I recently went on an “urbex tour” with one of the more visible tour operators in the Detroit area. I went for a few reasons: I was planning on taking my students to the city and wanted to check this tour out before I took them on it; my research focuses on blight in Detroit and this is one of the ways that people see and experience blight (specifically industrial blight, but also neighborhood blight) in the city; and I wanted to compare the dynamic of an organized, paid urban exploration tour with that of the more informal, “traditional” urban exploration outings that I’ve observed and participated in.

In this post, I’ll explore the difference between urban exploration and dereliction tourism, discuss my experiences of the tour, and talk about the ethical implications of dereliction tourism for ethnographic researchers living and working in postindustrial communities.

Urban Exploration vs. Dereliction Tourism

Urban exploration (a.k.a. urbex, UE, infiltration, or place-hacking) is the exploration of the “off-limits” places in the urban environment, including–but not limited to–abandoned structures, active construction sites, transportation networks, and maintenance and utility tunnels. For many explorers, urbex is one way to challenge formal, state-level restrictions on citizens’ freedom of movement, and a way to better understand and engage with their city or town.

“Urban explorers strive to actually earn their experiences, by making discoveries that allow them to get in on the secret workings of cities and structures, and to appreciate fantastic, obscure spaces that might otherwise go completely neglected. When you step away from the TV and think about it, humans are naturally curious creatures. We can’t help but want to see the world around us; we’re designed to explore and to play, and these instincts haven’t disappeared just because most of us now live in large cities where parking lots have replaced common areas, malls have replaced city squares and the only public spaces that remain are a few grudgingly conceded parkettes” (Ninjalicious).

The above quote is from Infiltration, a popular zine devoted to urbex and created by the late Jeff Chapman (better known as “Ninjalicious,” considered a “spiritual father” of urban exploration). In this piece, called “No Disclaimer,” Chapman goes on to describe what have become the basic beliefs that undergird the behavioral “code” that most urban explorers follow: “Genuine urban explorers never vandalize, steal or damage anything — we don’t even litter…We don’t harm the places we explore. We love the places we explore.” People explore individually and in groups (usually smaller groups–it’s difficult to get a lot of people into off-limits places at once), and while practitioners do travel to other places to explore, perhaps with a knowledgeable resident, the emphasis is on exploring one’s own environment.

Urban exploration (or dereliction tourism?) in Detroit, photo by the author
Urban exploration (or dereliction tourism, depending on your POV) in Detroit, photo by the author

Dereliction tourism is related to urbex in that both practices involve visiting abandoned spaces. Unlike urbex, however, dereliction tourism is usually commercialized and involves larger groups and some form of group transportation (a tour bus, for example). The majority of people who participate in dereliction tourism are not residents of the cities where they attend tours.

Dereliction tourism is associated with postindustrial regions around the world that have lost a large portion of their population, leaving behind abandoned factories, homes, churches, schools, etc. In addition to creating vacancy and blight, depopulation and the subsequent erosion of a city’s tax base often mean a reduction in public services and protections for remaining residents–protections that would normally keep large groups of people from trespassing on vacant properties. In cities like Detroit, for instance, law enforcement is underfunded and stretched thinly across a large area, and pursuing people for trespassing or scrapping–which some say are largely “victimless” crimes–isn’t a high priority. This means that tour guides can take a larger group of people into various sites without having to worry as much about the legal consequences. And because what they’re doing is illegal and unregulated, there’s also the possibility that tour operators don’t report their earnings–or the entirety of their earnings–from tours. Other tourism-based businesses pay taxes and can contribute to a community in that way; illegal dereliction tours usually do not.

Dereliction tourism often masquerades as “urban exploration,” as I’ll discuss below, which offends the many urban explorers who consider it to be the opposite of what they do. The careful planning and figuring things out for yourself (which structures to visit, when, how to gain access, whether or not it’s safe, how to move through and document structures), and the appreciation and curiosity about abandoned spaces that characterize and drive urban exploration are largely absent from dereliction tourism, and if they do play a role, it’s secondary. As Chapman mentions above, earning experiences is a key part of urban exploration, and an explorer’s reputation and integrity within the larger urban exploration community are important.

By contrast, dereliction tourism involves paying someone for the experience that urban explorers believe you should earn. A guide plans the entire outing for you, takes you to and from the sites, helps you navigate them, and “protects” you from possible dangers you may come across. Depending on the guide and the group, learning about the sites you’re visiting (beyond “this was a factory;” “this was a school”) is not the main motivator behind dereliction tourism. And while there’s still plenty of discussion about whether or not taking beautiful photos of abandoned buildings is a way to experience, document, and respect them, I think that at least (or especially) in postindustrial communities, it’s not enough to take just show up, take pictures, post them on Instagram, and call it an “experience,” without at least thinking about a). why you’re doing it, and b). the impact it will have on other people and on historic/cultural resources in the city you’re visiting.

Finally, a structure’s integrity is not as important to dereliction tourism as it is to urban exploration. I’ve been on a number of urban exploration outings, but I never saw anyone do damage to a structure until I went on the one and only dereliction tour I’ve attended. Moving large volumes of people through decaying structures on a regular basis is dangerous for both visitors and the structure, and even if they touch/move nothing, their presence alters the structure over time. Urban explorers also alter a structure when they visit and leave behind traces (even if they try not to), but there are generally fewer of them entering a structure at any given time, and they tend not to frequent the same structures.

Ethics, Ethnography, and Dereliction Tourism

There isn’t much scholarly research on dereliction tourism yet; unlike its close relatives, poverty tourism and disaster tourism–it’s a more recent practice, at least in its current form, and there aren’t that many places where it can be carried out successfully or on a scale large enough to study. Urban sociologist Alice Mah writes about dereliction tourism (and includes urban exploration as part of it) in the postindustrial communities where she works, arguing that the phenomenon has a lot in common with ethnographic research in these regions.

Mah became increasingly critical of dereliction tourism and the aestheticization of industrial blight in the course of her research in three different postindustrial communities (one in the US/Canada, one in the UK, and one in Russia), but as an ethnographer and “outsider” in the communities where she works, she realized that some of the same ethical issues are present in both practices, and that dereliction tourism has the potential to offer an “ethical reference point” through which to frame ethnography:

 “Both dereliction tourism and ethnographic research in areas of industrial decline share ethical problems, in that they risk voyeurism, romanticization, and the reproduction of stigmatization. At the same time, they both also offer the potential for alternative ethical possibilities through the insights that can be revealed through being there as a witness in different people and places… The negotiation of complex, blurred roles in the research field as an outsider, visitor, tourist, activist, ethnographer, activist, and human being require careful reflection in relation to intrinsic ethical issues” (Mah 2014, 11).

Mah says she continues to be “haunted by the spectre of dereliction tourism,” and worries that she contributes to a set of practices that romanticizes industrial ruination and benefits in some way from the suffering of postindustrial communities. As a researcher living and working in the Rust Belt, I know the sense of unease and discomfort–and the difficulty of trying to balance multiple, complex identities–that she’s referencing. Unlike Mah, though, I don’t include urban exploration under the umbrella of dereliction tourism (which is why I outlined their differences above), but I believe that both practices are relevant to ethnographic research in postindustrial communities, especially if, like me, your research involves blight and its impact on communities.

I’ll be using Mah’s framework and her concept of ethics as “part of a practice-based learning process” (Mah 2014, 11), as well as research about different types of ruin tourism in Detroit, to discuss my experience as an ethnographer on a dereliction tour in the city where I work.

Background: Ruins Tourism in Detroit

Emily Slager wrote her master’s thesis on “ruins tourism” in Detroit with a specific focus on guided tours, and she divides those tours into three types: commercial, political, and trespassing. She notes that while the tours in each category are different, as are their primary customer groups, ruins are featured in every category, sometimes as secondary or incidental attractions and sometimes as the main focus of a tour (Slager 2013, 27).  I’ll briefly discuss all three types, as it’s important to understand the different options people have for “ruin tours” when visiting the city.

The commercial tours, run by for-profit, licensed companies (most are locally owned), are the most popular and attract the widest range of visitors to the city, but they are also the least likely to include ruins as a focal point of a tour. If ruination is discussed, it’s included as part of a broader narrative about the city (its founding, decline, and renewal) that structures the tour.

Slager defines ‘political tours’ as run by nonprofits that are using the tours and their generated income to raise awareness about certain issues in the city (Slager 2013, 30). Examples she includes are Preservation Detroit, the Sierra Club, and d.Hive. I would also add Hostel Detroit’s ambassador tours to this list—the hostel is a nonprofit, and their tours, led by local volunteers and covering a variety of issues, are offered free of charge to guests. Political tours advance particular organizational goals, and the issue of how Detroit is represented, and by whom, comes into play most often in this type of tour. Again, if ruins are discussed, it is as part of a larger narrative about the city’s various transitions, and is not the focus of the tour.

The third type of tour Slager discusses, trespassing tours, would be considered ‘dereliction tourism,’ and they regularly involve visiting abandoned properties without permission from owners, hence their name. These tours are mostly run by local individuals or organizations that don’t advertise as openly (or at all) due to the legal issues involved in what they do, and this is also why there are fewer of this type of tour offered. Many visitors hear about these tours through word of mouth. Though Slager doesn’t mention this (her sample size is very small–at the time of her project, she could find only one organization to go on a tour with) these tours vary in their goals and practices.

Slager went on a tour with Detroit Urbex, and describes the “passive vetting process” that the owner uses to both protect his own privacy and to “weed out a lot of the voyeurs and gawkers” (Slager 2013, 34). The owner estimates that only half the people who contact him pass this stage, and his clientele are mostly academics, journalists, and creative professionals–photographers, filmmakers, and fiction writers. They only take a maximum of 4 people on their tours (this is something I learned while trying to book a tour with them) and they usually use customers’ private vehicles for transportation. The tours themselves focus mostly on ruins and are tailored to clients’ interests, but other attractions in the city–such as a visit to the MBAD African Bead Museum or a local diner–are included to show visitors the vitality of the city. Slager notes that “[The guide’s] narration of the sites was wide-ranging. He discussed the physical processes that contribute to a building’s collapse; recited architects’ names, ownership histories, and factory production statistics; and recreated a sense of the buildings in their heydays with the help of historic photos on his cell phone and stories from his archival research” (36). Some of this archival research is available on Detroit Urbex’s detailed, comprehensive website dedicated to “documenting and understanding Detroit’s past, present, and future.” Their interactive feature, “Detroit: Now and Then” combines archival research and photographs with more recent images, and was featured by the Detroit Free Press. Detroit Urbex focuses not just on the city’s past, but on its transformation, and a lot of their online materials, including the interactive feature, reflect the positive changes being made in the city (for instance, once-abandoned buildings or sites that have been rehabilitated or redeveloped).

Experiencing a Dereliction Tour

The “trespassing tour” that  Slager went on with Urbex Detroit contrasts with the one I attended in March, offered by a different organization. Unlike Slager, I was not on the tour in any formal research capacity, and unlike Detroit Urbex, where guides use clients’ personal vehicles and the clientele are screened, the group I went with has a minibus that can accommodate about 12 people, and the owner doesn’t appear to have any vetting process that might limit who’s allowed on each tour or the number of tours they book. Though the organization’s name implies that it teaches clients photography skills, it almost exclusively runs “urbex tours” (again, an oxymoron), and the “tours” themselves are mostly a passive means of transportation and access to abandoned properties; they involve very little context or information about Detroit history more broadly or the history of the specific sites visited on the tour.

I was one of 10 people on this outing, which was nearly full despite the fact that it was a very cold morning in March. We met in the suburbs just before dawn and signed a waiver before being bused into the city, where we visited 3 locations: a factory, a warehouse, and a public school. All of the people on the tour were in their 20s, including a group of students from an international university who were taking photos for a class, a medical resident originally from New York but currently living nearby, and a couple on spring break from college, also from New York. We all brought cameras, and most of the people on the tour were there primarily to take photos. The tour was $65/person for a half-day, one of the more expensive tours in the city.

An abandoned school in Detroit, photo by the author
An abandoned school in Detroit, photo by the author

Once we arrived at and entered a given structure, we dispersed and just wandered around, taking photos and exploring. The only time I heard anyone comment about one of the sites we visited being “sad” was when we were at the recently abandoned (closed July 2012) public school. Unlike the factory and warehouse, which had both been abandoned for decades and were mostly empty, at the school there were textbooks, papers, artwork, and the records and personal belongings of students strewn all over. While we were there, a former teacher happened to be driving by and saw us out in front of the school, and she stopped to speak with us about the circumstances surrounding its closure (it was one of 15 schools in the Detroit Public Schools system to close in the summer of 2012). This helped me understand the history of the school, the events leading to its abandonment, and the impact its closure has had on the community. In addition to losing the institution, which had been part of the neighborhood since 1916, and forcing students to transfer elsewhere, the school’s closure had also attracted illegal scrapping and salvage activity, creating a hostile and dangerous situation for residents and destroying the building, making future plans for its reuse harder to carry out. Because we were coming face to face with loss, both in the form of the materials and belongings left behind at the school and in the form of the teacher’s experiences and the information she shared with us, the school seemed to make the biggest impression on tour participants.

The school was also where I witnessed the guide doing some structural damage in the form of graffiti (with a can of spray paint that had been left behind by someone else) and “helping” a wall that had been torn up by scrappers to crumble a bit more. This was minor, almost incidental damage, but if a guide had no problem treating a structure like that, I wondered what other kinds of behaviors are tolerated on tours.

An abandoned high school in Detroit, photo by author
An abandoned high school in Detroit, photo by author

This tour didn’t intentionally create any opportunities for understanding Detroit’s ruins or learning about its future (the one opportunity we had–talking with the former teacher–was accidental). Meeting in the suburbs and not at a location within the city reinforced the city’s stigmatization and the division between the suburbs and the city. The media and various regional, national, and international narratives about Detroit already teach people to be afraid of Detroit, and there are still many real and imagined boundaries that separate the city from the suburbs. From what I could tell from my own experience and from my analysis of the many online reviews of the tour operator, most of this organization’s clientele are not from Detroit (the city or the metro region), and are not only staying outside it (if they stay at all–part of my group was driving to the city that day and then returning), but are also more comfortable beginning the tour in the suburbs.

The tour was also scheduled for the early morning on a weekend, a time when the majority of residents won’t be out. While this may be primarily to avoid confrontations with scrappers and law enforcement, it also means that when you’re driving from site to site, you don’t see a lot of people, again reinforcing the idea that the city is a “ghost town.” The minibus also creates a physical and social barrier between attendees and the city. While it may be more convenient to drive a bus and it might give tour attendees a sense of security, the bus is more noticeable and obtrusive, and using it means that visitors don’t have to engage with their surroundings in certain ways (they don’t have to navigate, don’t have to walk, don’t have to think about or plan where to go…they just show up). The social perception of a tour bus also factors in…it’s one thing to have a small urbex outing using people’s private vehicles, and quite another to pack 12 people into a tour bus to drive around blighted areas of Detroit and take pictures.

Fear and concerns about safety played a part in my tour–even when fear was absent, it wasn’t necessarily because people felt safe in the city, but because the group dynamic, the bus, and the fact that we were on a “tour” with a “guide” (even if this person cannot and does not take responsibility for your personal safety or offer any real protection), seemed to make people feel more secure. At one point, when most of us were in the van waiting for the guide and another tour participant who had wandered off, a resident from the only occupied home near the factory came out and looked at us before he turned to walk up the street, and one of group members asked if we should lock the doors of the van. Someone else mentioned all the photography equipment we had with us. A third person added, “There’s a bunch of people with cameras sitting in a van outside his house at 7 in the morning–he’s probably just wondering what we’re doing here.” A brief conversation ensued about how “shady” the man and his behavior were and whether or not we should be afraid, but no one locked the doors, nor was there ever any real sense of alarm.

I had been looking at the surrounding neighborhood while we were in the factory and had noticed that this one structure (with multiple apartments or condos in it) was occupied despite the rest of the neighborhood being very sparsely populated (until you go about two blocks over…the front of the factory is at the end of a dead-end road, and there are some operational machine shops across the street). I wondered who lived there and what they thought about the factory and these tours, which must be fairly frequent. In fact, we weren’t even the only group there that morning; there was another tour there at the same time, but they kept to themselves and I didn’t see any other vehicles parked directly around the factory that could belong to them.

While wandering on my own, I found some indication of what locals/urban explorers/other tour guides think about this particular tour operator and his clientele: “Fuck [the owner’s name] and his hipster bus” was spray-painted across a door. I didn’t see any references to other tour operators at any point in the tour–the owner (and his bus and clientele) were targeted when there were clearly other guides operating in the area. My best guess for why this is would be that residents and other explorers are offended by the scale of his tours and the way he operates. Open advertising, conspicuous, obtrusive transportation, and bringing large groups of people through the ruins (multiple times a week in high season) make him stand out, and considering that what he’s doing is illegal, unregulated, and unethical, the whole operation is pretty bold. It’s like slap in the face for residents and local urban explorers.

Graffiti in an abandoned auto plant in Detroit. Photo taken in 2015 by the author.
Anti-dereliction tourism graffiti in an abandoned auto plant in Detroit,. Photo taken in 2015 by the author.

While we were all gathered outside of the warehouse we were about to visit, one of my fellow tour attendees threw the wrapper of a snack bar on the ground. When someone murmured something about it, he said, “What’s the difference? The entire city’s one giant trash dump, anyway.” This comment upset me, and I had an almost visceral reaction to it…but it wasn’t said to be hurtful or even negative; it was more of an observation that became a judgment about all of Detroit. Considering what we’d seen that morning–vacant buildings (already considered to be negative, wasted space) with lots of trash in them, trash dumps, emptiness, and very few people– and how the media represents the city (pretty ruin imagery and not much context), it wasn’t unreasonable for him to draw the conclusion that Detroit is largely abandoned, uncared for, and beyond hope. And while I firmly believe visitors do have an obligation to think about the kinds of experiences they seek out when traveling and to at the least do no harm the places they visit, the larger issues at play here mean that this can’t come down to individual responsibility alone. The negative impacts of dereliction tourism are part of larger societal narratives about postindustrial cities US that people use to form their expectations about their visit…and those expectations will shape their behavior and the way they interact with a place.

This was what Mah would refer to as an “ethically important moment,” an experience that disturbs a researcher and forces her to reflect critically on her own position and its inherent privileges and biases (Mah 2013, 7). It disturbs me to write about this moment even now. At the time I definitely wasn’t thinking, “Eureka! An ethically important moment! Let’s learn from it!” No, I was mostly thinking about how horrible it felt to hear something like that and focusing on managing my reaction well enough so as to not lash out. As Mah points out, reflection comes later, sometimes months or years later. The important part is that when you are disturbed, you don’t just power through it or ignore it in an attempt to remain an “objective” observer and to not judge others…you stay with it, you pay attention, and you use your experience to learn (about your research, about your personal and professional boundaries and why they are where they are). I’ve revisited that moment many times since March, and will doubtless continue to return to it as I continue my research in Detroit.

Conclusions: Dereliction Tourism, Ethnography, and Ethics

“Dereliction tourism and ethnographic research share similar tensions between insider and outsider perspectives, and between distance and proximity. Both aim to get close to landscapes of industrial ruination. Both make their journeys through the lens of a camera, through the window of a car, or through intrepid urban exploration trips into abandoned industrial spaces. Arguably, the dereliction tourist and the ethnographer have different aims: the former seeks pleasure and excitement, while the latter seeks meaning and understanding. But both seek some form of ‘authenticity’ of experience, a phenomenological aim related to being in and experiencing place. While it is easy to point out the ethical problems and pitfalls associated with being a voyeur, a spectator, or a distant ‘Othering’ observer, there are more positive commonalities between dereliction tourists and ethnographers. They share a sociological imagination related to place— a fascination, yes, but also the capacity for empathy and concern over social justice issues…They witness landscapes marked by toxic pollution; dereliction tourists and researchers witness abandoned industrial sites and communities, and call public attention to their neglect. However, being there and being a witness are not necessarily positive; this depends very much on the way in which the tourist or the ethnographer engages with this experiential way of knowing” (Mah 2014, 5;  my emphasis in bold).

It isn’t the purpose of this post to condemn dereliction tourism, and I don’t believe it’s always unethical. For instance, both the tour I went on and the tour Slager attended are considered “dereliction tours,” but the outings themselves were driven by different ethical commitments and priorities. The owner of Detroit Urbex, the tour that Slager went on, emphasizes using the tours to make a difference in the way people see and understand Detroit, and to do that the guide needs an excellent understanding of the city’s past, present, and future, and a willingness to share what he learns through his own explorations and research. The tour I went, on the other hand, actively and passively reinforced many of the negative perceptions of the city and its ruins. The owner focuses mostly on personal monetary gain to the exclusion of all else–he saw a market for the tours and went for it–and to run a tour, he just needs a bus and some basic knowledge about how to trespass. (This may seem to be too hasty of a judgment to make based on one tour, but I ended up having several months’ worth of negative interactions with the owner that reinforced the conclusions I’d drawn from the tour.)

Ethnographers can also be considered to be “guides” of a city–they’re experts in their fields and are often invited to share their research on TV and in magazine articles written for a wide audience. Researchers in postindustrial cities can also passively observe and record whatever information they need for their project and then just leave, using what they’ve learned and experienced to reinforce negative stereotypes about the city in their publications, classrooms, and media appearances. There is also the potential for ethnographers to do the opposite, and use the information they gain to challenge media narratives and provide a different, more holistic perspective on life in the city–a perspective that might positively influence planning and policy.

I was very uncomfortable during parts of the dereliction tour I attended, but the similarities between what I do as an ethnographer and the activities of dereliction tourists and urban explorers are pretty jarring, and part of the discomfort I felt was coming face-to-face with those similarities and their implications. The archaeologist and anthropologist in me can’t not see or think about physical and social processes when I see an abandoned structure: I can’t separate my aesthetic experience of ruin and abandonment from my personal and professional desire to understand what happened before it, what led to it, who’s impacted by it and in what ways, and what will come after it; I can’t admire a colorful room full of defunct industrial machinery without considering the forces–natural and human–that are at work in it; and I can’t see an occupied house next to an abandoned factory and not wonder who lives in it and what they think about the bus of tourists parked outside every couple of days. This doesn’t mean I can’t do unethical research because I can’t just take a photo of Michigan Central Station, post it, and move on…it means that I don’t think researchers or anyone else can compartmentalize their experiences, biases, privileges, etc, either. There is no such a thing as “just posting it and moving on.”

While all these activities share positive and negative similarities and possible outcomes, the differences lie in what we do with our experiences. It’s not enough to passively “witness” or “be there;” the way you engage with what you learn, see, feel, etc. matters. Dereliction tourism and ethnographic research both have the capacity to intervene in the way people experience the city, and those interventions can work to challenge, complicate, and eventually change larger, negative narratives about Detroit that the media creates. Ethnographers, tour guides, tourists, urban explorers, and any other group of people whose knowledge and experiences of Detroit will be called on by others to help them understand and get to know the city have an ethical responsibility to do more than just “be there” with the dereliction. Ethics aren’t a static professional code of conduct that only researchers or tour guides are held to–they’re a set of moments and experiences that we’re constantly negotiating our way through and learning from. Each question we have about a place we visit, each wish to better understand what happened and what will happen to a place and the people who live there, is an opportunity to go beyond just “witnessing.”

Works Referenced

*All photos were taken by the author in Detroit in 2015

  1. Engelhart, Katie. “Is Slum Tourism Really All That Bad?” VICE, August 29, 2014. http://www.vice.com/read/slum-tourism-katie-engelhart-412.
  2. “Grosse Pointe Park Builds a Wall of Mammoth Potted Plants at Detroit’s Border.” Motor City Muckraker. Accessed July 17, 2015. http://motorcitymuckraker.com/2015/07/16/grosse-pointe-park-builds-a-wall-of-mammoth-potted-plants-at-detroits-border/.
  3. Mah, Alice. “The Dereliction Tourist: Ethical Issues Conducting Research in Areas of Industrial Ruination.” Sociological Research Online 19, no. 4 (2014). http://www.socresonline.org.uk/19/4/13.html.
  4. Ninjalicious. “No Disclaimer.” Infiltration: The Zine About Going Places You’re Not Supposed to Go, n.d. http://www.infiltration.org/ethics-nodisclaimer.html.
  5. Slager, Emily. “Touring Detroit: Ruins, Representation, and Redevelopment.” M.A. thesis, University of Oregon, 2013.
  6. Wade, Lisa. “‘Tourist, Shame on You’: On Disaster Tourism.” The Society Pages, August 29, 2014. http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2014/08/29/disaster-tourism/comment-page-1/.
  7. “What Is Slum Tourism? | Slumtourism.net.” Http://slumtourism.net/. Accessed July 5, 2015. http://slumtourism.net/what-is-slum-tourism/.