Often, I hear people say ‘wow look at that abandoned building. Owners must not care’ or something to that effect. I also hear a lot about people entering underutilized or uncared for properties, citing ‘abandonment’ as justification for B&E. I always feel uncomfortable at these points, because, especially in an urban environment, there are no abandonments.
Of course, there are buildings that people don’t care for, buildings that are unoccupied, underutilized, or in a derelict state, but quite often, the reasons for their state are far beyond ‘the owners just don’t care’. Treating any building as an abandonment is a safety hazard and shouldn’t be used to justify gaining access to such a building. There is a reason that building is in that state. I’m going to run through a few of the most common I see:
Obviously, Milwaukee was hit hard by the latest economic depression. Homeowners weren’t the only people affected by it, though. Business owners on many occasions were forced to close, such as Rank & Son Buick/GMC. Now, their bank owns that building, and entering could get you a pretty hefty B&E fine, no matter how interesting it may be. And just because the property is just sitting there now, it doesn’t mean the bank isn’t trying to do something with that land. It’s still on prime land for real estate and it’s in a rapidly developing neighborhood, with the economic scope & impact of Bayshore Town Center reaching further and further, it’s only a matter of time before it gets turned into Milwaukee’s next strip mall.
2- Health & Safety
Many buildings have been condemned due to various health and safety concerns. Fires, floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters can make a house or building extremely difficult and unsafe for even the most experienced explorer. Fallen support structures, failing roofs, collapsing walls, and crumbling staircases are just a few of the physical risks. Mold, mildew, toxins, radioactive materials, and other hidden invaders are other reasons not to enter without the proper safety gear. A good example of this is a possible CSO I entered with two friends a few years ago while trying to explore the reaches of a favorite creek of ours. Upon getting about 100 or so feet in, after a turn, we started smelling sewage. We got out as fast as we could and even reported this to MMSD. Days later, one of the friends told me he was experiencing headaches, nausea, and other symptoms of CO2 over exposure. This wasn’t our first drain, nor our first brush with danger. The list goes on, and this is actually the biggest reasons I avoid ‘abandoned’ buildings unless I know what’s in there-the risk doesn’t equal the reward.
This one may seem a little funny, but hear me out. Landlords and property owners sometimes lose tenants. In the interim of getting new tenants, the Department Of Neighborhood services and other city departments need to come through to inspect the property. Most of the time, these inspections go ok, and the landlord is good for another year. However, sometimes these inspections uncover previously unknown risks to health and building code violations. Faulty wiring, rotting floorboards, collapsing foundations, and other building risks sometimes make the building go into a vacant state until the landowner can repair the issues and get it cleared by the city department that cited them. If the landlord can’t find the time or money to make the necessary repairs, the building will become unattended. And though gaining access in that state may be easy, it will still be unnecessarily risky. In the case of The Tasting Room, this has been happening for years. I’ve heard many people say that the place was abandoned, when in fact, it was vacant due to squirrels in the attic and a collapsing roof. The only reason it’s been an unattended building so long is because the owner has been too broke to hire a contractor and exterminator to fix the issues and too apathetic to find the time to do it himself. As much as I always wanted to get in the place, I never broke in because I was unsure of the risk. When I finally saw the place, I was disappointed anyways.
4- Real Estate
The fourth, final common reason for properties being in disrepair or unattended is for real estate. Companies buy derelict properties and buildings in the hopes that someday soon they’ll be ready to sell for redevelopment. These properties are often bought for a cheap price, sometimes renovated but often not touched, and resold to the highest bidder when more businesses come to the area and start to redevelop it. A prime example of this can be found in just about any neighborhood near a busy road or highway. Just look for a crumbling property that has been sitting vacant for years and has a sign out front that says ‘AVAILABLE: CALL THIS 800 NUMBER TO LEARN MORE’.
These occurrences, and many other reasons, make it safe to assume that no building is abandoned. Entering any of the properties may be enough to charge a trespasser with breaking and entering. Aside from the legal ramifications, health & safety are also at more than usual risk, and you should really do your research before entering these places.
To learn about a building, it’s owners, and it’s state, a simple property check at the municipality level can be done. https://assessments.milwaukee.gov is the link to go to do this in Milwaukee, your local municipality will be different. From this link, you can search for a property using just an address, and links can be pulled up that describe the building’s information, including owner, square footage, and other physical characteristics. It also provides a link to view recent permits to the property listed. This is important, as it will help determine if a property is active or even health & safety risks associated with the property, depending on the permit type.
A property search can also turn up information on the owners and how to contact them. This could be useful for gaining information that may not be present online. When calling, I usually say something along the lines of ‘Hi, I’m Nate, and I’m writing an article for my blog, This Is My Milwaukee. I’m doing some research on interesting buildings and was wondering if I could talk to you about your property at such and such a place.’ Be honest, but not too honest (use a Pseudonym if you’d like), and ask questions in a way that sounds roundabout. Usually, I find that people like to talk, especially if you’re a personable converser, ask the right questions, and listen. A lot of good information can be revealed and deduced by having a conversation.
In some cases, you may be able to gain access to a building by just flat out asking. I had success with this method at the Tasting Room. I found the owner online, shot him a Facebook message expressing interest in renting the place, talked with him over the phone, and within a few months, I was touring the place. I even went back with a friend a few times and toured the place extensively. Though I was severely disappointed due to the disrepair of the bar and apartment above it, a 10 year time capsule was opened for me and I learned a valuable lesson.
So, to sum things up: nothing is abandoned. At best, a building is vacant, and at worst, unattended. Do your research before entering a building or property you’re unsure of. If at all possible, contact the owner and ask questions. Know the risks associated with a location before making the decision to explore it. Bring the necessary tools and equipment to handle the risks you may encounter. Most importantly, take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints.