Video: What grows on subway station walls?

By · Published in 2011

When I travel from Brooklyn to the Washington Square Park/NYU area, I use the B train at 7th Ave., and despite its location along Flatbush Ave. in between Park Slope and Prospect Heights, that station is a mess. It hasn’t been renovated in decades, and it features a shuttered staircase that leads to a blocked off mezzanine. By itself, the staircase would be nothing more than an eyesore, but a homeless man has taken up residence in the station. It is not clean.

On top of the odor of human waste that often permeates the station, I’ve seen — shall we say? — physical evidence of a station inhabitant, and on more than one occasion, I’ve had to complain to the MTA about the presence of human waste on the platform. I’ve also witnessed MTA workers dragging leaking trash bags up and down the stairs. Generally, it’s a mess, and it’s indicative of the lack of care seen in stations around the system.

Now, I understand that maintaining aging infrastructure takes a lot of money the MTA, the city and the state simply do not have right now. I understand that if the MTA had its druthers, every station would get a fresh coat of paint, a thorough cleaning and dirt-resistant surfaces. I also understand that we all want to win the lottery tomorrow. That said, the system is a mess.

Last week, Greg Mocker, everyone’s favorite hyperactive muckracking TV news reporter, decided to explore the MTA’s crumbling stations, and he’s started a regular segment of his portion of the Channel 11 news. In it, he fields reader suggestions for the worst station, and of course, more than one have suggested Chambers St. While last night he stood only atop the J/Z platform and didn’t venture into the once-grand cavern, his video clip is notable for other reasons. Peep it below as Mocker tries to figure out exactly what is on the station walls at 18th Ave. in Brooklyn.


Of course, this being a TV news clip, we have tune in tonight to find out the resolution of the lab tests, but as Mocker and his environmental analyst speculated during the clip, it’s likely that the black and green gunk pulled off the wall will be mold. This can hardly come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes in some of the system’s subway stations, but that thought isn’t exactly a comforting one.

As Mocker details, the MTA’s approaches to station maintenance have been varied. For decades, the authority tried a State of Good Repair program that targeted only six stations or so per year. Now, they’re trying a component-based program that targets parts of stations that are falling apart — staircases, ceilings, you name it. Of course, they still don’t have a plan to paint every station. They still don’t have the manpower or money to keep the station clean. It will remain a mess.

I’ll check back in with the results of the lab test tomorrow. I’m not sure we’re going to want to know though what various things are waiting with us in our train stations. Meanwhile, as the MTA works to convince us that things are getting better underground, the visual and physical environment underground isn’t. How do you balance the tension between technological upgrades and infrastructure decay when dollars are tight anyway?

21 Responses to “Video: What grows on subway station walls?”

  1. Dane says:

    I actually think that this physical decay is the biggest problem we have in the system right now. It really sends the signal that no one cares. It’s tragic.

    I’d personally be willing and would like the opportunity to put together a “Friends of…” group to help fund and upkeep my own local subway station. I know that this is problematic in a variety of ways and probably doesn’t help subway stations in poorer neighborhoods than mine. But, heck, it was a public-private partnership model that brought Prospect Park back from the brink in the 1980s. I think this is the world we live in now.

    I would also like to see MTA’s workforce redeployed to take care of this decay. And I’d like to see the union go along with it. Why do we need to have a clerk sitting inside a bullet-proof token booth all day reading the paper at our local station? Don’t get me wrong: I like that we have a human presence down there. But why not give him a paint brush and a can of paint and then give him a nice bonus if he really keeps the station looking nice and goes the extra mile.

    The way that labor is deployed in the system doesn’t make sense to me.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Most of the MTA’s maintenance budget is spent on things you can’t see. Although an ugly station looks bad, there is nothing actually unsafe about it. Compare that to money spent on things like track rehabs, tunnel lighting, yards, rolling stock, signalling, etc., where there the investment has a pretty direct connection to safety and reliability.

      The MTA would support private investment in stations, and in fact, this has been done before. But it usually requires a corporate investor with deep pockets who has a commercial interest in the area.

      You have got to be joking about handing a paintbrush and can to the booth clerk, and leaving him in charge of beautifying the station. For one thing, the old paint needs to be removed first, and most of the painted areas are not at floor level. This is work for a professional.

      • John Ruppert says:

        I have to agree with Dane. Labor hours can be better distributed. While it may be a bit to ask the station manager to climb into the rafters, clearing trash and light debris from the station, mop the floors, wash the walls and perhaps powerwash from time to time will not cost the MTA anything except for water, floor mops and soap. This could even save on the “cleaning crews” that go through the stations on trains.

        It all comes down to the union contracts, however. This is not as easily enacted because union workers for the MTA have their job and they cannot do anyone else’s. This is a problem plaguing a lot of the MTA’s inability to keep it’s appearances in line, and seriously calls to question the future viability of an organization that cannot break through it’s union contracts to get things done.

  2. David says:

    MTA maintenance budgets are separate from capital improvement spending but that’s no excuse to let existing stations become filthy and falling apart.
    Why spend billions to extend the 7 line that will affect a VERY small percentage of riders while the rest of the system has walls covered in mold and ceilings are dropping lead-based chips onto people?
    Rules need to be revised to insure minimum maintenance for all stations is the first priority.

  3. John says:

    Why doesn’t the MTA have an “adopt-a-station” program? If it can work for highways, then why can’t it work for transit?

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      The stations in the worst shape are generally the ones that nobody would adopt — or at least, nobody with as much money as these stations need, to get back into good shape.

      • Andy Battaglia says:

        This is false. There are plenty of stations in Manhattan that rival the worst in the entire system. 14th Street on the 7th Avenue line is completely revolting and is under one of the most expensive areas in the city. I see no reason why we can’t have an adopt-a-station program.

        • Ed says:

          Also, even if an adopt-a-station program only resulted in cleaner stations in more affluent neighborhoods, wouldn’t that theoretically leave a tiny bit more of the maintenance budget for stations in poorer neighborhoods? It doesn’t seem like a bad thing.

        • Marc Shepherd says:

          You seem to have missed the word “generally.”

          • John Ruppert says:

            This is a terrible argument. You’re basically arguing that just because some communities can afford to fix up stations, they shouldn’t be able to just because other stations will not be equally represented. While we may all aspire to equality, the mere ability to begin fixing some parts of the system without tapping into the MTA’s budget is a blessing not a war against classes. As Ed says, there may be more for poorer neighborhoods in the long run. We cannot just throw out good ideas like community partnerships because it will lead to unequal representation of stations. Any improvement is improvement.

            • Alon Levy says:

              To be honest, your comment made me more sympathetic to what Marc is saying. The argument goes like this: if rich communities can insulate themselves from the consequences of poor city governance, they’ll keep defunding government and make things miserable for people outside their gates. In contrast, if they have to share the same fate as everyone else, they’ll use their influence to promote better policing, better public education, better infrastructure, and better sanitation.

      • Kid Twist says:

        Exactly. And at some stations, it’s really not possible to ask the neighbors to pitch in. Bay Parkway on the Culver Line, for instance.

        • Jerrold says:

          In case not everybody GETS that one, he means that the “neighbors” are all dead.
          Washington Cemetery surrounds that station.

    • JebO says:

      Why doesn’t the MTA have an “adopt-a-station” program?

      Because the unions “own” the work and would never let volunteers near the stations to do what union members should be paid to do.

  4. Christopher says:

    Who is in charge of cleanliness in a station? Is it the station manager? I ask this because I live near the relatively new Myrtle-Wyckoff station. The maintenance and cleanliness is superb. I’ve never seen a station cleaned as often or as thoroughly. Maybe the only similarly cleaned station I know of is the 8th Ave station on the L.

    The Myrtle-Wyckoff station is cleaned and mopped and spot free. Windows are cleaned. It’s real a jewel of cleanliness in the system.

    But why this station? Who to thank? How can other station replicate that attention to detail?

  5. Ed says:

    Slightly off-topic, but I have often wondered why that mezzanine at 7th Ave on Flatbush is closed off. I assume it was closed at some point to cut down on crime and/or homeless people sleeping there, perhaps because of lack of visibility or darkness. However, I’ve never found an actual explanation. Any ideas?

  6. Robert Hale says:

    You deign to call Greg Mocker a muckraker? In my book, that’s generous at best.

  7. Skip Skipson says:

    Perhaps scientists should take samples of the mold, who knows the next cure for cancer or new super anti-biotic could be lurking on our walls right now!

  8. Ted K. says:

    The NYC subway has vac-trains and garbage trains. How about a car that has nozzles and brushes that can clean the walls and mop the edge of the platform ?

    [Think along the lines of a street sweeping truck turned on its side.]
    Garbage train pictures (look for low-walled flat cars with bins)
    Vac-train pictures


  1. […] the appropriate service levels to riders, and right now, station maintenance and cleanliness is suffering. Stations are dirty; trains are dirty. It doesn’t really matter how dirty they are. Rather, […]

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