Documenting local ruins is a passion for Trumbull man

TRUMBULL — Abandoned buildings are a bit like time capsules, containing artifacts of a world that hasn’t existed in decades — and for decades, Trumbull resident Rob Dobi has been drawn to them.

“There’s something about it that’s so serene,” Dobi said. “Especially when you think of places where thousands of people once worked that one day they just locked up and left.”

Dobi is an urban explorer. He and others who enjoy the hobby painstakingly document modern ruins, photographing the dusty factories, offices, resorts, schools, theaters and anything else old and abandoned he can find. He has gathered hundreds of such photos on his website, newenglandruins.com.

Growing up in Fairfield, Dobi said he always had a sense of exploration.

“Most people stop doing it when they get older. I kept it up,” he said.

His interest in the pursuit took off when he went to design school in Rhode Island, he said.

“Providence is this industrial city, and there were lots of abandoned properties within a stone’s throw of my apartment,” he said. “Then one day, I saw this show on MTV called Fear (a reality show that focused on paranormal activity) that had been filmed at Fairfield Hills in Newtown, and I thought that was a place I would love to see.”

His roommate doubted he had the courage to explore the place, but said he has never thought about the places he visits as being haunted or spooky.

“They didn’t leave these places because they were haunted, they left because the budget got cut,” he said.

In fact, it is budget cuts, or sudden management decisions, that create the situations Dobi likes the most — the singular moment in time. Like a factory where the workers showed up for what they thought would be a normal day only to be sent home and never come back.

For example, one photo of his shows a manager’s office at an abandoned metal factory with yellow hardhats still neatly sitting on the conference table.

“It’s like they all sat down for a meeting, were told the factory was closing and got up and left,” he said. “And they left their hats on the table where they were sitting.”

Other artifacts of such abrupt closings can include things like phone messages still taped to desks or thumbtacked to a corkboard, a list of Bible passages and a description of a patient’s mental status taped to the wall of an institution or crayon drawings taped to the wall of a classroom next to a blackboard with multiplication tables still legible on it.

A similar situation occurred at Bridgeport’s Pleasure Beach, a seaside community that was abruptly abandoned when the access bridge burned in 1996.

“I call it my Chernobyl,” Dobi said, a reference to the 1986 nuclear disaster that resulted in thousands of workers being evacuated from their homes with no time to gather their belongings.

“That’s what Pleasure Beach was like,” he said. “Bicycles were still in backyards, pickup trucks are still in driveways. The people assumed they were coming back so they threw a sheet over the couch and walked out, and they never came back.”

Dobi said he is always careful to contact property owners before stepping onto their property, and he has a release from liability form preprinted assuming sole responsibility for any injury he may incur. But, he acknowledges, that was not always the case.

“I’m almost 40 and I’ve got two kids, so now everything I do is authorized access,” he said.

Now that he no longer has to worry about an angry property owner calling the police, the biggest danger Dobi typically faces are rickety stairs and leaky roofs. But the risks are worth it for the thrill of discovery, he said.

“I’ve found newspaper ads for someone who dresses up in Barney costumes for children’s parties, cash still in register drawers, food left in refrigerators,” he said.

But the most interesting thing Dobi ever found in an abandoned building is undoubtedly love.

“Actually my first date with the woman who’s now my wife was an abandoned asylum,” he said. “She had seen my photos online and asked me about them. I though, wow she’s pretty cute, so I said I’d give her a tour.”