We’ve been searching for hours, and we’ve finally found it. We amble nonchalantly past a cop car, which drives by and leaves us be. My eyes flit back and forth around the front side of the building and quickly decide that trying to go in by the front won’t work, and that our best bet is to circle around and hope there’s a side or rear entrance we can get in.
This is the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, an abandoned experimental plant research facility an hour north of Manhattan. It sounds like the birthplace of a plant themed supervillain, and I’m still not sure it isn’t.
We go there first: the greenhouses themselves. The inmates have taken over the asylum: the whole place is overgrown, strange, foreign weeds choking and twisting the metal structures that once housed them, bursting free from pots, pushing through windowframes and littering the ground with shards of broken glass that once made up their hothouses. The more delicate breeds have died out, leaving only the heartiest, most intimidating of plants behind. Survival of the fittest, run at turbo speed in this artificial environment let loose on the real world.
We explore the greenhouses in the last fading light of the day. They’re magnificent: rusted, brokens structures of iron, glass, and empty space, framing the plants beautifully. And in between them, we find our way in.
The ground is missing, revealing old steam tunnels beneath, pipes still in place. No longer carrying anything hot, we can climb down them like monkeys in a forest, using our brachiating shoulders to move from pipe to pipe like so many branches in a tree. It feels very appropriate. We then have to crawl on our hands and knees through the narrow tunnel, flashlights clenched in front of us, and then actually crawl on our bellies, getting ourselves covered in dry, dusty soil. The floor has a sudden drop of ten feet or so before us, so we back out and turn around, going in feet first so we can lower ourselves down.
We’re violating one of the cardinal rules of urban exploration here: never go in anywhere you aren’t sure you can get back out. Getting back out this way would be very difficult to do, but fortunately, once we’ve all dropped down, we discover that what looked like a dead end before was actually a more circuitous route to where we are now, that involved more climbing on pipes, so we aren’t trapped. Whew.
The sun has set by now, so it’s pitch black in here. I wish I had been able to see it in the day, so that I could see how much sunlight penetrates down here, because there are still more green plants down here! One room is a bamboo forest. Another has a sort of viney bush in it, with a spiderweb helpfully protecting us from insects. Everywhere we go, everything has been smashed to pieces, either by disgruntled ex-employees, or fellow urban explorers, or by the plants themselves, we’re not sure. The entire effect is one of morbid replacement, a sort of arboreal planet of the apes. I would not be surprised to see the Swamp Thing around the next corner. It’s thoroughly spooky.
We’ve made it into a large underground room, full of the remains of potted plants, and are carefully walking across it when we hear something. It sounds like footsteps in the distance. But it could just be an echo, right? We stop walking, and the footsteps stop. We start walking, and they resume. Seems like an echo.
Then we stop once more, just to be sure. The footsteps also stop, and just as we’re about to breathe a sigh of relief and continue on, they start up again. At this point we are all very much freaked out, and we book it back out of there as quickly as we can ascend the pipes, rush back through the greenhouses and across the street and into the car, where we catch our breath.
We’re all more than ready to head back to the city, and so we begin to make our way back. On our way, though, we notice something by the side of the road, lit up by our headlights. It looks like an abandoned mansion. And the front gate is unlocked. We turn to each other: we’ve all had the same idea. We should go check it out. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
Photos are by me and Allison. The Boyce Thompson Institute is about an hour north of Manhattan.
Honestly, we got so turned around looking for it that I’m not sure I’d be able to find it again, much less direct you towards it.