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Urban Explorers Journey Into the Ruins of Long Island

My latest NY Times article, Urban Explorers Journey Into the Ruins of Long Island, was published on July 23rd, 2015. Besides the article, they also published a couple of my own photos, which is a first for me!

Urban exploration, aka #urbex, is a hobby of mine for as long as I can remember: the trespassing into abandoned spaces to experience its vibe usually for the sole purpose of photography – at least in my case. I was happy with the way the article was edited, however, they wouldn’t let me mention the trespassing element, though unfortunately these abandoned places still do have owners who haven’t cared enough to renovate them yet keep us explorers out. Well, it turns out there are lots of amazing places to explore on Long Island, including the Hamptons! I hope you enjoy the article and comment and share if you like.

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The Sage Radar Tower in Montauk, where conspiracies about its past abound, is a popular spot for exploration on Long Island. Credit Ty Wenzel

A former Montaukett Indian home in East Hampton. Credit Ty Wenzel

Winter had been particularly rough. The sound of sparrows singing, hidden within the vines and bramble, provided the perfect backdrop for exploration.

Soon, the vegetation and sparrows revealed a vast clearing ahead, drenched in sunshine and the echoes of crashing Atlantic Ocean waves. And there it was: the Sage Radar Tower, with its 120-foot-wide, 70-ton corroded satellite dish.

Conspiracy theories about the tower and its environs abound: Time-space travel and mind-control experiments on runaway teenagers are described in a 1992 science fiction book, “The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time,” by Preston B. Nichols. The landmark, on a former military base, was decommissioned in 1981. But it is still easy to visit — at least up to where the fencing begins — because it is now part of Camp Hero State Park in Montauk.

The radar tower is one of a number of decaying properties on Long Island that draw fans of urban exploration — often contracted to “urbex” or “U.E.” — a modern term to describe visiting abandoned buildings and environments and capturing their inexorable slide into ruin. On social media, devotees often share photographs from the sites with hashtags like #ruinporn, #urbex, #UE, #urbxunderground and #decay. To get these shots and increase adventure levels, many urban explorers jump fences and climb through broken windows, which is often illegal as well as dangerous. But it can be just as fulfilling to admire urban ruins from a safe distance.

Some popular urbex sites on Long Island have recently attracted attention from preservationists and historians, who may take some of the thrill away from visiting them. But not the radar tower, which is fenced in and surrounded by “Radio Hazard” signs. It is now used by boaters, some of whom prefer it to the Montauk Lighthouse as a navigational landmark. But when I looked up at it, I wondered whether young runaways had been hooked up to machines in there, crying for their mothers while a man with a lab coat took notes on a clipboard.

Urbex can often create more questions than it answers, but it can also ignite the imagination.

In East Hampton, there is an abandoned saltbox-style house that has been a local favorite among the #ruinporn crowd for years. Not many people understood the historical significance of this dilapidated cottage with the rotted out porch until Jay H. Schneiderman, a Suffolk County legislator, took action on it in March. He approved a resolution to transfer ownership of the house and its 1.7-acre plot to the Town of East Hampton for conservation, boarding up the house in the process. The plan is for it to ultimately become a museum documenting the history of the Montaukett Indians.

A former Montaukett Indian home in East Hampton. Credit Ty Wenzel

Surrounded by mansions and more directly by trees, vines and general undergrowth, the humble, shingled home once belonged to the Fowlers, a Montaukett Indian family. It is in a historical area called Freetown, which welcomed newly freed slaves in the early 19th century. Members of the Montaukett tribe, including the Fowlers, had been forced to relocate from Montauk to Freetown in the late 1800s to make way for the wealthy.

On a visit to the Fowler cottage, I met up with Chief Robert Wyandance Pharaoh, head of the Montaukett tribe, and James Divine, a descendant of the Fowlers. “We’re not looking for validity; we’re looking for our rights,” said Mr. Divine, who spearheaded the movement to restore the home.

“The property in the back can be used as an expanded historical interpretation of the African-American community, because this is Freetown,” he said.

Similarly, in Shoreham sits a dilapidated building called Wardenclyffe that is also headed toward museum status. Before the site was bought by a nonprofit organization in 2013, many urban explorers had regularly visited the sprawling complex, which once served as the laboratory for the inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla.

Wardenclyffe is the last laboratory in existence where Tesla worked,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, the organization that plans to convert the lab into a science museum. “It was intended to be his crowning achievement. Our goal of creating a science center, a Tesla museum and accessory spaces will help people all over the globe to learn about Tesla and his work.”

In 1901, plans began for the construction of the laboratory and a 186-foot signal-transferring tower, designed by Stanford White. Tesla’s tower, an attempt at an early wireless transmission station, never really got up and running, and it was demolished in 1917. The building was used to produce photography supplies until it was shuttered in 1992.

On an outbuilding near the perimeter of the complex, a remaining bit of urbex graffiti is visible: “Embrace Your Enigma.”

A major destination for many Long Island explorers can be found in Nissequogue River State Park, in Kings Park. There, a once-vibrant village with a controversial history still stands.

The Kings Park Psychiatric Center was an asylum that operated from around 1885 until 1996, when New York State closed the facility. Towering buildings choked by ivy are surrounded by grounds of thick bramble that hide miles of metal fencing.

Urban travelers compelled by its tragic history of lobotomies, electroshock therapies and abused and neglected patients — some buried in a hard-to-find potter’s field — continue to pay their respects. It is illegal to enter any of the buildings; the walls are literally crumbling and the facade is extremely brittle. Asbestos and lead toxicity levels make it bleak for redevelopment, which in any event would be a herculean undertaking. So it sits.

It is a bittersweet sound, birds singing within the strangulation of vines along the ominous brick exterior. And that is what urban exploration, whether running your fingers across walls or capturing a perfectly lit, lonely photograph, is ultimately about: connecting with all of the souls who were once there.

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