David Bulit has one piece of advice for his followers. Maybe it’s more like a warning.
“Don’t do anything that I would do.”
He has spent over a decade slipping into Florida’s strangest spaces. Cigar factories and decrepit prisons, overgrown theme parks and haunted hospitals: He’s seen it all. And through his photographs, so has his audience.
The 32-year-old Miami native has worked for years to research and document hundreds of off-limits spaces on his website, Abandoned Florida. More than 109,000 people follow the accompanying Abandoned Florida Facebook page, and 107,000 others are members of his private Facebook group, Forgotten Florida.
Along the way, the urban explorer has published multiple books and met the woman who would become his wife. They ran into each other in an abandoned hospital in Alabama.
Years into the project, some of the thrill has perhaps worn off. In an interview, he seems guarded, or at least serious about underscoring the — sometimes literal — pitfalls of touring abandoned places he doesn’t always have permission to be.
“There’s always a risk involved,” Bulit said. “You don’t know if there’s someone down the hallway waiting to rob you or hurt you. You don’t know if there’s cops on the way ... If you’re going to fall through the floor down the hall. You don’t know anything.”
Into the darkness
Bulit first heard about urban exploring in 2010 while viewing a bootleg copy of the 2007 documentary Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness. Back then, he spent workdays at a warehouse that built airplane parts. It was boring. Urban exploring seemed like the opposite.
He started at the Deep Lake Prison, a maximum-security prison in southwest Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve. After the Department of Corrections closed the prison in 2002, it became a popular spot for paintballers and explorers.
“They called it the Alcatraz of the Everglades because there was nothing around,” he said. “If somebody tried to make a run for it, they’re running miles and miles and miles into swamp land.”
As he wandered past crumbling toilets, cell block graffiti and collapsed ceilings, he felt a new mix of excitement, paranoia, fear and adrenaline. Next, he sneaked into the Aerojet-Dade Rocket Fabrication and Development Facility, where NASA designed rockets to fly to the moon. He was hooked.
Bulit started bringing a Nikon Coolpix camera along, just to document the spaces for himself. Then he noticed a pattern: The buildings he visited would later be burned down or destroyed. Lost to history.
“I have the photos just sitting here of these places,” he said. “I figured, ‘Why don’t I post these up on a website and share the history of what this place was?’”
With each entry on abandonedflorida.com, Bulit dug around for context behind the buildings. He scoured newspaper archives, university libraries and ancestry.com, looking for old books, flyers and photographs to build out a picture of what once was.
At the Moulton & Kyle Funeral Home in Jacksonville, he sifted through documents and containers of ashes alongside embalming tables and a hearse. He thought he caught a glimpse of a Florida panther outside a former phosphate mine.
In the Tampa Bay area, he crept inside the Mediterranean Revival-style YMCA building in downtown St. Petersburg, toured the Fenway Hotel in Dunedin before it was renovated and roamed inside Ybor City’s cigar factories.
Most recently, he was allowed to go inside Dunedin’s Kellogg Mansion, a place he described as both tacky and beautiful.
“It has carpeting on the walls,” he said. “Chandeliers everywhere, even above the bed. Mirrors everywhere.”
As his website and Facebook page grew, Bulit traveled outside of Florida, from New York to Texas and Tennessee to Illinois. Tens of thousands of others saw his work. Eventually, he made friends along the way and brought some in to help him moderate the posts, like William Powell.
“A lot of people feel like they’re on the journey with me,” said Powell, 30, of Tampa. “I like being able to share that with them.”
While Powell enjoys building a community in the Facebook group Forgotten Florida, he doesn’t like to give out too much information when people ask.
“You don’t know who they are,” he said. “You could be giving it to someone who’s a scrapper who wants to get all the copper or will vandalize it.”
After 30 years in Florida, Bulit moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he now updates both his Abandoned Florida and Abandoned Alabama websites. About once a month, he ventures out to hit at least 10 places.
He brings a bag with his flashlight, camera, tripod, extra batteries and memory cards. He slips on heavy-duty pants and boots, in case he steps on nails. And he prefers not to explore alone.
“I have a friend who lives in Tampa and he always drives up and down where the cigar factories are,” he said. “We abide by the idea to not break into these places. Eventually, someone’s going to break in for us. … When he finally sees a window is busted open or a door has been ripped open, he’ll give me a call and I’ll go over there.”
Sergio Alejandro, a Miami-based urban explorer and a friend of Bulit, said that even after a decade of entering abandoned spaces, he still gets nervous. He’s been caught on multiple properties and asked to leave. Once, he and Bulit were detained together. He estimates that 90 percent of the time, he’s breaking the law.
“I don’t know who’s in there, what’s in there,” said Alejandro, who shares his photography on Instagram under the handle @sergioisevil. “I don’t know if the place is under surveillance.”
Most people aren’t prepared for these risks, Bulit said. He’s received multiple citations and court notices, taken plea deals and paid court fees.
There’s also the safety risk. Alejandro started carrying mace with him after hearing stories of people getting mugged at gunpoint, or killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once, a friend’s car got broken into while they watched helplessly from the second floor of an abandoned building. There was nothing they could do.
Then there are the elements. Alejandro has waded through marshes in suffocating Florida heat, climbed fences and become a buffet for mosquitoes. Making it inside the abandoned sites doesn’t offer much safety, between mold and crumbling structures.
“I’ve literally fallen through a floor like a cartoon character,” Alejandro said.
While Alejandro discourages others from urban exploring, he personally sees the risk of injury, legal troubles and death as worth it. It’s his only cheap thrill.
“I don’t do graffiti, I don’t do drugs,” he said. “I’m in these places to photograph them and get an interesting perspective that not a lot of people get to see.”
correction: Correction: Samuel L. Davis Cigar Factory is in West Tampa. This story has been updated to correct that fact.