Urban Explorers Map Out Florida's Weirdest Abandoned Sites

David Bulit crawls through a rusted metal hatch and shines a flashlight down a long, dark, and waterlogged silo. The light glints off a mammoth cylindrical object: the casing for an AJ-260-2 motor, one of the largest rockets ever built.

For 25 years, the monstrosity has lain dormant under a huge slab of steel beneath the floor of an empty warehouse. Getting here isn't easy. The dilapidated building, surrounded by miles of rusty fence, lies five miles down an abandoned road on the edge of the Everglades. Few people left in Dade still remember when the Aerojet-Dade rocket facility churned out cutting-edge Cold War technology that rattled windows all the way to Biscayne Bay during test firings.

But Bulit and his crew know all about it. They've explored the site scores of times, risking arrest, asbestos exposure, and fights with drugged-out metal scrappers.

"People will always ask, 'You walked miles into the Everglades to see a hunk of metal?' or 'Why would you go into a place like that?'" says Bulit, a slight, agile 23-year-old from Hialeah. "But I've seen things with my own eyes that people will never see."

For folks like Bulit, the Aerojet facility is the Holy Grail: a fascinating, dangerous place that's alive with skin-crawling history. Around the world, thousands like him are part of a subculture of adventurers called urban explorers — or "urb exers" — whose obsession is infiltrating forgotten places and documenting what they find.

Bulit and his ilk have explored dozens of Miami-Dade sites — from trashed hospitals to waterlogged missile silos — and posted photos and stories on their website, AbandonedFL.com. The group is small but growing, in part because a local pioneer named Shane Perez gained national attention by starring in a documentary about the hobby and by sparking international headlines for getting banned from Disney World after exploring an abandoned theme park.

Like most Urb Exers, Bulit and his crew never force their way into buildings. Instead, they look for open or missing doors or windows at abandoned sites. They also never vandalize property, because they say their aim is to explore and document what they see.

Police and some historians condemn explorers like Perez and Bulit for flouting the law and trampling potentially historic sites. "I think where we draw the line is actually entering a place," says Paul George, a historian at HistoryMiami.

But for urban explorers, it's the only way to live. "I don't really live a conventional life," Perez says. "I've always been into it and had a kind of disregard for established things."

As long as cities have locked up their forgotten corners, curious souls have risked life and limb to traverse them. According to the blog Infiltration, many consider the first urb exer to be a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt, who became posthumously famous in 1793 when his body was discovered 11 years after he got lost while charting underground Parisian catacombs by candlelight. One hundred 20 years later, Walt Whitman wrote about exploring shuttered New York subway tunnels.

Modern urb exing might have begun in Australia, where spelunkers expanded from caves into Sydney's drainage systems.

Shane Perez had never heard of the movement when, as a teenager attending West Kendall's G. Holmes Braddock High School, he began "phone phreaking," the proto-hacking fad of stealing free calls by copying AT&T long-distance codes. Perez — a restless adrenaline junkie — would hack phone boxes in remote areas. Once, while looking for a phone box, he explored an abandoned, graffiti-streaked former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service facility on Krome Avenue that locals had nicknamed "the Asylum."

Perez was fascinated by what he found. He returned to take photographs of the crumbling walls and began researching, soon learning that the site once housed a Nike missile-launching facility built after the Cuban Missile Crisis and later served as a clandestine CIA communications hub.

"I was like, Wow, that's much more interesting than an insane asylum," Perez says.

In the mid-'90s, urb exing was generally unknown in Miami, but Perez discovered he wasn't alone. By 1996, the movement was taking off online via message boards such as Infiltration.org.

Unlike Northeast and Midwest towns packed with forgotten factories and theaters, the more recently developed Miami isn't a natural hotbed for urban exploration. But Perez quickly realized there was no less forgotten history to mine in the Magic City than in Philly or Detroit.

By the time he was in his early 20s, he and a small, dedicated crew were regularly trespassing on a range of fascinating, forgotten Miami sites: Marine Stadium on Virginia Key, the Aerojet facility, Everglades missile silos.

Perez soon became famous well beyond Miami's urb ex scene. In April 2007, he and three friends swam 400 feet under the cover of dark, using waterproof bags as flotation devices, to Discovery Island, a Disney wildlife attraction in Bay Lake, Florida, that was shut down in 1999. They canvassed the park, photographing overgrown pathways and eerie shuttered stands. Two young vultures were nesting in an empty building; in a storage shed, they found an odd cache of snakes preserved in formaldehyde.

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11 comments
floydianslipped
floydianslipped

Swimming to an island that already IS on private property (you are in the City of Buena Vista which is ALL Disney property from the second you drive through the gates) hardly meets your own bullshit "code" of ethics. You're not invited to be there its trespassing pure and simple just because you don't vandalize or steal doesn't make any less of an offense so drop the pretense. Other explorers need to understand that these ARE ARRESTABLE OFFENSES which can get you jail time and or fines depending on the officer and the judge. If trapped or hurt it is the trespassers fault and medical expenses is their problem so think before glorifying this hobby to kids.

Nelson
Nelson

I've been here... much better with a bicycle to pass the two main gates. And there are bugs there that don't care what kind of bug spray you put on, they will still bite you... But the place is amazing. the solid fuel mixing buildings are super cool with their blast walls. It is cool to see this with one's own eyes instead of just through pictures posted on line.I'll never go down the silo though...way too creepy.

Drake Mallard
Drake Mallard

This was our storage closet. My Dad spent years turning it into a bomb shelter.

What a waste.

David Minsky
David Minsky

To be clear, Bulit and his crew do not force their way into buildings. They follow a strict code of ethics that forbids them prying open doors or smashing windows to get in, and rarely carry tools because, if caught, police could mistaken them for burglars. If the door is open or missing, or if a window is broken, they will enter. Under no circumstance will they vandalize property. Their aim is simply to explore and document what they see through photographs.

Stephanlottier
Stephanlottier

my dad worked for raytheon.at thehawk missle site on 87ave by black point.but!lready to strike cuba at a moment's notice!

Lowginjay
Lowginjay

I like the article and am enjoying the pics on their website.

TBinder
TBinder like.author.displayName 1 Like

The writer and the explorer are twits...Shane you look like a sprocket...."But I've seen things with my own eyes that people will never see." - With who's eyes will you see if it wasn't with your own, pendejo...***David, you said he's 23.....then you go on the say "By the time he was in his early 20s, he and a small"....doesn't make sense....

 
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