“UE”, just what the hell is it, anyway?

Published on: June 7th, 2011 | Last updated: October 16, 2016 Written by:

“UE” is a lot of things to a lot of people. There seems to be a slowly brewing actual social debate about this, which seems rather silly to me (since exploring is basically sown into every fiber of my being). Nonetheless, it’s out there, and it’s time to talk about it.

For a starting point, let’s take Bradley Garrett’s recent piece on the topic. Brad’s piece here doesn’t really define what ‘UE’ is so much as argues against what some in law enforcement and corporations believe it to be. I’m going to reference this essay a few times in this post, it’s worth reading – I don’t hate it at all – I will make some counter points though, which maybe highlight how ‘ue’ is different in NYC than many other places – in fact UE, being a location centric hobby – by it’s very nature means that different parts of the world will view it different than others. The difference in exploring in NYC vs Paris vs say, Detroit, are huge. You can push a truck out of a window in Detroit. Chances are if you can even find a place to do that in NYC, NYPD will be on your ass immediately.

Corporate America
The corporations (while trying to use it to market products) think it’s some clandestine party scene, with raves held in underground spaces – as depicted in this Converse commercial. In many ways they’re 100% right. UE, at least in NYC, is occasionally the best party scene in town. Examples? We’ve got those, going back years. The Swatch/Tyke subway tunnel parties. The 2002 LTV invitational. The Ryder Nights, The 2005 Tennis Invitational, The 2006 Christmas invitational, and even the 2010 (ill)legal BKC/LTV warehouse decorating party (too criminal for the internet). Then there are all the Dark Passage events, EVER.

The above is just a quick mental reference list of NYC UE parties. In the UE world beyond NYC, there’s been a long tradition of party-like meetups. ‘NEOPEX’, ‘OPEX’, ‘CoalFest’. And there have been games, like the Deggi5 Great Race. These happen across the globe. Paris is well known for it’s underground lifestyle, along with Australia and basically anywhere there is a hole int he ground.

So YES, “UE” COULD be defined as having a fun loving, probably illegal, drinking insane party element to it. But that’s just a small part of it. Most people exploring aren’t doing that every weekend. And even those that are, certainly are not doing so in Converse’s cloth, flimsy sneakers. They’re not doing so with sponsorships from alcohol companies. They’re not charging admission.

Law Enforcement
‘The man’, of course, has a very different perception of what ‘urban explorers’ are. Let’s turn back to Brad:

A few weeks ago, within days of each other, two urban exploration crews were arrested inside urban transportation networks inspiring “terror alerts” (one in the NY Metro and the other in the London Tube). Both were running the tracks to locate and photograph disused stations on what are essentially live lines.

Now before I go further, I want to point out that in the NYC case, the explorers – some friends of mine – were not in an active subway tunnel trying to locate any abandoned stations. They already knew there were no stations in that isolated segment of tunnel. It also needs to be pointed out that it was only one very paranoid citizen who thought it was terrorism related. Once the police found and apprehended the explorers, they realized very quickly that it was just a bunch of guys with cameras getting their urban nerdhood on. One or two very right wing, extremely ridiculous news outlets ran with the story and made it seem like significantly more of a big deal than it was. This was by far not the first time an explorer has been arrested in NYC with a slight presumption of terrorism being at play. In each of those previous cases those arrested walked away with at worst 23-36 hours ‘in the system’ (under arrest, waiting to see the judge). Far more common have been the cases where officers simple threw desk appearance tickets at explorers (mostly to meet their quota), and the results in court always being no more than a 50 buck fine, 6 months ACD, or a cranky old white judge looking at you and asking ‘what are you doing here?’ before throwing the case out.

Law enforcement officers more or less can tell who’s a bad person and who isn’t. Unfortunately in some jurisdictions those officers face quotas, whereby they need to make arrests or give out desk appearance tickets. A lot of explorers in NYC have had to deal with this quota issue more than they have bad treatment at the hands of the law.

In other places, where there is no Quota, officers are probably a lot more realistic about trespassing. If you’re at some rural mental hospital or factory, chances are if they show up at all they’re just going to think you’re strange and ask you to leave.

Brad goes on to say this: “by treating citizens with such an active interest in the inner workings of our cities as potential terrorists, we risk radicalising a largely apolitical movement—which is what I suspect is starting to happen right now.”

Apolitical? Uhm. No. In fact I’d say, depending on one’s geo-location and amount of contact with the law, those explorers exposed to police harassment/detainment/fines are rapidly being radicalized due to the ridiculous laws against their hobby. Any explorer that is ‘apolitical’ at the moment simply hasn’t ever had to deal with the US justice system yet. Let me show you another wisp of steam from the NYC Exploration Experience.

In 2004, the NYC MTA decided they would try to ban photography in the NYC subway system. This ridiculous new rule (and subsequent threats of arrest and harassment) was far more than any smart minded person with any interest in transit (be it exploring or just a simple love of trains) was willing to stand for. We lead a protest against it. We started a petition, we sent it in, mail, fax, email. City hall, City Councilmen. We front paged newspapers and shut the MTA’s illogical right wing ‘ban those photographer terrorists’ down. Even Mayor Bloomberg came out on our side, and eventually the ACLU finally woke up to it being an issue and stood on the correct side of history. The MTA rattled the saber a little more but knew their rule was unenforceable, alienating a public that already hates them, and significantly more trouble than it was worth. They backed down.

When your hobby, your source of fun, is threatened with direct legal action, you are left no choice but to make a large political statement. Slowly but surely, this will probably happen more and more in ‘UE’. And that’s a good thing. We need to speak up for ourselves, and not let others fill in those blanks on to meet their own agendas.

Let’s face it. Trespassing laws are by and far stupid and illogical. They seem mostly designed to protect property owners from lawsuits against anyone who may get hurt doing something stupid on their property without authorization. I propose a new system: Let those ‘no trespassing’ signs stand. Let the law behind them be amended: If a property has no real security, it should assumed no one cares about it and there is nothing of value there for anyone to steal. If you’re caught there and told to leave and don’t – arrest or fine or whatever. If you’re not caught there and either die or get injured doing something stupid: It’s your fault. You can’t sue anyone. You decided to go into that tunnel, building, cave, etc. YOU are responsible for your own actions. The laws should be written this way, because really, that is the only way civilized society has ever actually functioned. I’d love to start a petition for this myself, write to politicians, start a fucking movement. Maybe I will if there’s enough interest. The point is that, at some point, as more and more people ignore those ‘no trespassing’ signs, the more and more ridiculous they will appear. Just like the ‘war on drugs’, the war on explorers is a complete waste of time and money. Shouldn’t cops be out arresting real criminals that want to rape murder and rob others?

This is probably an extreme view to some, but so was legalizing marijuana for a long time. In the same way that laws against marijuana are wasting our time and resources, so too eventually will any crackdowns on ‘UE” be viewed. It’s pretty hard to convince the public that a bunch of people having largely ok, safe fun and educating themselves about how things work is a bad thing. If anything, the governments should be giving more tours of power plants, water works, etc – because the public is very clearly curious. There’s a demand for it. A demand even dumb corporate PR people are trying to market against.

The People:
And finally, we get to the people. Laypersons. People who don’t know what the hell a UE is – never heard of it. What do they think it is?

Mostly, it seems they either love it or hated, depending almost entirely on personal experience and how the media presents it. If the media outlet presents the story favorably (see: Underbelly), it’s a smash hit. Everyone wants to see the location and know everything about it. If it’s presented unfavorably, that’s when the public blindly assumes it is a bad dangerous evil hobby that everyone needs to stand up against.

The Future:
The future of exploring, how it’s defined and perceived by the public, is ultimately in the hands of those going out exploring every weekend. I wouldn’t be true to my punk roots if I didn’t suggest that it is up to us to either write our own stories for media outlets (and be paid for our time as journalists) or push them away. When the press knocks on my email box, I do my diligence to find out what their angle is. If it’s a positive one, and I have the time (which is rare) I’ll work with them. If they want to do a story about how UE is just one huge underground orgy, I’ll either ignore them or subvert their story so that if it ever does get past the editors, they’ll be hard pressed to get their next writing gig. This is not to say that the media doesn’t sometimes get it right. ‘Off limits’ on the travel channel ain’t half bad, and shows the nerdy adventure side of the hobby well.

Even then, there will always been the fringe characters of any hobby. There are those who explore just to loot places of relics and scrap metal. There are those who ‘explore’ just to find a place to drink and party outside of the arm of the law and society. Those who explore just to find awesome places to create otherwise illegal murals. Exploring (let’s drop the ‘urban already – 75% of people that call themselves ‘urban explorers’ don’t live in cities) is a big wide field of people that like going places they’re not suppose to. I’ve met people from every end of this spectrum, and for the most part have learned something from all of them. And to me, that’s what exploring is. It’s about self-directed education – hands on, in the field – learning how my city works and looks, from the deepest tunnels under NYC to the tallest skyscrapers, and everything in between. It’s about meeting some really weird, really interesting people, and pushing your mental and physical limits. This is not a hobby for anyone seriously close minded, who believes in strict rules. Unless you’re going into a seriously dangerous location, throw out any rules and preconceived notions of what UE should or should not be – and just enjoy each place for what it is.

In the end and on a day to day basis, I could a flying F what the media, corporations, the law or society think about my hobby. The only thing I’m concerned with is making plans for where I’m going next. How am I getting there, how am I getting in, who should i invite? Whatever the outside world thinks of what I do is more or less irrelevant. I probably speak for a lot of people when I say that the only way anyone else will stop be from exploring will be if they can pull my camera from my cold dead hands.

-Control. 2011.

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  • About The Author

    Bad Guy Joe

    Bad Guy Joe
    Bad Guy Joe knows more about the NYC underground than anyone else on or below the surface of this planet. He has spent nearly 30 years sneaking into NYC's more forbidden locations. When not underground, he's probably bitching about politicians or building something digital. 
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