Portland Underground

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 13, 2013

In fact, UE fanatics are often portrayed as guerilla historians, intimately familiar with pieces of the past and committed to documenting them. The Discovery Channel television show Urban Explorers, which aired in 2005 and 2006, billed itself as "an adventure into the past: four trekkers entering into dangerous terrain to uncover secrets about some of America's greatest cities . . . [offering] a unique insight into this nation's meteoric growth. But look quick — these secrets are fast being eroded and it is up to the Urban Explorers to find them before it is too late."

While it makes sense to liken urban explorers to historians, another apt comparison is to the more counterculture hacker persona. Both sets seek routes around, through, and under often-arbitrary barriers; both groups seek to access spaces (real or virtual) that have been declared off-limits. While trespassing isn't a requirement or a rule of UrbEx, it does happen frequently, meaning that explorers are wary of those who enforce the law. The language of UrbEx — infiltration, dismantling, invasion — frames it as a dangerous, nonconformist activity much like computer hacking.

Consider this passage from the article "Hacker Practice," written by New York University professor E. Gabriella Coleman and Alex Golub, of the University of Hawaii, and published in a 2008 issue of the academic journal Anthropological Theory:

"[T]he hacker underground enacts its political critique primarily through transgression. This group envisages hacking as a constant arms race between those with the knowledge and power to erect barriers and those with the equal power, knowledge and especially desire, to disarm them," they write. "The underground seeks to remind those in power that there are individuals in an unknown, cavernous 'out-there' who can and always will unsettle, even if only temporarily, the purported absolute power of 'the establishment'. The morality encoded in this form of hacker practice thus values the process of piercing through locks, disarming security, accessing the inaccessible, eliminating barriers, and reaching the pot of gold behind the locked door — knowing full well that barriers will always come back in some form."

The description could just as easily apply to many UrbEx-ers. Certainly it applies to Gerv, who believes not only that "exploring is a basic human instinct," but also that this sort of landscape hacking makes "a deeper underlying statement about the way our own society is structured" — and the desire to circumvent those structures.

INTO THE SHADOWS Maine’s small UE scene means many expeditions are done solo.


Gerv spent much of his youth, from adolescence until his mid-20s, living slightly outside the lines. He bounced around between Maine and Massachusetts, often using a disposable point-and-shoot camera to snap photos of graffiti — on rail cars, behind fences, high above or down below. "Graffiti seems to live in places that are obscure," he notes, and this was one of his points of entry into shadowy locations. Another was his affinity for skateboarding, which he says encouraged him to "interact with urban environments in an unusual way."

On top of these pursuits, however, he was also drinking and doing drugs and partying — hard. Old hobbies eventually fell by the wayside. By the time he was living in Boston toward the end of the last decade, "I was in the worst shape I've ever been in," he recalls.

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