Infiltration 6-10

Infiltration: the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go united many disparate elements into the cohesive whole of Urban Exploration. Though helmed by UE primogenitor Ninjalicious (Jeff Chapman), the zine’s sixth through tenth issues (from October of 1997 to August of 1998) feature a major expansion in the number of contributors and a geographical expansion far beyond Ninj’s home court of Toronto.

Issue Six: Luxury Hotels

The sixth issue contradicts my previous statement by being set in Toronto and written almost entirely by Ninj. It focuses on infiltrating Toronto’s luxury hotels; these are rated from one to five stars based on the amenities available to “non-guests.” This issue had previously been teased on the back covers of earlier issues as “cheap fun in the city.”[0] The opening editorial is noteworthy for introducing the credibility prop, a concept that would come to be critical to both the theory and practice of urban exploration. This is an item or accessory used to blend into an environment to deflect suspicion. This could be an item such as a clipboard or a hardhat at a construction site, or (as is used in this case) a hotel-issued towel from the hotel’s pool. Ninj states that in the use of a credibility prop, “acting is a more important skill than lying.” Acting allows one to go unquestioned and obviates the need to lie.

The issue is finished off by Ninj’s essay on the same practice in a different city: “Luxury Leaching in the Land of the Loaded” is an exercise in hotel infiltration in Dallas. Ninj is pleasantly surprised by the hospitality that is offered (or taken) in the “magnificent and wide-open” Texas city; he is able to take in a symphony, and doesn’t need a tuxedo to crash a high-end party. Ninjalicious interestingly is at home in more modern-style cities: Dallas and Toronto are decentralized, suburbanized edge cities, not built around a traditional, organic downtown. Instead they are focused on a business/entertainment district grafted onto a residential area, traversed by automobile.

Though they are controversial amongst urbanists, Ninjalicious is able to reclaim these edge cities for the common man with a kind of impish subversiveness instead of a righteous political statement. Businessmen and hotel employees are described as easy to trick with a little play-acting and the right garb, and it is stated in a “Stuff You Shouldn’t Take” sidebar that “a person without a conscience could live like a parasite off the rich.” Ninj may not live like a parasite, but he does appreciate some souvenirs. He often encourages his correspondents to send him Do Not Disturb signs from hotels they visit; these aren’t items of necessity, but they do give the urban explorer material proof of her or his exploits.

Issue Seven: Abandoned Buildings

Anecdotally, I would say that many urban explorers focus on abandoned buildings as their primary environment. My interest in Infiltration has been fueled by its investigation of many different facets of urban exploration beyond abandoned buildings (this is only the third mention of the subject, after abandoned subway stations in Issue 5 and Pablo’s factory in Deseronto in the second issue). Ninj’s opening editorial is excellent––the necessity of urban survival skills in a post-apocalyptic world. He dismisses “lame rural survival skills like hunting, shelter-building and portaging,” on the basis that “rural living will probably be even more boring after the collapse of civilization, because it will be harder to get a ride downtown.” Climbing, lockpicking, and interior navigation are praised as more useful survival skills, to be practiced in abandoned buildings, the “training academies of urban survival.” Thus, exploration of abandoned buildings is necessary now for the “continuance of urban living” after Armageddon. He also briefly raises the interesting idea that “the number of abandoned buildings will grow exponentially in the next century, as buildings become increasingly specialized and construction becomes faster and cheaper.” Though it is tossed off casually here, I think this is a novel idea, and would love to see it elaborated upon.

The issue continues with a contribution by Kevin K. of “A Trip to the Abandoned Missile Silo.” This trip to the (unidentified) silo is quite well mapped and illustrated, and includes a lengthy disclaimer about the serious illegality of this action. The writer was caught and charged with trespassing. As he puts it, “we have brought this photo tour to you so that you wouldn’t have to go there yourself to see it.” The silo pictures manage to survive the black-and-white printing, to show a gloriously decrepit former military installation.

Next is “Toronto’s Secret Castles” by Throckmorten, who is able to access many abandoned industrial sites in the course of his work as a cinematographer. He always mentally contrasts these buildings in their current decrepit form with the bustle they must have exhibited in their heyday; he believes that film industry workers have an appreciation for these buildings that is less common in normal people, as the former can appreciate the character that they add to a film.  Four sites are covered, with the longest section dedicated to the Canada Malt Plant, a grain processing facility of modernist design that Walter Gropius would have admired. Another is a massive, awe-inspiring power generation plant, and another a former warehouse that is being redeveloped into apartments, “another great urban sandcastle lost to the tides of development.” Throckmorten writes, “Unfortunately, they don’t build old buildings anymore–-the modern industrial complexes of today are void of character, mystery, and classic architecture.” This discussion brings to mind questions about where the urban explorer fits into the urban fabric vis-a-vis abandoned buildings: neither gentrifier, renovator, nor developer, the urban explorer seems to be the only party served by the continuing neglect of derelict buildings.

Abandoned buildings are so plentiful and interesting that they could likely have filled the entirety of Infiltration’s 25-issue run; and although I am always interested in more stories and maps and pictures, I appreciate that the topic is pursued with restraint, with considerable attention given by Infiltration to the many other topics of urban exploration.  This issue also marks a milestone in that it is the first to have the majority of its content from contributors other than Ninjalicious, an indisputable sign of the zine’s growth and expansion in its first year.

Issue Eight: Toronto City Hall

Here Ninj trespasses into my realm of expertise: government. The history of Toronto’s controversial City Hall is discussed in the opening, which includes a rare occurrence of an urban exploration zine quoting politicians (some of whom are still in office almost two decades later). Toronto amalgamated with five other neighboring municipalities in 1998, and became the fifth-largest urban area in North America. There was debate about what venue should be used as the center of government: the modernist City Hall, built in the 1960s, or Metro Hall. The latter is dismissed by both Ninj and the quoted politicians as “a generic office tower” and “an unwelcoming edifice.” Ninj expresses his eclectic view of architecture and city planning while praising the quality-of-life contributions of architecture: “While I fully support continuous, unbound construction and urban sprawl, a part of me wishes an architectural moratorium had been declared sometime in the late 1980s, when society finally decided to abandon taste and love of beauty in favor of efficiency and economy. Being based in an uptight office tower like Metro Hall would have encouraged the city to think like an insurance company or bank.” Ninjalicious may not subscribe to the Jane Jacobs view of urban planning, but he does have agreeable standards for architecture.

Hearing these objections, I expected the City Hall (which was adopted over Metro Hall) to be a monumental, stone castle in Richardson Romanesque style, like a city hall in New England; or perhaps even something Neoclassical with a dome. In fact, Toronto City Hall is a pair of curved semi-circle towers (of disparate heights) around a dome-shaped council chamber known as “the spaceship.” The bunk of the issue is, of course, an infiltration of this building. “Danger and Deviousness at City Hall” takes us from the office towers (noteworthy mainly for the lack of security and apathy of desk staff), to the council chamber itself, where Ninj found a hidden door into the superstructure of the dome, and hid there until after closing. Ninj also joins a tour of architectural students, and stands out as its star pupil. He praises City Hall’s modernist flair, saying that it was responsible for launching a wave of experimentation that gave Toronto its unique cityscape. Summiting the office tower proves very dangerous when the apex is very small and unsecured.

My desire for a more Victorian municipal building is provided for by a sidebar on Old City Hall, now a courthouse with a lot of security and not much to see, though urban explorers have discovered masses of old documents. Another sidebar is on the locked-down Metro Hall. Ninj does note the presence of photocopiers and possibility for illicit use thereof; I think this is a side-effect of producing a zine without much budget.

The issue is closed out by a revisit of the 19th floor of the Royal York Hotel, as seen in the inaugural issue. The floor has been “restored” as an upscale conference area, and Ninj finds more security present. His investigation almost ends in a very incriminating capture that turns into a tour at the hands of a helpful employee. This article serves as both a revisit of the origins of Infiltration and more proof of the expansion of the zine. Ninjalicious has bit the big leagues at only issue 8.

Issue Nine: Europe

The next issue is another field trip, this time issue-long, as Ninj and others write about (underground) locations in Europe. Ninj starts with a quick story of “The Metropolitana Milanese,” and the letters are all Euro-themed, including a Chunnel Run by the “London Underground Society.” The main article is “Paris Underground: a Tour of the Dark World Beneath the City of Lights” by independent filmmaker Murray Battle. At the time, Battle was working on a film about those who live in underground places. The story of visiting the Paris Catacombs is a series of vignettes, and though they communicate the impressiveness and claustrophobia of the locations visited, they don’t do much to put the catacombs in their proper place in the context of the larger city. The connectivity between the locations isn’t always clear. Battle seems to be more interested in the “cataphiles” themselves, the focus of his film. For most of us, a cellar is the closest we’ll get to inhabiting the underground; but these cliquish adventurers are very familiar with the world beneath Paris, to the point that perhaps some spend more time there than on the surface. They are accustomed even to bringing hammocks along with them to observe a rest period while exploring.

The final segment is on “The Botanic Gardens of Subterranean Glasgow,” a fragment from the archives of The Milk Crate Gang, whose website has apparently been taken down after complaints of copycat explorers injuring themselves. This story about the abandoned Kelvinbridge Subway Station and Botanic Gardens station, which has been reclaimed as green space by the Botanic Gardens above. Infiltration spices up its own repertoire by moving across the Atlantic for this issue, but of course barely scratches the surface on European sites, which could have themselves likely filled the zine’s entire print run. As with the issue on abandoned buildings, Ninjalicious was wise to continue rolling to other topics instead of diving as deep as possible on a single aspect of urban exploration.

Issue Ten: “CAUGHT!”

The tenth issue is entirely in letter format, all stories of infiltrators being busted by the police or private security. As Ninj says, “Have you ever been caught?” is one of the first questions he is asked when his hobby comes up in conversation. Having solicited contributions as part of “Scheduled Infiltrations” on previous issues, he states that he received so many that a second Caught issue is already planned (there would eventually be a total of three).

The content of this issue is very entertaining, but the issue on the whole is interesting because of the connections it establishes to other urban exploration groups. There is a long letter from a member of the longstanding Australian draining group called the Cave Clan, about the time their award ceremony was interrupted by the police. The Cave Clan has been active since the mid-1980s, so by this point (August of 1998), they’ve established a clear subculture, with its own rituals and terminology (they’ll be revisited several times in future Infiltration issues about storm drains).

Another prominent urban explorer making an appearance in this issue is David “Lefty” Liebowitz, co-founder of the New York-based zine Jinx. Lefty tells the story of how, as foolish teenagers, he and some friends were caught on the roof of Grand Central Station. According to the book that he and his partner L.B. Deyo wrote, Ninjalicious and the Jinx crew discovered each other roughly around this time and began a correspondence.

Other readers and explorers write in, many of them using their full names (instead of the common format of previous letters, being a first name and initial, or a pen name). Jonathan Gennick writes about being caught on the grounds of a nuclear power plant in Michigan, Ricky Smith in an abandoned asylum in the same state (I must say that Liebowitz’s letter does add a welcome East Coast presence to the American writers, most of whom are Midwestern). Steve Chapman of Toronto (related to Ninjalicious?) dodges security on a construction site, Chris D. Blickensderfer goes into the steam tunnels of Southern Illinois University. Santa Cruz’s Wes Modes writes about being caught at his hobby of trainhopping. Ninj finishes out the issue with a transcription of a conversation with a security guard who escorted him out of a train station, each baffled by the other’s worldview.

By its nature, the “Caught!” issue involves the highest number of contributors yet, though the letter section has been consistently populated since the second issue. I have pursued some google archaeology to track down some of these individuals and groups that had contributed to Infiltration eighteen years ago. There are many urban exploration sites from this period into the early aughts, and many of them went defunct before that decade ended. These sites are a synecdoche of the abandoned buildings that they catalogue: once thriving, now forgotten by all but a handful.

 

Though urban exploration still exists today, many of the most prolific groups that practiced it in its heyday have shut down and moved to other projects. I can’t help but speculate that this decline has something to do with the passing of Ninjalicious himself: as the Jinx crew says in their memoriam: “Jeff was about as close to a leader as urban exploration ever had; in a community notorious for infighting, backbiting, envy and scorn, Jeff was one of the few things everyone agreed on. Everybody liked him, everybody admired him, everybody loved his magazine…[having fun was] what Infiltration was all about. A lot of urban explorers consider themselves part of an underground elite. They jealously conceal their activities, and look at newcomers with grim suspicion. Not Jeff. His message to would-be explorers was, join us. We’re having fun, and we want you to have fun too.” It seems very possible to me that some of the spark went out of urban exploration with Ninj’s passing.

This series isn’t intended to be a thorough investigation of all aspects of the UE community, but to focus on the zines that some of them produced. It quickly became clear that the zines were a cultural artifact from a different time, supplanted by blogs and websites. Perhaps Ninjalicious’ death ended the run of physical UE zines (with the exception of DCinruins, of course), as he was the premier zinester of the bunch. The community moved on to websites, some of which no longer exist, some of which exist only as museum pieces, and a few of which (such as the forum uer.ca) are still active. It is good that the physical documents of Infiltration has preserved for posterity the names and pursuits of explorers of this era, so that archaeologists have a first clue to hunt them down.

[0] Most teased issues, or “Scheduled Infiltrations,” come to pass (though occasionally with altered titles). Many are advertised across several issues to solicit contributions. However, by this point, we have chalked up one Scheduled Infiltration that will never come to pass: “The PATH,” which is an exploration of Toronto’s pedestrian walkway. There are only a couple of other planned issues that never come to fruition, which will be noted as they appear later in the timeline.