This is back court yard of Armstrong High School. A high school that closed its door sometime in the 90's. This photo was taken in December of 2011. You can see several broken windows with some equally broken metal gates on the windows to prevent people from getting in. After my first visit to this place in 2011, I did not return back until 2015.
Later when I returned for my 3rd visit, right where that big pile of tires is I was almost arrested by a dozen cops while I was on a date with a girl from Tinder.
Upon our arrive, we quickly made our way to the back of the school as to not be seen from the street entering the building. Things didn't seem too bad. If it were for the rusted gates on the windows and over grown weeds one might think this place was up and running.
It was easy to find an entrance. There must have been 2-3 doors that have been wedged open from people breaking in previously. Convenient. There was some attempt to seal the doors, but it seemed bolt cutters did the trick. We walked in and were surrounded bright orange painted lockers in a dim lit hallway. The only source of light was coming from classrooms and the door we entered from. Broken glass, papers, pencils and other school supplies were scattered all over the floor. No sound except for the nerve racking silence and my own foot steps crumbling the debris beneath my feet. This truly felt like I was in a horror movie, and I loved it.
Going into some of the classrooms, it was almost hard to tell what was an art exhibition and what was left from the last day of school. Some rooms had a few desks with homework still on them, writing from that day on the board, old text books with dicks drawn in them, and names carved into the tables. While other rooms were practically empty with strange drawings all over the chalk board. This place is kinda scary. It feels like I am seeing the remains of an atomic death of school spirit.
One day everyone just got fed up with incompetence of a broken school system. Some lash out into their destructive nature, destroying whatever is in there path. Some broke into the walls trying to steal wiring and anything worth a buck, while other choose to express their angry in a more creative way. Leaving a trail a bread crumbs hinting at the struggle of being an average high school student in a low income area.
Inside this school, I truly feel like I am just a sheep among the herd. Confined, confused, given a sense of direction only to have my world shattered from the lies I have been told.
Apart from all the scenery in the building, we happened to notices a few things that probably should have been a red flag to leave early in our venture. Down some of the hall ways there were these white devices hanging from the ceiling. They looked like motion detectors. Should probably be enough to GTFO, right? I guess not. What harm were we doing any how?
Another thing we found was a large metal fence blocking one of the hallways with a sign posted. "POLICE TRAINING - LIVE FIRE IN PROGRESS" So i think it is safe to assume this place isn't always as quiet. No matter. We took a few more pictures and left with no trouble.
Flash forward 4 years into the future. It's March of 2015. I am reconnecting with an old photography friend who was equally passionate about urban exploring and she had never been here. She is an amazing photographer so I know she would get some great stuff. This time around things seemed a little different. The door I had entered in previously was heavily secured with a large slab of metal. You would need a massive circular saw or something like that to get in that way. Looking around a bit more we noticed a small opening in a partially blocked off window above an awning. Took some climbing to get up there and even more struggle to squeeze through the small opening. There was broken glass all over the top of the awning, that may explain the lack of glass in the window we entered.
The window brought us into a stair well and we made our way up to the second floor. We were greeted by a 6-foot-tall wooden silhouette of a graduate student. I don't remember seeing this on my last visit, it's nice to see people are still contributing to this ever changing art exhibit. The whole place was even more dirty and beautiful than before. Part of this may have been because I had grown as a photographer, but either way I knew this was going to be a interesting visit.
Most of the windows and doors had been blocked off with sheets of metal. It was clear there has been more attempts of keeping the public out of here but it was equally clear that their efforts had not been so successful. I really wasn't so sure why they continued to try and secure this place. If someone really wanted to get in here, they would find a way. There was evidence of homeless people previously camping out in some of the dark corners of closets and bathrooms. Seems like a good place to get away from all the heavy crime and violence outside, or maybe place was just as good of a host for such activities.
On my third and final visit I was on a date with a girl from Tinder. She said she was a fan of adventure. I believe we live in a world where something like that is extremely hard to come by. An adventure to the average middle class white person might be not wearing underwear that day, or maybe trying something new at Olive Garden. Video games, movies, and virtual reality may be another source of adventure, but it lacks authenticity most of the time. An adventure to me means taking risks, exploring something new and wonderful, and having a story to tell once the journey is over. And boy, did we have a story to tell at the end of our adventure.
Approaching the High school once again, I mention to her that what we were about to do is illegal and if she ever felt uncomfortable or anxious that we could leave. This may have been the point where I jinxed it for us, but little did I know we were already over our heads.
There was someone on the football field hitting some golf balls, seemed harmless. We enter in the same window I had entered in previously with little trouble. I show her around the place and we seem to be having a good time. We even tried to play badminton with some things lying around in the gym. I didn't take many pictures because I just wanted to focus on showing her around. We heard some noise coming from the bathroom. It was a cat somewhere in the ceiling and we could hear the echo of it's cry. Creepy stuff, but she seems to be entertained by everything around here.
Walking past the cafeteria, we decided to take a quick look inside. Just about the same as it was before. I snapped a hand full of photos here when she goes over to the window and says, "There are cops outside."
My heart starts to race and thoughts begin to flood into my head. Did the guy hitting golf balls seriously call the cops on us? Who cares about us? We are just some kids! Should we make a run for it? But there is only one way out of this place. The window we came through earlier. We make our way back to the window when I see a lady cop complete with a tactical vest trying to squeeze through the window. I look to my date and she takes a step back, she is ready to book it in the other direction. I know we don't have any other option of getting out of here. Here goes nothing.
"Hey." I said as I started to approach the lady cop while she gets out of the window. "Let me see your hands! Get down here!" Holy shit, she is serious about this. At this point I can't stop shaking. This is it. I'm going to get arrested, get some stupid charge on my record, get fined way out of proportion, and my life is going to be fucked for committing a completely victimless crime. I have been afraid of this moment ever since I started doing urban exploring and it is happening while I am on a date. Perfect.
"I'm so sorry.." I say to my date while being patted down by the lady cop. She instructs me to exit the window, this is way harder to do when I can't stop shaking. Once I make it outside I see 9 or more cops surrounding the area. Holy shit you guys really need this many cops to take us kids down? I feel like I am in a nightmare, my eyes go in and out of focus and I seriously begin to feel myself slipping from reality. I have never been so anxious in my entire life. I make it off the awning and they separate us both to question us individually. "What are you guys doing here?" one of the says to me. "Honestly, we just came here to take some pictures and get to know each other. I figured that if she could appriciate this kind of place like I do then maybe we would be a good match for each other." The cop then goes on to say I shouldn't bull shit him. "You see this?" pointing to his badge, "This is the real deal. you better tell the truth." I repeat myself to him and he continues to doubt me. I then start to talk about how I am obsessed with the beauty of this place and it hits him like a tomato hits a brick wall. He nor any of the cops could understand why I found this place so beautiful. I told them I have been here before and been to plenty of other places around the city and they just could not for the life of them understand what was wrong with me.
This is when they almost pushed me over the edge. Several of the cops approached me and said, "You know what I like to take pictures of? Trees, birds, people, things that can be easily accessible in a public and safe place." I know I am being a little unreasonable about my anger with this, but NO ONE tells me how to make my art. I would take some constructive criticism and technical advice but passive aggressively telling what I should be taking pictures of crosses the line. That boring-ass, cookie-cutter, artistically shallow work that most photographers go for is exactly what I am trying to get away from. I am trying to push my photography to its boundaries in an effort to discover what I like and the possibilities of what I can create. And having several police officers passive aggressively shaming what I create sounds like the manipulative, self imposing, douche bag parents that I never had. They could have just said, "This is illegal, don't do this." and I would understand. But no, I am sorry officers but you have lost my respect. Just put me in handcuffs and get out of my sight.
They search my bag, my genitals, my shoes, and everywhere in between. They find nothing. After talking to them more about the situation they revealed to me that they followed me from the McDonalds. I was never at a McDonalds. They continued to tell me that they thought we came here to do drugs and that they were about to send dogs after us if we had not come out when we did. Jesus christ, that seems a little extreme for a couple of scrawny white kids. But maybe that is what got them following us from the beginning. The neighborhood we were in was predominately black, very high in crime and violence, and the police officers were the only other white people I saw there. When I asked if they started following us because we were white, they fell silent.
As I continued to talk to the police officers to calm my nerves and humanize them a little bit, they gave me some shocking information I had not thought about for years. They said that they flush out psychotic homeless people in this place on the regular. If we had ran into the wrong person in there, I could have been stabbed to death and my date could have been raped. I didn't bring a weapon of any kind and I am not a strong person. Things could have ended very badly for us and this wasn't even the first time I have brought a girl to this place. I suppose I have grown accustom to only meeting other urban explorers at abandon places and forgot about the other outcomes.
After they ran my drivers license and discussed my fate among themselves, they let us go. I told them I will never explore an abandon place ever again but I think next time I will just be more prepared.
Later that night I couldn't sleep thinking about how lucky we were to not get arrest, not have dogs bite the shit out of us, and not get stabbed and/or raped. I am glad we are okay but the part I think about the most to this day is how they couldn't understand why I thought that place was so beautiful. What kind of world must they live in where they can't find beauty in such a decrepit place? Do they view this world in only two dimensions? Will they ever realize that this universe has more to offer them that what meets the eye?