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Baltimore YouTuber Dan Bell explores vacant factories, abandoned hospitals, and 'dead malls' in more than 100 films

The sun went down, leaving only the light from a flickering street lamp. But filmmaker Dan Bell left the safety of his warm car, pushed through the shoulder-high weeds, the Newport cigarette wrappers, the old tires and warped pieces of plywood that have overtaken the asphalt outside the long-closed Albert F. Goetze meat-packing plant in East Baltimore, and arrived at the unwelcoming side entrance.

Without hesitation, the 39-year-old Baltimore man squeezed through a cut in the chain-link fence and walked over layers of debris to a dark doorway.

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His goal: to record footage of the derelict site to share with a growing online audience.

"I'm trying to get people to see something they would never ever get to see," Bell said.

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He went to the plant at Sinclair Lane and Belair Road to document the inside of the decaying structure that was once a symbol of Baltimore's blue-collar workforce. Now, it's more a symbol of the city's manufacturing decline and blight.

The video Bell made is one of more than 100 he has posted to his YouTube channel. The clips on "This is Dan Bell" are simple: He tours abandoned sites — a resort in the Poconos, psychiatric hospitals, even a shuttered Lone Star Steakhouse.

Bell has a sub-specialty in what he calls "dead malls": suburban shopping centers, some of which are abandoned, and others that struggle with only a handful of tenants.

He is one of a group of people who risk injury, death or possible trespassing charges to investigate the interiors of abandoned structures and sites that have been left to deteriorate in the elements.

Posts on Flickr, Reddit, Facebook and YouTube show the growing interest in exploring and documenting the often shocking transformations of once-bustling spaces now devoid of life.

Urban exploration often involves trespassing on private property. Police discourage it.

"In some of these really bad vacant structures, the wood is dry-rotted, you could potentially fall through," said T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. "They aren't structurally sound. There is a reason why they are blocked off."

And while the buildings are unoccupied, Smith said, they're still someone else's property.

"It is technically trespassing," he said. The misdemeanor carries penalties of up to 90 days in prison or a fine of $500.

Smith said he understands the "artistic perspective" that fuels the interest of urban explorers, but there are other ways to get inside, such as seeking permission from the owner.

Bell said he has been stopped by police or security guards but has always been able to explain why he's there and what he's doing. He said he's never been charged.

"I think because of the surge of popularity of people going to abandoned places, police departments … don't want to waste their time with a photographer taking a picture of an old building," he said. "It's a completely different story if you are breaking in there to steal stuff."

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Bell said he once fell through the rotted floor of an abandoned home, and has come across homeless people squatting in buildings he was exploring.

"I completely agree with his assessment that these vacant buildings are extremely dangerous. Really, people should just leave it to me," Bell said.

He doesn't carry a weapon, but brings a respiratory mask and extra batteries for the light on his camera — the only light he carries. He says he prefers to shoot at night for the effect.

Bell acknowledges he's trespassing. He said he views his work as a service.

"It's digital preservation," he said. "I am preserving something on video for the future."

Crownsville Hospital Center in Anne Arundel County, Fort Howard Veterans Hospital in Baltimore County, and the formerly shuttered Enchanted Forrest amusement park in Ellicott City have been popular sites for urban explorers. (The Enchanted Forest has been moved to a new site.)

Kaeleigh Herstad teaches a course on urban exploration at Indiana University in which students explore how communities deal with the structural processes of decay.

"We've always had a fascination with it, and we've always documented it," she said. "There is the visual appeal of it," she said, but also the history, the personal significance to individuals, and the discussion around a site's future.

"These places just spur people's creativity," she said.

Some critics have likened urban exploration to poverty tourism or disaster tourism.

Herstad said documenting these buildings should take into account the context around it. The documentation "can also make a political impact," she said.

Bell doesn't consider himself an urban explorer, but a filmmaker who takes risks in order to create thrilling short films.

"When I am scared, I will exude how I feel into the video," Bell said. "I've had people write me and say I can't finish the video. I'm too freaked out I can't watch it.

"That is the biggest compliment I can get as a filmmaker."

But he said the films also serve a documentary purpose.

"It's a moment in time," he said. "It's recording something that is there."

Bell has made two underground films, "Go-Go Motel" and "Night Fifty," but became discouraged when his filmmaking career did not take off. He was reinvigorated by the 2015 release of Britney Girl Dale, a documentary about Dale Crites, who is known to walk along Ritchie Highway dressing as his idols, Britney Spears, Madonna and Ke$ha.

Since then, he's explored a closed brewery in West Baltimore, the Mayfair Theatre downtown, the Sellers Mansion in Harlem Park and an old funeral home on York Road.

Bell started posting to his YouTube channel regularly shortly after the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray last April. At first, he says, he didn't want to shoot his hometown because he didn't want to contribute to negative perceptions of the city.

"At the time there were riots," he said. "People commenting on YouTube have no trouble using the n-word and everything else. I didn't want the videos to turn into a [forum for] political discussion."

Bell has filmed Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie, which remains open but has many shuttered storefronts, and Owings Mills Mall.

"I love dead malls," he said. "For me, it's more of the contrasts of it once being bustling and now being dead."

In one of his Owings Mills videos, he includes a 1986 newscast from WMAR with footage of an elaborate opening ceremony with champagne, gold dust and pink feathers that anchor Sally Thorner said "heralded in a new era for Owings Mills," interspersed with footage he took of the empty parking lot in September.

"I remember as a kid," he said. "That mall was like the fanciest mall you could possibly imagine and to see it [now] there was only three stores open."

One of Bell's most popular videos, with more than 480,000 views, is of the Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. The mall, which closed in 2008, has become a popular destination for urban explorers since pictures of its snow-covered escalator were circulated online.

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Bell was escorted out of the mall by police. He says he has been confronted by security officers at different locations, and some mall management companies have threatened to sue. He says he does not break into locations, but will find an existing entry point.

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In his most recent video, he walks through the charred and littered Goetze meat plant, which has been closed since the company declared bankruptcy in 1974.

The company, which once served the entire East Coast and as far west as Ohio, helped make Baltimore one of the top meat producers in the country in the early 1960s.

The equipment that was used to make hot dogs, sausages and lunch meat was removed and sold long ago. Three years after it closed, seven firefighters were injured in a four-alarm blaze at the plant.

The once stately placard on the front entrance is now covered with a worn sign for a storefront church that also appears to have been gone long ago.

A layer of debris covers the ground where Bell entered. Two crumbling steps lead inside the building. A thick black film obscures the once pearly, glossy subway tile. Running water can be heard trickling from the roof.

Inside are discarded bails of clothing and old computer monitors.

"It looks like you're in a cavern. It's a huge building," Bell said. "For me, as someone who likes to entertain, and thrill an audience, it's perfect."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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