Access All Areas

Access All Areas

By Ninjalicious
Infiltration, January 1, 2005, $20.00

WHEN I WAS a kid I had a thing for spy guidesâe”books that showed you how to write secret messages (with invisible ink) and hide fourteen essential items in a matchbox (it can be done). Ninjalicious’ Access All Areas, put out by one-book micro-publisher Infilpress, rang my secret-agent bell.

Ninjalicious (a.k.a the late Jeff Chapman, who finished the book shortly before succumbing to cancer this summer at age 31) is a guide to a very special sort of tourism. “Urban exploration,” as Chapman dubbed it, involves visiting those closed-to-the-public buildings, tunnels, structures and sub-structures in every city that most people never get to see.

As an urban explorer, Ninjalicious peeked into the abandoned Crystal Ballroom, a bit of decaying 1920s opulence in an off-limits part of Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. He took a flashlight to the dankly fascinating reaches of the St. Clair (or Corpse Slime) Drain, which passes directly under a cemetery. He describes an “eerie and wonderful” tour through an abandoned ship that was once a floating restaurant.

According to a timeline provided in the book, this Alice-in-Wonderlandish hobby got off to a rather daunting start one night in 1793, when one Philibert Aspairt explored the catacombs of Paris by candlelight. His body was found there eleven years later. In Access All Areas, Ninjalicious provides nitty-gritties on how to see the sights while avoiding Monsieur Aspairt’s fate.

The book has that secret-agent feel despite (or perhaps, because of) Ninjalicious’ earnest and repeated attempts to keep it real. “As much fun as it is to behave like a ninja, in my experience that whole staying-low-and-slinking-unseen-from-shadow-to-shadow business doesn’t really have much practical application for urban exploration, except in a few situations, such as when one is approaching a building from the outside at night,” he reflects. (Thankfully spies are spared his sobre reflections; he goes on to say they “make better role models” than ninjas.)

For nearly a decade, Ninjalicious’ zine, Infiltration, has been a major resource for urban explorers worldwide. These Jacques Cousteaus of the urban environment enjoy no-public-access sites for their historical interest, to appreciate overlooked or hidden architecture, and, of course, for the creative challenge of circumventing No Trespassing signs and security guards. Chapman writes that “explorers can feel a vivid, exhilarating awareness of the urban environment that can be almost overwhelming in its intensity.”

Ninjalicious suggests beginners try exploring off-limits parts of museums, concerts or offices, hiding ID or admission passes until absolutely necessary, before tackling more treacherous territory. He notes, too: “exploring isn’t synonymous with recreational trespassing.” Still, he has an anarchistic belief in self-regulation and warns against allowing goody-goody friends to accompany youâe” they are “exactly the sorts who will wander into an abandoned area and be so confused by their sudden freedom and lack of supervision that they’ll start breaking windows and urinating on the floor.”

Compact but encyclopedic, Access All Areas addresses building and fire codes; safety issues when exploring drains; unusual sites like boats, military facilities, smokestacks and mines; when to run; how to sweet-talk security guards, and legal considerations.

While most of his case studies are Toronto-based, and the book has been taken up enthusiastically as part of that city’s blossoming public-space appreciation movement, amateur urban explorers everywhere will appreciate Ninjalicious’ wise and detailed counsel: “While no equipment is actually essential, there are three pieces of basic equipment that I regard as the explorers best friends: the flashlight, the camera and the moist towelette.”

Strange. Access all Areas led me from the initial thrill of the forbidden to a more profound sort of welling excitement that was truly unexpected: my city offers the combination of contemplative observation and rigorous physicality I usually associate with, say, exploring a rainforest or climbing a volcano. “Structures and infrastructures are interesting in all phases of their life cycles, and places that are under construction or in use can hold as much wonder, beauty and opportunity for adventure as abandoned places,” Ninjalicious writes.

In an overly regulated and sterile world, this vision of city living as uninhibited, playful and unstoppably curious is a delight.âe”Carlyn Zwarenstein