In Old Spaces, New Awakenings
Inside abandoned structures all over the United States, Blake Pfeil reacquaints himself with the healing power of imagination.
The first time I broke into the abandoned dairy farm down the hill from my childhood home, it was 1993, and I was just 6 years old. I immediately had this funny feeling, right down in my gut, like I’d been there before.
But it was more than a feeling of familiarity—it was also a feeling of safety, security, and serenity. Inside the barn or the grain silo or the adjoining house, still full of dishes, furniture, clothes, I ran my fingers along the walls, and somehow, it was recognizable to me. I began to frequent the ruins of a time gone by, nestled in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, and it slowly transformed into my private sanctuary. The ghosts inside became my best friends, and they shielded me from the reality of the outside world. It was the genesis of my imagination becoming not only a place of wonderment and creativity—but also a place of great comfort and healing.
Over the last two years, I’ve explored over fifty abandoned spaces in thirteen states and three different countries, and in each one, I’ve learned something new about myself.
Eventually, the dairy farm burned down, the remains were bulldozed, and overpriced condos took its place. Though the physical space had been destroyed, the spiritual domain that I’d discovered there seemed to linger in me. I carried those memories with me in my subconscious until May of 2020 when I woke up from a dream that I was back inside the dairy farm once again, that funny feeling still right down in my gut. It was the first time in months that I’d felt a sense of safety, security, and serenity. At that point, the Big P had been raging for over three months, and my germaphobe-centric anxiety had taken full control of my life. The isolation began to wreak serious havoc on my head and heart, and though I knew I wasn’t alone in the overwhelming fear that seemed to be driving the societal narrative, I still felt totally confused, scared, and hopeless.
I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about the abandoned dairy farm, and I wondered if there were any abandoned buildings near my house in the Hudson Valley. I hopped out of bed, did a quick Google search for “abandoned spaces near me,” and—shit.
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As it turns out, I'd entered a world I'd never heard of: the Urban Exploration, or "Urbex" for short, an underground community devoted to mini odysseys all over the world in search of the drudge and decay of once-occupied dwellings. (In my opinion, however, it doesn't necessarily apply to solely "urban" areas; for me, my adventures have taken me to suburban and rural areas too, almost more so than urban.) It's a global company of misfits intent on seeing the unseen, unafraid to bend a rule or two. It can be as scary as it is exhilarating to roll under a cheap chain link fence or scoot around faded barbed wire, but it's always worth it.
I wondered if there were any abandoned buildings near my house in the Hudson Valley. I hopped out of bed, did a quick Google search for “abandoned spaces near me,” and—shit…They’re everywhere.
Many of the ruins I began to read about seemed too manicured or too preserved. I was more compelled by sites like the dairy farm from my childhood, places that looked like they’d been raptured, locations where I could once again time travel and feel that sense of serenity that I felt when I was a kid. The intentional act of getting lost has always been an important component of managing my emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Since I didn’t even feel safe on the trails in my neck of the woods (at that point they were overrun with thoughtless city people coming up seeking refuge from the brutality of the Big P epicenter), this idea seemed to be a much safer way to get that Sagittarius energy out of my system.
Extensive hours of research produced a map of several locations in the immediate area that stoked the fires of that funny feeling of familiarity right down in my gut. Every weekend, I ventured out to a new location, each one much different than the last: military bases, factories, churches, bowling alleys, resorts, motels, psychiatric facilities, movie theaters, and houses. What started as a way to safely pass the time evolved into a salve for my mental health and a realm for my creativity to explode. I began to write about my experiences in each location, not just about each space itself, its architectural narrative, or the sordid history behind it, but also about what was going on inside my head as I wandered through each one. The more I went, the more I began to realize that I was reconnecting with my childhood self and that powerful imagination of mine that had become a healing realm all those years ago.
Over the last two years, I’ve explored over fifty abandoned spaces in thirteen states and three different countries, and in each one, I’ve learned something new about myself. I’ve forgiven myself for big mistakes and reconnected with my sobriety and allowed my spiritual beliefs to grow and reclaimed my identity as an artist. I’ve meditated on challenging truths and asked critical questions about American history and culture, community, capitalism and economics, the environment, mental health, and politics, all through the lens of these strangely beautiful abandoned spaces that time seems to have forgotten.
In an abandoned air force base near Saratoga Springs, NY, I reflected on the war in Ukraine and our long-standing cold war with Russia.
Every weekend, I ventured out to a new location, each one much different than the last: military bases, factories, churches, bowling alleys, resorts, motels, psychiatric facilities, movie theaters, and houses. What started as a way to safely pass the time evolved into a salve for my mental health and a realm for my creativity to explode.
In an abandoned factory complex in Colonie, NY, I considered the environment and humankind’s inevitable path towards permanent climate change.
In an abandoned psychiatric facility on Long Island, I imagined the world before the stigma surrounding mental illness began to disappear—and how fortunate I am to live in a time when my mental health is taken seriously.
I thought about economic inequality and unemployment at an abandoned battery plant near Port Jervis and homelessness at an abandoned Section 8 tower in Troy, NY and the queer liberation movement at an abandoned couples’ resort in the Pocono Mountains and my own failed marriage at an abandoned military bunker just outside of San Francisco.
But most importantly, I’ve been able to bear witness to humanity and honor the all-too-soiled American past, the untold stories of regular, everyday folk just like me, forgotten histories that live inside the walls of each abandoned space where lives were once lived and pain was once felt and love was once expressed. It’s grounded me in a way that I can’t explain except through immense gratitude and creative expression and the sheer willingness to keep showing up for that magical, funny feeling, right down in my gut, the same one that brought me the safety, security, and serenity I felt, all those years ago at an abandoned dairy farm in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.