By Stefani Kim
Brooklyn cartoonist and urban explorer Julia Wertz finds abandoned spaces fascinating, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Although the lore of paranormal activity within abandoned buildings continues to pervade popular reality shows like “Ghost Hunters,” you’ll never catch Wertz prowling deserted hallways for sounds of the undead.
“It’s not real. It’s folklore,” she said, describing her view on the likelihood of spiritual presence in deserted buildings. “I think these places deserve a modicum of respect. It makes it seem like a joke.”
Wertz is serious about the pursuit of abandoned spaces. She mines newspaper archives and books for historical information about these empty buildings before even setting foot inside.
On Wertz’s website, Adventurebibleschool.com, there are dozens of photos depicting the interiors and exteriors of abandoned buildings. These include shots of jagged shards jutting from window frames, a rumpled bedspread littered with paint chips, and walls covered with cracked and peeling paint. These images provide a comparison to the hopeful, sepia-toned pictures from the past on her website.
“I do extensive research on the places I go,” said Wertz, 31, “and to then be able to explore them is almost a form of archaeology, which is enormously satisfying for history nerds.”
Her interest in urban exploring began as a child in Northern California, when she graduated from investigating a drainage pipe in her parents’ backyard to cutting class to hang out at the decommissioned Skaggs Island naval station. By her 20s, though, Wertz was confronting serious illness. In 2003, she was diagnosed with lupus that was followed by years of struggle with alcoholism, rehab and relapse, leaving exploring by the wayside. Between 2007 and 2010, she published two comic books— “Fart Party Volumes 1 & 2,” depicting Wertz’s post-college adventures in San Francisco and New York—and two graphic memoirs based on her life. A third “Fart Party” volume will be published in September.
But the Brooklyn-based Wertz rediscovered exploring when she got sober in 2012. She launched the Adventure Bible School website—named after a camp she attended in childhood—in July 2013, posting pictures from abandoned buildings including schools, hospitals and theaters.
Contemptuous of modern-day ghost hunters who camp out in abandoned mental hospitals hoping to record the unearthly screams of former patients, Wertz visits places like Greenpoint Hospital in Brooklyn and Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, as a way to record and preserve patient testimonials.
“I’m also a recovering alcoholic, and I see a lot of patients committed for alcoholism and given treatments that were totally ineffective, because alcoholism wasn’t understood or properly treated back then,” she said.
“It’s hard to read [the] files of people who had no business being in an asylum, yet they were still committed and often died in them,” said Wertz.
From digging in dark asylum basements she has discovered and photographed patient memorabilia, like a lithium handbook chronicling a man’s struggle with bipolar depression. One page illustrates a man’s battle between manic and depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder with dueling cartoon thought bubbles, one a superhero, and the other, a man withdrawn and curled up in a ball. Wertz would not reveal how she gains access to buildings or whether she keeps the records she finds.
Documenting a mental hospital can take time, particularly in a location like Greystone, with its main Kirkbride building sprawling over 675,000 square feet and its history going back to 1876. Wertz recently posted photos she took a few years ago, after a decision was made to demolish the former psychiatric hospital. Some of these photos show odd items like a Greystone patient’s drawing of a skull wearing a Nazi helmet, and a deer carcass dangling from a meat hook. “There are certain places I’ve been to dozens of times, mostly because the size of them means they take multiple trips to photograph,” she said. “And then if I’m looking for artifacts, it can take years of repeated visiting to feel like I’ve really seen and rooted through the whole place.”
One of the most memorable New York City buildings Wertz has visited is Harlem’s P.S. 186, a 100,000-square-foot school that closed in 1975.
“The way the building has aged is pretty spectacular,” she said. “The windows have been missing for years, so there’s a lot of plant growth indoors, which is a bizarre sight in the middle of Manhattan.”
Her photos show images such as indoor plant growth, schoolbooks with covers made illegible by dirt, and a boiler with a façade that’s faded and peeling.
Earlier plans to demolish and redevelop the school fell through. But in December, the school was acquired by Monadnock Construction and Alembic Development Corporation, which plans to build apartments as well as create a space for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem on-site.
For the most part, Wertz is content to explore buildings on her own or with a few select friends. She’s not part of the urban exploring community, which she said is, “comprised of males in their teens and 20s.”
“As a female in my 30s, I don’t have much in common with most of them,” she said.
She won’t reveal future exploring trips “since it’d basically be telling you about a crime I’m going to commit in the future,” since she is trespassing.
But she said a book, half-comic, about the places she’s photographed might be forthcoming.
For now, she’ll continue to delve into the past.
“It’s fun to run around in a place you’re not supposed to be and see things you’re not supposed to see,” she said.
Stefani Kim is a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Her website is http://www.stefanikim.me/menu.