Documenting Richmond’s Decay, Building by Building
Richmond, Virginia, has seen its fair share of architectural tumult. During the Civil War, a quarter of the city’s structures were destroyed by the Great Evacuation Fire of 1865; in modern times, urban decay and economic downturn have left many more structures abandoned and forgotten. But it’s from that slow urban crumble that a group called Decayed Richmond has emerged — sneaking into old buildings and documenting their stories, in photos and words. For the past two years, the group of urban explorers has climbed, crawled, jumped, and rapelled their way into some of Richmond’s scariest locations — churches, schools, an abandoned mental institution — all in a quest for meaning. Do those old buildings mean anything? Do they have a story to tell?
Mostly artists and students who keep their identities secret, Decayed Richmond is now working on a Kickstarter-funded documentary that will follow them as they document the interiors of these derelict places. They are vigilante historians who give the decay a name and face. But they do abide by one over-arching mantra: Take only photographs. Leave only footprints. Here’s what they have to say about their mission and craft.
Why make a documentary about Richmond?
Richmond has a rich but dark history. Not to mention, abandonment is quite abundant here. There are so many little-heard secrets hidden in the tunnels and decaying buildings, waiting to be uncovered by those who wander into that darkness.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve uncovered?
There are abandoned asylums in Virginia that have very haunting and disturbing histories. You walk into them already knowing the horrors that transpired there, and those thoughts stay in the back of your mind the entire time you walk through these spaces. We found a morgue and autopsy room in the basement of a particular location. It was well after midnight, we opened one of the refrigerator doors to find a white sheet covering a large object in the tray. Our hearts sunk into our stomachs, but upon lifting the sheet it was just bags of gardening mulch and fertilizer. We can only hope to prank that well.
Isn’t this somewhat illegal?
Trespassing is illegal, yes. We personally do not find urban exploration to be a criminal activity. We do not vandalize or steal anything. We leave it as we found it.
Still — you could get caught. How do you film a documentary when you have to stay anonymous?
Anonymity is crucial to our filming process to keep the law from breathing down our necks. With that said, we feel the documentation is more important than any legal repercussions one may face, so as masked as we may think we are, we are still vulnerable. Anonymity and privacy are very difficult thinks to uphold in our internet age.
Is exploring old buildings dangerous?
Danger is everywhere around us, but if you keep a smart and focused mind, you can avoid it.
How do you prepare?
For each explore, we routinely investigate the nature of the spot in mind, study its environment, and the measure its level of heat from the law. Then normally we set a time to meet, pack up our gear, and discuss details and different methods of approach. Then it happens.
Is there particular gear required?
Normally just flashlights, cameras, tripods and stabilization equipment, and maybe a multipurpose knife. Every explorer and each location requires a different set of tools. Some places require some rather extreme methods of entrance. Urban exploration takes a certain tolerance of fear.
What drives you to do this?
It’s an escape from everyday life, and the only things I gain are a little sanity and a few photographs. Every explorer has a different approach but I believe there is an underlying motive to which they all ascribe. We normally get pumped off of getting into any building that wasn’t previously able to be explored.
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