The United States is littered with abandoned buildings, especially across faded industrial cities of the Midwest.
As the success of manufacturing giants like Detroit, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Toledo dwindled in the late 20th century, factories, businesses, homes and schools were left to rot.
By the late ’90s, abandoned buildings were a common reality for the rust belt. Around that time emerged the term “urban exploring,” used to describe the growing subculture of people who explore abandoned places.
Urban exploration, or “urbex” for short, typically combines thrill-seeking, photography and history. Although some urbex-ers mainly view themselves as photographers or explorers, many incorporate all three.
Steven King (@MidwestFleshUrbex) is an urbex photographer and YouTuber from Gary, Indiana. He’s been exploring abandoned places in his hometown with his brother (@TheSteelCityStorm) since he was young, but began documenting them and their histories on YouTube a few years ago.
“It really started when they started closing down all of our schools in Gary, because Gary was a booming town, and in less than 75 years I’d say it went down,” King said.
Gary, Indiana is often included on lists of America’s most abandoned cities, and has a notorious reputation as a “ghost town,” which attracts urbex-ers from out of town to document its ruins for themselves.
But King and his crew of Gary-based urbex-ers approach the sites with a local perspective and mission: to preserve their own city’s history.
“We wanted to document this stuff before it’s gone forever, because now they’re starting to tear all this stuff down,” King said. “And this history, you know — you see everything in books or how it looked, but we’re kind of documenting the last leg of these places’ lives.”
Gary, Indiana was founded in 1906 by the U.S. Steel Corporation, just 30 miles southwest of Chicago.
The city’s booming steel industry drew people looking for work — largely migrants from Europe and Mexico, as well as African Americans moving north. This caused Gary to grow quickly, with its population rising from just 55,000 in 1920 to over 100,000 in 1930.
After the Great Depression, the need for steel during World War II revived Gary’s economy. Yet by the late 20th century, issues of industrial pollution, local political corruption and white flight reached a climax with the disinvestment of the steel industry in the 1980s.
The collapse of the industrial economy was devastating to the city. Today, Gary has a declining population of less than 68,000, a difficult-to-shake reputation for crime and a third of all residents living beneath the poverty line.
Gary is now widely known for its decaying streets, leaving the history of those places to rot, too.
“A lot of people drive by these places and they don’t even realize the history of them,” King said.
For King, one of these places is Mercy Hospital, the oldest medical center in Gary.
Founded in 1908 by the Sisters of St. Francis, the small hospital was created as part of the U.S. Steel Corporation’s efforts to build a fully functioning city. The hospital rapidly expanded beyond its initial 20 beds, supporting 300 beds at its height and earning recognition as Gary’s primary medical facility.
As the population of Gary declined, however, so did the success of the hospital.
In 1993, Summit Medical Management purchased Mercy Hospital, which was on the brink of closure. Summit struggled to keep the hospital afloat and, in 1995, the facility closed. Efforts to renovate the hospital’s now-empty campus have all fallen short.
King’s explorations have also led him to more popular aspects of Gary’s history — places associated with the Jackson Five, who famously grew up in Gary. But some of the most powerful stories come from locals who hold memories there.
“A lot of times, it’s the old-timers who really dig our stuff, because they lived it. They were in these schools when they were nice and clean and functional, and now they see it, and it’s sad to them,” King said. “It’s sad, but rewarding at the same time.”
Despite Gary’s downward trend, King has hope for a comeback.
“[Gary is] the hub of the U.S., it’s the crossroads of America, and it should be booming — it should have businesses,” King said. “Actually, now they’re really starting to clean it up. We’ve got a new mayor, and he’s really coming down.”
Matt Nickels (@OhioRedUrbex) is an urbex photographer also interested in local history. Although his explorations have taken him to places like Detroit, Michigan, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he also spends time photographing his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
“There’s a lot of the Wright Brothers’ things down here. Their mansions are down here, which is pretty cool. One of their first buildings that they built bicycles [in] is still here, I believe,” he said.
Like King, Nickels views urbex as a personal passion, encompassing both his love of photography and his interest in history.
“I’m documenting the history before it’s completely gone,” Nickels said, “because I’ve never seen a building that mother nature hasn’t won.”
One notable place Nickels has photographed is the original Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Michigan, a Detroit suburb.
Founded in 1930 by Wayne County, the airport was initially used to send U.S. airmail. In 1940, the U.S. Army took control of the airport for use during World War II, building new runways and other facilities. After the war, the airport was renamed the Detroit-Wayne Major Airport.
The mid-20th century was a period of rapid growth for the airport, including the building of new terminals and the pioneering introduction of long range radar in 1956.
Just south of Dayton, Ronny Salerno began sharing histories of his hometown of Cincinnati through urbex photography in 2007.
Salerno’s roots in urbex photography sparked an ongoing interest in history, photography and storytelling.
“It’s not just about an abandoned building,” Salerno said. “It could really be a lot more about your society, your community, who we are as a world — as a nation. If it’s an abandoned automobile factory, that tells you so much about this country and the world and where things are going.”
Cincinnati’s abandoned subway tunnels have been an ongoing source of interest to Salerno, as they are significant to both the city’s history and its present reputation.
At the start of the 20th century, Cincinnati was a leading city in the U.S. in trade, and was in turn inspired by the growing subway systems of other major U.S. cities.
In 1912, three rapid transit commissioners met to plan a 16-mile loop around the city at a proposed cost of $6 million. In 1916, Cincinnati voted in favor of the plan, but its execution was delayed until after World War I.
Construction finally began in 1920, yet looming inflation already posed problems: the $6 million budget would then only cover 11 of the 16 miles.
By 1927, the 11 miles of subway tunnels had finally been dug, yet the city was out of money to bring the project to completion. Political conflicts, expanding suburbs and financial issues with the city’s already existing rail lines led Cincinnati to abandon the original plan and consider alternatives.
There were other ideas for the tunnels — implementing streetcar lines, leasing them for commercial freight cars and even transforming the tunnels for car traffic — but none proved feasible.
“The subway is such a perfect example of so many other stories here — of where at one point, this city for a brief moment was like, ‘We’re going to do something big and forward thinking, and we’re going to do it before all the other cities do it.’ And then for lack of a better term, ‘We screwed it up, and we didn’t do it,'” Salerno said. “I think that kind of fed into this very generational view of Cincinnati being very mediocre.”
The buildings that urbex-ers document don’t typically showcase a city’s proudest histories — like those that are carefully preserved for visitors — but the stories they carry are just as important.
While in Detroit, Salerno realized the value of the stories giving life to the emptied buildings he explored.
“I remember us being there: We’re coming out of the giant abandoned train station, and there’s just this little folk band who kind of live in the neighborhood, and they would practice under the overpass there because it had good acoustics,” Salerno said. “And we were like, ‘Oh, well, the real story isn’t just these abandoned buildings. The real story is Detroit — not so much its comeback, but like, who’s stuck with it? Who’s here? What makes the city unique? It’s not just a place of ruin.'”