drone pilot industryShining a light on the forgotten: ‘Urban Explorers’ capture some of Rhode Island’s abandoned places

September 3, 2021by helo-10
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But the fence that wrapped around the perimeter, closed shades, and mystery of what could possibly be inside made it all the more appealing to local photographers, like the man who runs the Instagram account @chopppedliver, and his friends. They entered the dank, empty lodge and explored the pool room where the step ladders are still draped over the side, as if it was inviting a swimmer to enter. Even with the sun beaming outside, hallways were dark. Rooms looked unlivable.

The Windmill School in Providence, which closed in 2011.@chopppedliver/Instagram

He snapped a few photos and later shared them to his Instagram account, which is dedicated to images of places in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and elsewhere along the East Coast. His posts stir awe and nostalgia about the places he’s traveled — and been able to wiggle inside of — from forgotten hospitals and nursing homes, theaters, abandoned elementary schools, empty bank vaults, deserted homes, dark churches, and even Providence’s notorious Industrial National Bank building, also known as the “Superman’ building.

“There’s a surprise in every single one. It’s like opening a mystery box,” he told the Globe (he requested anonymity for privacy purposes). “I never go somewhere and think ‘that was a disappointment.’”

The vault in the basement of the Woonsocket Hospital Trust Bank. The building had transitioned to the former Rhode Island DMV until 2005. It's been empty since.
The vault in the basement of the Woonsocket Hospital Trust Bank. The building had transitioned to the former Rhode Island DMV until 2005. It’s been empty since. @chopppedliver/Instagram

The man behind @chopppedliver works for a union in Boston full time, but has been shining his camera’s flash, uncovering a building’s secrets or what was left behind, since he was a teenager. He’s part of a small community in Rhode Island, and throughout New England, of “urban explorers” who share their findings of abandoned places with thousands of followers on social media.

A drone's long exposure panoramic of the "Superman" building in downtown Providence.
A drone’s long exposure panoramic of the “Superman” building in downtown Providence.David Lawlor

While some property owners think these urban explorers are breaking the law, and oftentimes press charges of breaking and entering if they catch them, the photographers said they are looking to document, preserve, and share the history of these places through their work.

The lobby of the Industrial Trust Building in Providence, also known as the "Superman" building.
The lobby of the Industrial Trust Building in Providence, also known as the “Superman” building.@chopppedliver/Instagram

“Yes, some people have that perception that people that break into these places are just looking to vandalize, take what’s left in a place, and destroy. But those people are in it for the wrong reasons,” said David Lawlor, a local drone pilot and filmmaker who is known for sharing his aerial shots of the iconic mills in Pawtucket and Woonsocket from the Industrial Revolution days on his Instagram.

He also works for the Blackstone Valley’s tourism district, snapping shots to show travelers what makes the northern part of Rhode Island a unique destination.

A lost and forgotten mill in southern Rhode Island, which was captured with a drone.
A lost and forgotten mill in southern Rhode Island, which was captured with a drone. David Lawlor

“There’s something beautiful about the old architecture that isn’t as celebrated as it should be. But I go to these places to show the world what I see,” said Lawlor.

He’s partnered with local creators, such as Jason Allard, who profiles abandoned places (mostly in Rhode Island) for his YouTube web series “Abandoned from Above.” They were given permission to enter the Pawtucket/Central Falls train station, which was built in 1916 and abandoned in 1959, making it one of the longest-abandoned locations in the state.

Vacant holding cells in a disused correctional facility in Rhode Island.
Vacant holding cells in a disused correctional facility in Rhode Island.
@risk_is_reward/Instagram

It’s in an “extreme state of disrepair,” according to Lawlor. To get in, he signed a document drafted by his lawyer that basically said that if anything happened to him while he was inside, including death, the owner of the station would not be liable.

“You have to be careful when you walk in. I don’t recommend it unless you actually know what you’re doing,” said Lawlor, who wore a respirator while face inside. He said he found used condoms and needles scattered across the floor when he walked in. Graffiti blanketed the walls. Tents were pitched by people using the once grand station lobby as a shelter.

Retired ink presses that once printed the Pawtucket Times newspaper.
Retired ink presses that once printed the Pawtucket Times newspaper.@risk_is_reward/Instagram

He said people living inside these places have approached him, telling him that he needed to give them something in return for him to be there.

It’s also why he, and many of the other urban explorers, don’t include the exact location of these places in their social media posts.

“God forbid someone finds something on my page, thinks they can do what we do without any experience, goes and gets hurt,” said another photographer who asked to remain anonymous, but posts on his Instagram account @risk_is_reward. “I’ve gotten hurt myself, getting stuck in places.”

He’s another photographer who finds desolate places that look like homeowner just left one day and never returned. He’s been to hospitals and schools where full medical libraries and conference rooms still have shelves lined with dusty books. Autopsy tools, scalpels, and other medical equipment have been left on trays inside operating rooms, and even hospital morgues. In one photo, a stack of books sat on a desk with someone’s glasses on top.

When asked how these photographers get inside these locations, the man who runs @chopppedliver said, “Sometimes, what you expect to be the most secure has an unlocked door. There’s a crack everywhere. You just have to find it.”

Sunset drone photograph of the "Superman" building in downtown Providence.
Sunset drone photograph of the “Superman” building in downtown Providence.David Lawlor

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.





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