“The World is Ours” is graffitied onto the wood paneling of a derelict colonial revival mansion in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The house, which was built in 1901 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, was abandoned in 2008 following the bankruptcy of its owner. People no longer live here, but they still pass through. Seen in the video “Abandoned MILLIONAIRES Family Mansion” [sic] from the popular YouTube channel Exploring With Josh, the slogan is bitterly twisted by the mangled disrepair of the space. For those who have a morbid curiosity about the decaying vestiges of America, the online urban exploration community is a gateway into the past and a mirror for the present.
Urban exploration predates the internet, but has always been associated with video art and photography. The community lives by the ethos “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” Urbexers on YouTube document their adventures with cameras, cellphones, and drones. The most popular videos in this genre tend to delve into the locations of dreams and nightmares, like abandoned asylums and amusement parks. But in America, there is a specific subsection of videos that reveal the mundane decay of the suburbs.
The ruins of Ancient Rome are aqueducts and coliseums; America’s are malls and superstores. YouTuber Dan Bell produces the “Dead Mall Series,” which is devoted to the subject. Bell’s videos offer both historical and personal context, and are rich with nostalgia. He edits classic commercials into his journeys, and seems drawn to relics of American kitsch. In “THE END OF KMART: From Open to Closed to Abandoned,” he makes three visits to a Kmart that’s going out of business, observing as the stacks become increasingly disorganized. He sprinkles in reminiscences about going to Kmart with his grandfather and eating at the store’s greasy spoon restaurant. “Those are some really good memories. That is why I’m kinda sad about Kmart going under,” he says.
If superstores and malls once represented consumerist success, the ones that survive serve as anchors in communities where the corporation in question has driven out all competition. They no longer have to maintain the illusion of the American dream, since their customers don’t have a choice. At the end of his video, Bell and a friend break into the now-shuttered Kmart. They wander the impossibly clean open space. Their voices echoing, the companion says, “I feel like we’re in the apocalypse,” and Bell answers, “We kinda are.”
For many urbexers, abandoned residential homes especially resonate when the former residents didn’t take most of their possessions with them. Rather than emanate excitement, videos of such spaces are weighed down with melancholy. “What would make someone leave all this behind?” they ask. Many of these homes were vacated due to foreclosures and bankruptcies in the wake of the 2008 recession. The houses seen in these videos are often not isolated cases, but emblematic of whole neighborhoods falling into disrepair.
In “Abandoned All Belongings and i Don’t Know Why,” [sic] Urbex Dane probes a former home teeming with mountains of furniture, paperwork, and plastic. What first seems like an impenetrable mess soon reveals the lives of the onetime residents. The camera drifts patiently, observing canned food, a copy of Stuart Little, and portraits of a black family which span generations. In what looks like a teenager’s bedroom, the wall is pasted with magazine cutouts of the likes of Gwen Stefani and Kanye West, along with several images of Barack Obama.
Videos like this carry a deep sense of loss — not only personal loss, but the loss of what these homes represented. In the comments for the video, Urbex Dane says that the daughter of the house’s owner, an elderly woman, reached out to him to explain that the house was taken over by squatters after she had to move out. When they called the police, who were stationed literally a few houses down, they offered no help or support.
Urban exploration videos indulge viewers’ morbid curiosity, but also offer a vision of American life rarely seen. For many who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, the fall of these social pillars feels monumental and representative of a quickly changing world. Most of these videos offer little judgment, and are devoid of any paternalistic rumblings about the death of the American middle class. Instead they find beauty and sadness in the specificity of these losses.