March 16-22, 2006
Naked City : ArticleByberry's Long Goodbye
Urban explorers say so long to the infamous mental hospital; neighbors say good riddance.
Today, those tortured souls have been replaced by a new set of misfits, and unlike their predecessors, these denizens of Byberry come and go as they please. Every weekend night, as many as 100 urban explorers infiltrate the hospital's condemned property in groups of threes and fours, seeking souvenirs, photos, evidence of the paranormal and the thrill of slipping through a crack in the city's blueprint. Drawn by urban legends, curiosity and a vast network of online forums and personal Web pages, these self-styled "Byberrians" gather on the site's rooftops and in its tunnels to drink, smoke and share stories. A handful of regulars leave their pseudonyms on its walls: Radical Ed, Buck, Wanky, Red Dragon, Beef, Goddog, Robbie Knobbie.
"I kind of had an obsession with that place since I first heard about it," says 27-year-old Goddog, a maintenance man by day and Byberrian by night. "At first it was about the history, and then after I started to hang there, there was a kind of culture about it that was really unlike anything else I've ever seen." For Goddog and those like him, Byberry has become a monument more to the trespassers themselves than to the hospital's dark past. He describes walls covered in "spray paint on spray paint on spray paint."
But Byberry and its unique culture will soon come to a violent end. According to contractors at Westrum Development, demolition of the century-old buildings is expected to begin as early as next month. Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), who bought the site from the city for $850,000 two years ago, plans to use roughly 50 acres for office buildings and 50 acres for housing aimed at the elderly, leaving 30 acres as green space. Minor zoning board issues are still being worked out, but only a thin line of red tape stands between Byberry and the wrecking ball.
Given that the asbestos-filled site's destruction will cost between $15 million and $20 million and will take nearly a year, the city's booming residential housing market has only recently made development worthwhile. With its empty remains replaced by new buildings, Byberry will become valuable property: The residential portion of the site alone is expected to fetch close to $140 million from its new occupants.
For Byberry's neighbors, the first building couldn't fall too soon. Mary Jane Hazell heads the Somerton Civic Association and has lived in Somerton's working-class neighborhoodwhat she proudly calls "the suburbs within the city"for 40 years. She's been campaigning to have Byberry's ruins destroyed since the hospital was first condemned. "Those half-torn-down buildings, it sickens the stomach," she says. "It just doesn't belong in the kind of setting that we have here in Somerton."
After 16 years of abandonment, Byberry's initiates are skeptical that the hospital will actually be demolished, but even so, they're preparing for the end of an era. "We're just trying to enjoy it before it's gone," says Goddog.
"To us, it's more than just a bunch of abandoned buildings," says Chip, a 23-year-old software developer who visits Byberry about once a week. Chip has visited other urban exploring hot spots like Pennhurst State Hospital, Lambertville High School in New Jersey and Haverford State Hospital, but he always returns to Byberry. "I've gotten really attached to the place. I've met so many people there that I'm really close with, and we really don't want to see it go."
Like his friend Goddog, Chip first came to Byberry looking for evidence of the hospital's gruesome history. "For me, urban exploring is about seeing what most people never know exists," he says. "If you can find a place in good condition, it's almost like going back in time."
For Chip, Byberry's history becomes most compelling at its darkest. He has read and re-read Shame of the States, Albert Deutsch's 1948 account of atrocious treatment in American asylums, which compared Byberry to Nazi concentration camps:
I entered buildings swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern, pervaded by a fetid odor so heavy, so nauseating, that the stench seemed to have almost a physical existence of its own.
Deutsch's muckraking led to reforms, but the hospital's ever-increasing patient population was never matched by proper funding. Stories would sporadically emerge of patients sleeping in hallways, beaten and neglected by alcoholic staff members. After a final wave of scandal in the 1980s, the state gave up on Byberry.
Since the hospital's abandonment, it has rarely been vacant. The first wave of trespassers stripped the buildings of copper wiring, paneling, anything of monetary value. When curious urban explorers later discovered Byberry's shell, they picked over its remains, searching for any sign of the stories they'd heard. Chip recently found a patient's identification card. Goddog's most exhilarating discovery was a hollow cornerstone. He smashed it open to reveal a time capsule, complete with a newspaper from the day of the building's groundbreaking.
Hazell remembers the elegance of Byberry's interior before it was closed. "There was carved woodwork and marble, like the way City Hall is," she recalls. "You can't even buy woodwork like that today."
She blames trespassers themselves for the building's demolition. "I think it's sad that history can't be preserved," she says. "If someone had done something immediately, a lot of those buildings could have been saved."
PIDC's John Grady, who is responsible for the site's development, takes a less sentimental stance. "What's the history that's been there?" he asks. "There's a bunch of old hospital buildings."
Grady and Hazell express concern for the site's safety, and Hazell points to the fate of James Lowe III, a 49-year-old building inspector who fell two stories to his death when a stairwell collapsed beneath him last year.
Goddog dismisses these safety concerns, claiming that no trespasser has ever been injured in the buildings. Nonetheless, he sympathizes with neighbors who are ready to see Byberry developed. His opponents are less merciful: "I have no remorse [for the trespassers.] They don't belong there," says Hazell. "I have nine grandchildren, and they don't have to run and hide in Byberry. Find something else to do with your time. Volunteer to help some old person."
Beyond half-joking threats to stand in front of bulldozers, Byberry's visitors aren't putting up any opposition to its demolition. Still, Goddog and his friends will be sad to part with their beloved tramping ground. "For some of us it was a haunted house. For others it was a building with a lot of history," he muses. "I guess that's the thing about an empty building. It becomes what you want it to be.