As a kid of New York growing up near Broadway on the Upper West Side, I knew about the 91st St. subway station, which closed 34 years before I was even born, long before I had a sense of the subway system as a whole. My parents told me how there used to be a 1 train stop — then the IRT local — on the same corner as my childhood apartment building. I knew that if you peered hard enough into the dark, you could see this graffiti-covered, trash-strewn relic of another era, and my parents told me that when the 96th St. station finally reached 94th St., the 200-foot stop was deemed unnecessary. It shut with little public fanfare.
That 91st St. station was always an oddity in the system. As Joseph Brennan described at his Abandoned Stations site, “A station at 91 St was provided solely to avoid a ten block stretch without stations. The neighboring stations were located at the wide crosstown streets 86 St and 96 St, which had no crosstown car or bus service in 1904, but which were considered to be likely candidates once the area became more developed. It was awkward because while ten blocks was a long distance, the resulting five blocks was closer than any interstation distance north of 33 St.”
Today, the 91st St. station exists as nothing special. Before 9/11, the Transit Museum conducted tours of the stop, and the photos show neglect and destruction appropriate for a station that hasn’t seen revenue service since the waning days of the Eisenhower Administration. There’s no need for this station, and so it, like many others, passes into the forgotten realm of New York City subway history.
Earlier this week, that history exploded onto the front pages of The New York Times when the Underbelly Project, my latest subway obsession, became public. Not technically located in an abandoned station, the street art gallery inaccessible to anyone but the select and the daring inhabits a shell station built off of the IND Crosstown’s Broadway stop that has been waiting for trains to pass through it since the early 1930s. The subway, though, will never come to the South 4th St. station, once the six-track centerpiece for the grand plan we now call the IND Second System. Instead, a massive display of street art that has truly and utterly captured my imagination now lives there, and the MTA says that, while it will work to shore of this abandoned station’s security, it won’t erase the art.
Why, I wonder, am I so drawn to this story? The answer I believe lies in the mystery of the station, nostalgia for an era of old when now-abandoned subway stations were open and the sweet romance of the way the city used to plan on a grand scale. By and large, the city’s abandoned subway stations are few and far between. For a public transit system with 468 active stations, New York City’s system has few hidden spots. The City Hall stop, visible to those who ride the 6 train around the loop and enjoy the perks of Transit Museum membership, is probably the most famous, but others — the 18th St. station on the East Side IRT, the Myrtle Ave. stop-turned-Masstransiscope just north of DeKalb Ave., the entire unnecessary Worth St. stop — are out there.
The abandoned subway stops and unused lower levels — 42nd St. and 8th Ave., Bergen St. and 9th Ave. in Brooklyn — and antique walls remind us of the city’s past. The subway’s planners made mistakes. They built too many stops that couldn’t handle the appropriate number of riders a few years or decades after opening. They put stations too close together and constructed bi-level stops where they weren’t needed. In a few select spots around the city in the 1930s, they even built station shells for subway routes that never materialized. Each and every vacant spot is a reminder of a bygone era in the city’s transit history.
This week, it will become harder for the urban adventurers to find these hidden gems. The MTA and the NYPD are working to ensure that access to the abandoned and forgotten stations isn’t as easy as it was for the two years while street artists toiled away at the Underbelly Project work. Hidden access points will be sealed, fences will be mended. Yet, these stations are out there, decaying reminders of another age. History may not remember them, but those of us who know and appreciate transit history will. With their work this week, the Underbelly Project and its slate of artists made sure that many more of us now know that history.