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The haunting beauty of New Orleans’ abandoned buildings

Meet Leland Kent. He is slightly obsessed with rust and decay, peeling paint and piles of debris. He’s OK breathing in musty air and unusual smells, crawling through mud, squeezing through fences and hoisting himself over barbed wire.

All in the name of art.

He’s what you call an urban explorer. Part historian and part artist, he spends much of his time photographing New Orleans’ long-forgotten buildings.

“Most people are amazed at what I photograph,” says Kent, creator of abandonedsoutheast.com. “They are intrigued by the decay and what objects are left behind.”

Since 2014, he’s explored about 100 derelict buildings across the Southeast and a dozen or so in New Orleans.

During that time, he’s come to realize that there’s no shortage of vacant buildings to explore. Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city, New Orleans still has loads of abandoned buildings — about 20,000, according to local government officials.

The ruins of New Orleans

For Kent, each of those crumbling structures is another chance to discover beauty — even in the former New Orleans Public Service Power Plant, also known as the Market Street Power Plant, which shut down in 1973.

When you enter, he says, you can see all five levels, the bottom of which is flooded with murky, green water. Light streams in through broken windows. You are surrounded by pipes and rust. It’s steampunk heaven.

“It’s quite a sight,” he says. “It’s really awe-inspiring standing inside of it. I mean, it’s massive.”

Not to mention creepy. The perfect backdrop for movies and TV shows. The science fiction film “Oblivion” was shot there as well as the AMC series “Into the Badlands.”

A growing trend

There are plenty of folks just like Kent who are intrigued by the beauty of decay. Just Google #urbex #ruinporn or #urbxunderground, and you’ll find everything from defunct amusement parks in Kentucky to dilapidated mansions in Detroit.

For Kent, the chance to see something others will never see is particularly appealing. One place he has visited a handful of times is Charity Hospital in the lower Mid-City neighborhood.

The building has recently been cleaned up, but when Kent visited in January 2015, he says there were containers of discarded body parts, biohazard waste, broken windows, walls of peeling paint and piles of debris. On the basement wall he could see the water line left behind by Katrina’s floodwaters.

That begs the question: How safe is it to enter these buildings?

You never know what to expect. Kent has come across graffiti artists, homeless people, other explorers and drug addicts. But he says no one has ever been aggressive.

He has had a few alarming animal encounters, however. He spotted a huge black snake in an abandoned Florida factory once that chased him out of a building.

The New Orleans Police Department points out that trespassing is not only illegal, but can also be dangerous.

“There may be structural problems with the building that could cause harm. In some situations, dangerous individuals may be using the building for illegal activity, posing additional hazards for urban explorers,” says Beau Tidwell, communications director for the NOPD.

“A lot of times there are abandoned places in the rougher part of town, so you just have to be cautious,” Kent says. “I’ve avoided places because people were hanging around outside.”

Gaining access

How exactly does Kent go about gaining access? “If someone owns the property, I ask for permission to photograph,” he explains. “Sometimes it is a matter of finding a broken window or unlocked door.”

“There are places I visit that are considered off limits,” he adds. “No one would be given permission, so the only way to gain access is by trespassing.”

Despite the risks, he says he’ll continue to explore, even going back to places he’s already visited like the Touro-Shakespeare Home, a former nursing home on the west bank of the Mississippi River.

Outside, vines swirl around the columns and concrete fountains are overgrown with weeds. There are stepped parapets, a prominent front portico and diamond-patterned brickwork. Inside, 20-foot domed ceilings tower over walls covered in graffiti and all the stained-glass windows have been removed. But it’s easy to imagine the building being quite a sight in its glory days.

“Buildings today are not as ornate as buildings built a hundred years ago,” says Kent. “In some places, I feel like I am stepping back in time.”