Urban Exploration Before it Had a Name
Photographs and Stories
by John Bendel

That’s me, 32 years old taking a picture of myself on the old Ford pier in Edgewater, N.J. It was in October of 1974.

We didn’t call them selfies then. It wasn’t just holding a smartphone at arm’s length and pushing the button. You needed a tripod and a camera with a self timer. There was no autofocus, so you had to pre-focus the camera without the subject -- you -- actually in view and hope you got it right. You wouldn’t know for sure until your film was developed, anywhere from hours to a week later. It took a bit of skill, some effort, and patience. We wouldn’t have called the resulting pictures anything so flip as “selfies.”

American was changing in 1974. We were buying cars and TV sets from former enemies in Japan and Germany. The plants that once built them here had closed; so had the industries that supported them. Once mighty railroads had faltered, merged and failed anyway. The economy was sliding into a deep recession.

In 1974, domestic industries and the middle class had rolled out of New York on an Interstate highway system that was not even 20 years old. The city itself was on the verge of bankruptcy. In and around the great east coast cities, 1974 was a year between eras. The new one had not yet taken shape. All around were remnants of the old. In the fall of 1974 I began exploring and photographing those remnants. Today we call that urban exploring. If it had a name then, it was simply called “trespassing.”
 

This was Colden Street in Newburgh, N.Y, in 1970 waiting for the bulldozers. Urban renewal from the 1950s into the 1970s turned out to be a very bad idea. Newburgh, where it failed miserably, became a prime example. This was the earliest shot I took of abandonment.

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