Call me a masochist, but I've come to cherish my outings with Julia Solis, a flame-haired original who lives in a rough part of Brooklyn, New York, near the fetid Gowanus Canal. She's smart, amazingly curious and absolutely fearless. These qualities come in handy during her frequent explorations of urban ruins—abandoned aqueducts, tunnels and factories—where light is scarce and mold and spores express their colonial tendencies unchecked. She finds beauty in industrial decay, architectural excesses, cabinets full of old medical equipment, and the steel beams that drip rust into decrepit tunnels.
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"These places contain the residue of the many souls that have passed through over the years," she says. "The less a place has been explored, the better, because the air hasn't been diluted and the soul marks are fresh."
On the side, Solis tracks building implosions across the country. The structures to be destroyed are almost always places she would love to explore, and she hates to see them disappear. But she loves to witness their final moments. The only time I've ever seen her angry was when my poor navigational skills caused us to nearly miss an important Philadelphia implosion. We got there just in time, and Solis' face went slack and her eyes got soft as she watched the building drop and the dust cloud rise. Then she scurried off to meet with the explosives teams, seeking information on future spectacles.
The next time we spoke, she was preparing to pilot an inflatable raft through her favorite water tunnel under Manhattan.
"It's the most incredible place I've ever been," she gushed.
Solis is part of a loosely knit tribe of urban explorers, found all over the world, who choose to take on abandoned city locales in much the same way that outdoor enthusiasts try to conquer remote rivers and mountains. Born in Germany, she lived there until high school, when her family moved to Los Angeles. Her European manners and bohemian beauty create a startling effect, and she draws a lot of stares. Now in her late 30s (she declines to reveal her exact age), Solis has made an art out of her passion, documenting her discoveries on her Web site (www.darkpassage.com) and in a series of short stories. She's also organized a group, Ars Subtteranea: The Society for Creative Preservation (www.creativepreservation.org), that strives to increase public awareness of these forgotten spaces through art shows, preservation campaigns and even public treasure hunts.
Last August, a few hours before the great blackout of 2003, I headed north out of New York City with Solis and one of her cohorts, a young spelunker who goes by the name of Cramp. The plan was to explore a subway station and tunnel in Rochester, New York, that had been decommissioned in 1957.
When we reached the exit for Utica, about two-thirds of the way to Rochester, Solis, who wore a giraffe print skirt above clunky black shoes, decided we should find a "respectable steakhouse" to fortify ourselves. I worried that we didn't have time for a leisurely lunch, since we wanted to find the tunnel entrance while the sun was still out, but I was given no choice. When with Solis, you have to trust Solis, and that trust is part of the art of urban exploration. "It's a shared experience," she explained later. "You run around together in an extremely stimulating and often dangerous environment, always on the alert, and you pass out together on a roof somewhere and it's almost as if you're fighting a war together—the bonds formed during explorations can be very tight."
All of a sudden, a little nourishment seemed like a very good idea.
"Head toward the courthouse," Solis instructed as we entered Utica. Years of driving through towns in the Northeast have given her many practical survival skills, and sure enough there was a steakhouse just across the street from the court.