If any women are active in the Atlanta scene, CL didn’t find them.

SPECTRE was formed last year after several Atlanta-area explorers who’d been trading tips via the Urban Exploration Resource website held a meet-up to start planning monthly outings. The resulting organization helped reboot a local community that launched a few years back, but had dissipated as members started families, moved away or simply lost interest.

Each member comes to a meet-up armed with a list of previously visited locations and, ideally, hitherto unknown ones.

“The best way to get respect in this scene is to discover a new site,” says Budd.

There also are props to be earned from following the urbex code. Rule Number 1: No souvenirs. Dedicated urban explorers follow the Sierra Club mantra — “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” — to help ensure that those who follow will be able to see the same wonders.

Also, to that end, they’re secretive when talking to outsiders. Favorite sites are given code names on message boards and exact locations are typically only revealed to trusted urbexers — or after a structure has been demolished, as in the case of Brook Run, the abandoned Dunwoody psychiatric hospital that resembled the setting of an ’80s horror flick.

Even when SPECTRE holds an outing, members meet first at an off-site rendezvous point so any newcomers can be vetted and told the ground rules before that day’s site is revealed to the full group.

“We don’t want the vandals to find out about the locations,” says T.K., a Marietta freelance photographer. “We don’t want people breaking windows or bashing lights. We don’t like taggers. We don’t like people who burn stuff down. We’re a pretty protective lot.”

Adds Ben: “If you start broadcasting locations and how to get in, word starts getting out to people who don’t have the location’s best interest in mind. There are buildings in Atlanta where we’ve been going for ages and slowly watching them rip up walls and destroy things.”

See more photos from a must-see tour of Atlanta’s abandoned buildings

Even though exploring often involves jumping fences, climbing through windows and even shimmying up drainpipes, urbexers say they draw the line at prying open doors or breaking windows. Also, they say they eschew such items as bolt-cutters, lock picks, crowbars or even Leatherman pocket tools, which have been known to land an explorer in jail.

“Breaking and entering is a felony, involves destroying places that we love and opening them up to people who have less pure motives than ours,” says Ben. “My standard kit includes a camera, gloves, a breathing mask and my wits. If that doesn’t get me in, I’m not getting in.”

Budd says he even shies away from entering buildings that appear recently broken-into, so as to avoid blame for the damage.

None of the urbexers CL spoke with would cop to having been arrested for their hobby, although some have had close calls. Budd says he once got caught by a private security guard who lectured him loudly about how much trouble he was in. When police arrived, they placed the anxious adventurer in the back of the patrol car. After getting in, the officer motioned toward the rent-a-cop and said, “What a dick.” Budd was driven around the corner and released.

“In my experience, law enforcement doesn’t take simple trespassing very seriously,” he says. “If you’re just there to take pictures and look around, they usually don’t care.”

John Lavalle, manager of the city’s real estate holdings, concedes that the Atlanta Prison Farm property hasn’t been secured. “What we are in the act of doing now is posting signs so folks know they’re trespassing,” he says. “If someone is caught on city property, it’s up to the discretion of the individual police officer what he wants to do.”

Katy Pando, a spokesperson for Georgia Properties Commission, says the only place the state has been compelled to step up security to keep out the curious has been at Pullman Yards, the 100-year-old industrial site in Kirkwood where passenger rail cars were built and repaired up until the ’50s. It’s also recently become a cash cow, the buildings rented out for a number of film and video shoots, including this year’s entry in the The Fast and Furious franchise.

Apart from the threat of property damage, the other chief reason to deter trespassers is that derelict buildings are, by their very nature, unsafe. Tetanus shots and stitches are common necessities for explorers and Budd recalls the time a friend stepped into a hole in a floor while backing up to frame a photo. In addition to the obvious hazards posed by broken glass, used syringes, poisonous spiders and crackheads, several of the city’s most popular urbex destinations carry the additional risk of toxic exposure. In fact, many industrial sites were abandoned precisely because they became contaminated with asbestos, caustic solvents or other noxious chemicals, explains SPECTRE member Dustin Grau.

On the bright side, Grau says, their very toxicity makes these buildings easier for urban explorers to find. “A great way to search for places is to look at lists of EPA Superfund sites,” he says cheerfully.

Not everyone who sneaks into old buildings is a young tech geek looking to increase his pulse rate.

Robert Myers, a 66-year-old retired radio jock who used to spin easy-listening tunes on the old Peach 94.9 (WUBL-FM), became an avid amateur photographer a few years back, quickly gravitating toward abandoned industrial sites and vacant farm houses.

“You can only photograph so many sunsets and waterfalls,” he says.

His favorite sites are the Pullman Yards and the Westside’s Glidden paint factory, which has become a de facto gallery for the city’s graffiti artists, but Myers and his friends also drive around looking for new locations. His shots strive to capture the chiaroscuro effect from light pouring through open doors and holes in the roofs of the vast empty rooms he photographs.

“Some people don’t get my fascination with these buildings,” he says. “They think these places are ugly.”

But for those taken with the odd beauty of a column of daylight piercing a crumbling school gym or ancient machinery waiting silently under layers of dust, the city’s urban ruins offer ample payoff.

One explorer excitedly describes the sights from his recent infiltration of an auto assembly plant that’s currently considered the Holy Grail of local urbex sites:

“I found whole frames of minivans still sitting on the line,” he says. “You can still see Coke cans sitting in various places in the dining hall. Cigarettes that burned up where people just got up and left. Uniforms hanging in lockers.”

A large measure of the appeal of many of the sites visited is the palpable sense of history that still lingers.

In the case of the prison farm, some of that history is still underfoot. In one building, scarcely 50 feet from the road, thousands of documents lie strewn across the floor of what might once have been the prisoner intake office. According to a paper picked up at random, one Damien West, born Jan. 7, 1957, was admitted into the facility on April 7, 1988, in possession of “two sets of keys and one honest face.”

Scattered throughout other rooms are self-help manuals, the standard-issue slippers worn by inmates and large, rusting tins filled with red and yellow hard candies and stamped with the legend “carbohydrate supplements.”

Later on that same muggy Saturday at the prison farm expedition, Ben and his fellow SPECTRE members hop onto a window ledge in the rear of an abandoned elementary school off one of Atlanta’s busiest roads.

Closed since the mid-’90s, the old building’s bones have withstood the elements, but its innards are deteriorating. The main hallway, where children once raced to beat the morning bells, looks as if it was the victim of a bombing raid. A thick layer of plaster, dirt and dust hugs the floors. Ceiling tiles sag and dangle like mobiles, secured only by strands of metal. An oversized teddy bear keeps lonely watch over a disintegrating classroom. On the stairwell leading up to the undependable second floor, a little doll rests face-down on a step. Moss and small plants have sprouted in what once was the boys’ bathroom, coaxed by the sunlight streaming in through broken windows.

“This is where nature has taken over,” says Ben. “The mold on the walls, the texture of the paint chipping.” The trio shares photography tips in the school’s auditorium. A.J. sets up his tripod and points toward a lonely desk near the wall. As Chris moves closer toward the stage, a rat scurries into a hole. Broken tiles crackle with each step. Their flashlights pass over hallway corkboards advising teachers to attend an important pension meeting — in 1995. Some things don’t change.

Unless the building is torn down or simply collapses under its own weight, the group will likely return every few months to survey the changes wrought by ongoing weathering, neglect and vandalism. Every fallen stairwell and caved-in roof offers fresh images for the photographer and new challenges for the explorer. And each monthly outing promises another jolt of adrenaline.

Explains Grau: “I guess all of us want to feel like Indiana Jones.”

See more photos from a must-see tour of Atlanta’s abandoned buildings