A Shifting Landscape
Never for the timid, urban exploration is even riskier these days
By Etelka Lehoczky - Special to the Tribune

They inch their way through storm sewers, wander around abandoned hospitals and clamber to the tops of bridges, all for the sake of a few photos and a good story to post on the Web.

They call their hobby "urban exploration." It can also be described as criminal trespassing, and these city-dwelling thrill seekers have recently run head-on into the national resolve for vigilance against terrorism.

Urban explorers visit buildings, tunnels, bridges, quarries and other man-made sites in the same spirit in which Dr. Livingstone toured Africa. Unlike Livingstone, though, they risk arrest with each new adventure. What might have once been dismissed as a prank is now seen as a security threat.

And yet, a few stalwarts persist.

"I'll never forget my first trip," says Daryl Burt, 19, a college student from Joliet, recalling a visit to an abandoned suburban mall. "I just walked around it. I still remember thinking, `Wow, I'm actually doing this. I used to just read about it on the Web, and now I'm really doing it.'"

Urban exploration has never been for the timid. Take, for purely hypothetical example, the half-baked expedition once mounted by a young woman at a small Midwestern college. One night, during a particularly tedious work shift in her job as a campus security guard, this person--who is hypothetical, remember--decided to investigate some of the utility tunnels that connected the basements of the college's major buildings. She and a companion found an unfrequented entryway, made unlawful use of her keys, and descended.

Little did the delinquents know at the time, but they were engaging in a time-honored campus tradition. Best-selling author Neal Stephenson described one such escapade in his debut novel, "The Big U," and you can even find maps of certain universities' tunnel systems on the Internet.

No joke to officials

In Chicago, the practice of "tunneling" acquired a nefarious reputation last year, when a young man named Joseph Konopka was arrested while investigating the tunnels at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Police soon discovered that Konopka was wanted in Wisconsin for vandalizing power lines and radio towers and had been storing cyanide in a hidden lair deep within the bowels of the "L."

Needless to say, this didn't go over well with the city. Make no mistake, tunneling--even for innocent purposes--is not the way to get on good terms with city hall.

"Our tunnels house a lot of components: ComEd lines, phone lines," says Etell Singleton, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Transportation. "[They] aren't the safest place to be hanging out for no good reason. Also, there's a [public] safety factor, because [some tunnels] go underneath city hall, underneath federal buildings."

Konopka, who was eventually sentenced to 13 years in federal prison, also happened to have attended a couple of gatherings of Chicago Urban Exploration, a local group of adventurers.

"Everybody wants to say Joseph Konopka was part of CUE," says member Megan Bland. "He was just a kid who hung out with us on occasion."

Not just for the thrills

Even so, the Konopka case was devastating for CUE. Though there are about 70 people who have been associated with the group at one time or another, only 10 explore regularly these days. Bland insists that she doesn't explore anymore. Charles Janda, a graphic designer from the western suburbs, says he usually just photographs sites from outside property lines.

"The media portrays us as bad people that break the law, that are out for a thrill. That's kind of the appeal, but we're more a group of photographers interested in documenting these things," says Janda, adding that he didn't join CUE until long after Konopka's arrest. "I'm really not big on breaking the law. I'm a fan of Chicago and its history."

Before their Konopka troubles, CUE's members explored every hidden corner Chicago had to offer. They have visited shuttered mental institutions, Beaux Arts train stations half-eaten by decay, and deserted "L" tunnels. A favorite spot for many area explorers is the shuttered Dixie Square Mall in a south suburb, the location of the notorious indoor chase scene in the movie "The Blues Brothers."

"Everyone wants to go there because it's huge and easy to get into," Burt says.

One of Janda's favorite sites is the Jane Addams housing complex on Taylor Street, site of some unusual New Deal-era public sculptures.

"It's fun to photograph what's left of this history," he says. "A lot of the new architecture is just very generic, but the older stuff has more character to it."

Urban exploration is no longer the relatively carefree hobby it once was. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, it's hard to justify an interest in poking around abandoned buildings just for the heck of it.

"Nowadays they seal things up well if they're abandoned," Janda says. "If it's well-fenced-in, or there are clear `no trespassing' signs, I don't do it."

A lower profile

Even so, interest in the pastime endures. New Yorkers David Leibowitz and L.B. Deyo, who helm an explorers group called Jinx, say their Web site gets about 2,000 visits a day. Infiltration, a Web zine run by a Toronto man who identifies himself only as "Ninjalicious," claims similar numbers.

Some explorers hope to rehabilitate their hobby by allying with architectural historians and preservationists. Explorer John McDonald assembled countless tidbits of Indiana history for "Lost Indianapolis" (Arcadia, 2002). Bland hopes to write a similar book about the old Manteno State Hospital.

Leibowitz and Deyo are all too aware of the changed climate. They completed work on their book "Invisible Frontier" (Three Rivers, $14.95) just days before the 9/11 attacks.

"We certainly don't believe that trespassing rules are unjust. I guess you could say we're hypocritical for doing what we do," Leibowitz says. "Since Sept. 11, we've tried to take more of a low-profile approach. We used to do things like climbing a bridge in the middle of the day and hanging our Jinx flag, but now we're very concerned about causing false alarms and distracting the police from important things they should be doing."

Long before 9/11, the adventuresome security guard's adventure ended in a hair-raising brush with the law. After she and her companion had wended their way through countless narrow passages, they suddenly found themselves at a tunnel's mouth, about to exit into the boiler room. There, just a few feet from them, a night worker sat on duty.

The renegades paused for a heart-stopping moment, hardly daring to breathe, and backed slowly away.

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune