When Jon Haeber looks at an abandoned building, he doesn’t just see cobwebs and rotting wood. He doesn’t focus on the broken glass and faded graffiti that are the hallmarks of places deserted long ago. For Haeber, dilapidated structures aren’t a blight or a blemish — they’re forbidden adventures waiting to be explored, time capsules ready to be discovered.
Take, for instance, the Fleishhacker Pool House, which once stood facing the Pacific opposite the San Francisco Zoo. After it was closed to the public in 1971, the building was seen as a scar on the cityscape. To many, it simply had no value, eventually being left to serve as a makeshift home for transients and a stone canvas for the spray-painted screeds of vandals.
But to Haeber, the site was enticing and rich with history. The Fleishhacker Pool House once served as the entrance to the largest heated outdoor swimming pool in the world. There was also the narrative of the building’s namesake, Herbert Fleishhacker, a local philanthropist who would later assist with the building of San Francisco’s iconic Coit Tower. There was something fascinating about a place that once was celebrated as a crown jewel of the city but now was regarded as little more than a gravestone of a bygone era.
Before the structure was destroyed by fire in 2012, Haeber, now 37, snuck into the pool house several times to photograph its remains. His visits were not sanctioned — in all likelihood, his actions constituted illegal trespassing — but the images he captured serve as some of the only visual proof of what the once-grand structure’s interiors looked like in the decades after it closed.
Haeber’s photos show discolored purple walls and a rotting ceiling, revealing aging woodwork built nearly a century prior. Graffiti was everywhere, bringing splashes of color but marring the deteriorating architecture. One image captures the tomblike quiet of rusty pool lockers, a splash of sunlight coming from a nearby window like the bright present intruding into the shadows of the past. Haeber was an intruder as well, but his photographs memorialize a classic building that wound up as a parking lot.
EXPLORING THE FORBIDDEN
There is a name for what Haeber does: urban exploration. It’s a hybrid of passion and hobby, an activity that involves numerous hazards and no guarantees. There are urban explorers across the planet, although few are willing to publicly connect themselves with an avocation that often involves a fair amount of illegal activity.
In essence, urban exploration is the act of finding an abandoned place — a former hospital, decommissioned military base, derelict factory or abandoned house — and visiting it. In some cases, the site in question has little or no security, while others are actively patrolled and occasionally require significant risks by Haeber and others like him to gain entry. Most urban explorers travel with cameras to document the places they find. They’ll often return for multiple visits and occasionally must bid farewell to favored sites when they are inevitably razed, sealed off or put up for sale.
Every urban explorer seems to have a slightly different reason for engaging in such a peculiar — and potentially dangerous — hobby. By way of explanation, Haeber offers the metaphor of a park.
“There are concrete pathways in parks because they want you to take that one, specific path,” he says. “However, if you look in certain interstices of a park, you’ll see the grass has been worn away because people don’t care about what society wants them to do. They want to take their own path. There’s this whole idea around recapturing your landscape, and abandoned places are perfect for that.”
Over the years, Haeber — known among fellow explorers as “TunnelBug” — has tracked security patrol patterns to figure the best way into interesting sites and has trekked through sewers to find his way into dilapidated buildings. He’s climbed the sides of decommissioned missile test stands and improvised campsites to await the full moon (Haeber often explores sites when the moon is full for added visibility, as well as for better photographic lighting). Once, along with two other explorers, Haeber covertly piloted a raft to reach a fleet of mothballed naval ships in Suisun Bay near Concord.
His adventures have taken him across the United States, but much of his time has been spent in California, where he lives in the Bay Area. The sheer size of the state offers many areas to explore and is home to a number of artifacts from one of Haeber’s favored exploring obsessions, the Cold War.
Social media sites like Instagram, Flickr and Reddit allow urban explorers to share their finds with a wider audience by posting photographs of the places they’ve visited. On the surface, these images appeal for the macabre beauty they provide — a glimpse into nature’s inevitable reclamation of the places humans have left behind. But the shared photographs also often raise questions about why these places were abandoned.
Not surprisingly, officials who oversee or protect abandoned buildings take a dim view of urban exploring. “Entering or occupying property without permission is a crime subject to fine and/or confinement in jail,” says Michael Andraychak, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman. “Properties described as ‘abandoned’ are protected by trespassing laws. … Persons who trespass on private property unnecessarily expose law enforcement and first responders to risk of injury should they be called to investigate a trespassing or burglary or to rescue an injured trespasser. The department discourages trespassing.”
Haeber’s curiosity about forbidden places began in high school in Roseburg, Ore., where he had an internship mapping old mining sites. Looking over topographic maps, he and his brother discovered a network of collapsed tunnels. Using rudimentary handheld GPS units, they were able to pinpoint the locations of these tunnels, which weren’t visible to the naked eye.
“You’d be standing right in front of them and it looked like nothing was there,” Haeber says. “So my brother and I went out there. We brought some shovels with us, and we dug a hole into the tunnel and squeezed through it. I found all this old mining equipment inside. It was like every kid’s fantasy. It was like ‘The Goonies.’”
While exploring one of the mining tunnels, he suddenly realized that a horde of cave crickets were crawling above his face. The TunnelBug moniker was born.
When Haeber moved to the Bay Area to attend Berkeley, he got a job as a nighttime campus security guard — giving him access to the network of steam tunnels that ran underneath the campus. He recalls the splendor of traversing the tunnels late at night, finding the place deep underground where the path intersected directly with the Hayward Fault.
“You could see the movement of the earth,” he says. “Over the years that tunnel has existed, there’s been a noticeable offset between it and the fault.”
When it came time to choose a graduate program, he opted for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst — partially because the surrounding area was full of abandoned places to explore. He’s been at it ever since.
A SURPRISING STATUE
One afternoon, Haeber leads me to a row of faceless buildings south of Oakland. Nearby, a brewery and several distilleries have begun to breathe new life into the area, but the cracked exteriors of the military architecture before us are all that remains of Alameda Island’s U.S. Naval Air Station, closed in 1997.
Haeber assesses the former base to be relatively low risk and tells me that we won’t need to rely on his usual assortment of precautions. While many of his explorations require extensive planning, with attention paid to everything from weather patterns to the latest available satellite imagery, getting into the Alameda complex requires little more than a glance around before we slip through a large hole in the chain-link fence.
As we walk discreetly down a leaf-strewn hallway, the signs of past visitors become apparent. There’s a scattering of soda cans and cigarette butts, but one can also occasionally spy scraps of typewritten documents rustling on the ground with each gust of wind. The likelihood that these fragments of paper contain anything of real interest is low, but their ghostly presence reinforces the feeling that we are now standing astride a crack in time. Traveling down the corridor, we’re greeted by the impressive sight of a large stone Pegasus nestled in the browning grass.
Suddenly, I find it easier to understand why Haeber risks arrest to visit the bones of decrepit places. The Pegasus may not be the most stunning sculpture I’ve ever seen, but the thrill of discovering something so unusual hidden behind ominous warning signs and coils of metal mesh on an abandoned military base is a palpable thrill.
Haeber quickly returns to his task of checking the wooden boards nailed across every window for potential entry points, clearly scouting his next visit. He also uses drones to scope out potential sites and to virtually map places to preserve them. The blend of high-tech gadgetry and old-school trespassing techniques underscores how urban exploration marries the future to the past.
Planning for an expedition often begins by poring over satellite imagery from Google Maps and other sources to uncover potential targets.
“You can often tell when a place is abandoned, even from above, from satellite imagery,” says Haeber’s friend and fellow explorer, Scott Haefner. “You might see holes in the roof, or maybe the building just looks run down. Maybe you can see weeds growing in the parking lot.”
Once they’ve determined a site is viable, Haeber and Haefner begin their preparations. This may involve casing the location for security. In some instances, they’ll note when shifts change or whether measures like shake sensors — capable of detecting movement at a precise place and alerting officials — are in use. They’ll also plan the best approach for gaining entry, which ranges from walking through the front door to scrambling up to a building’s roof. As much as possible, nothing is left to chance.
Haeber and Haefner have been detained and questioned several times during their years as urban explorers but have never been subject to more serious legal trouble. Still, the pair has had a few close calls. FBI investigators had some questions for them following a rather brazen exploration of the still-active Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, but officials did not have enough evidence to bring charges. The duo’s intentions as interested trespassers — as opposed to those who enter a building with plans of burglary, larceny or felony vandalism — also have helped them avoid serious trouble.
“I’ve always found a way to get the case dropped on a technicality or by pleading my case,” Haefner says.
For all the efforts to “mitigate risk” — a phrase both Haeber and Haefner use to describe their reconnaissance process — there’s always a chance something could go wrong, not the least of which involves safety risks. One of the online forums for explorers has a section dedicated to members who lost their lives while exploring. Last year, Haeber and Haefner learned that Eric Janssen — an explorer they’d befriended in Memphis — died after falling off the roof of a structure in Chicago.
“Things do happen,” Haefner concedes, “but everything you do in life is risky. I mean, I’m going to get on my bike and ride home from work later today. I would say that’s more dangerous — riding a bicycle on the streets in San Francisco — than what Jon and I do.”
Listening to Haefner, 44, describe one of his all-time favorite spots — the former military complex of Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which sits outside Thousand Oaks — it’s easy to understand the attraction of exploring the mysteries and history of a forgotten place, especially one that contributed to the Apollo space program.
“It was a rocket-testing facility,” Haefner explains. “I think they tested the Saturn V engine out there. These rocket test stands are just gargantuan. It’s hard to appreciate the scale. They’re a couple of hundred feet tall and just these giant metal beasts. It’s just such an incredible atmosphere, and it’s built into the landscape of these rolling hills and a lot of rock outcrops. It’s just an unbelievable place, and it’s a gigantic, sprawling facility. We actually camped out one night there. We set up camp at the top of one of the rocket test stands. It was pretty incredible.”
Given California’s significant role in designing and testing Cold War technology, the opportunities to discover rusting missile silos or climb aboard decommissioned naval ships across the state are plentiful. It’s a history Haeber would like to see better shared with the public.
“This is a part of history that schoolchildren would love to see and learn about, to understand why we got into the Cold War,” he says, “but because of intransigence and because there’s no funding on the federal side, all of these places are closed off to the public. The only people who get to see it are urban explorers.”
A TIGHT COMMUNITY
The people who pursue urban exploration are a tight-knit and secretive community. Part of the reason for their discretion is self-explanatory, given that much of what they do is technically illegal. The specter of criminal charges is always lurking. The other reason many urban explorers are wary of publicity stems from their desire to protect the treasures they’ve found from public desecration and government destruction.
To gather and share information, many urban explorers use online forums with strict vetting procedures. Applicants often are required to meet in person with someone already within the group to ensure their motives align with the community’s ethos.
There are some ironclad taboos. For one, individuals in the community are expected to proceed with caution. Every newspaper story about a careless explorer who suffers serious injuries while venturing into an off-limits site means added security and possibly another location no longer available to explore.
Another issue is how the explorers treat the places they visit. “There are some people that just trash things,” Haeber says. “You would never expect them to be the type of person to take a bat to glass, but once they’re inside of a space like that, they feel like they’re liberated. I’m not the type of person who does that. I still feel a deep, reverent respect for the past, and I don’t like destroying things.”
Haeber defines himself primarily as a preservationist, using his camera to capture the hidden wonders he finds. Haefner, however, says his interest is more artistic. A professional photographer, he sells prints of shots he’s taken at spots like the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and the late Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
“I have a pretty strong sense of curiosity,” Haefner says. “I’m always curious about the things that I’m not supposed to do or see. I think everyone grows up wondering about those places that you’re not supposed to go.”
AN EXPLORER’S WISH LIST
At home, Haeber keeps a map with an extensive list of places he and Haefner hope to explore. He’s always adding to it, as economic shifts leave once-thriving industries and communities behind and create new abandoned landscapes. For every Fleishhacker Pool House that’s been relegated to ash, there’s another ancient steel mill or amusement park yet to be explored.
Haeber and Haefner agree that any effort to define what makes urban exploration so appealing — the chance to witness history in the flesh, the adrenaline rush of outsmarting detection, the uniqueness of knowing you are wholly alone somewhere — is ultimately futile until you’ve gone and actually done it yourself.
You don’t have to look far.
“There are abandoned buildings all over the place,” Haefner says. “You just have to open your eyes and look. You may realize that you’ve been walking by a place every day, and most people will never even notice it. Part of what appeals to me is the idea we’re actually out there, discovering things and finding them on our own. Yes, we take advantage of open or broken windows, unlocked doors and underground entrances, but that’s what leads to this sense of wonder and discovery. We get to see things that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise.”
Zack Ruskin is a freelance arts and culture writer living in San Francisco.