Home Abandoned Stations Pondering the allure of the abandoned

Pondering the allure of the abandoned

by Benjamin Kabak

The Transit Museum conducts MTA-sanctioned tours of the abandoned City Hall stop for museum members. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

Revok and Ceaze's contribution to the Underbelly Project gallery. (Photo by flickr user Vandalog)

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.

You may also like


Mitch45 November 4, 2010 - 7:51 am

Excellent article. I think the City and the MTA are wasting the assets that these abandoned stations really are. 18th Street is, physically at least, the same as it was the day it opened in 1904. The City should renovate the station, restore it to its 1904 glory and open it as an annex to the Transit Museum so that people can see what a true original 1904 station looked like.

Marc Shepherd November 4, 2010 - 9:53 am

Your suggestion is hugely impractical. The platforms at 18th Street are very narrow. They cannot accommodate large numbers of visitors, to say nothing of safety and security concerns. The station has also lost its access to the surface, and the buildings surrounding it are in use for other purposes. In an era of rising fares and service cuts, an expensive renovation of a station no one uses would be highly unpopular.

If any abandoned station were to be restored for access to the general public, City Hall remains the most logical candidate, given that it is the most beautiful of the original stations, it has not suffered from vandalism and neglect, and surface access could be restored relatively easily.

Edward November 4, 2010 - 11:17 am

Clean the station up, put some plexiglass between the platform and tracks, and open it up as a nice restaurant. Patrons can eat in a circa-1904 subway station and watch the trains go by. New York is good a thinking outside the box, whether the idea is “hugely impractical” or not.

Benjamin Kabak November 4, 2010 - 11:21 am

I think the city has concerns over safety and terrorism because the station is directly under City Hall. There was a plan to use it as a Transit Museum annex at one point.

Edward November 4, 2010 - 11:29 am

I meant 18th St or 91st Street, far from City Hall.

Marc Shepherd November 4, 2010 - 12:29 pm

Are you thinking of a career in restaurants, by any chance? My advice: don’t quit your day job!

Who on earth do you think would pay for that? How could you recoup the investment? Where would the kitchen go? How many tables could you put there? How much could you charge for dinner in a place where trains are rumbling by every 3 minutes?

Edward November 4, 2010 - 1:23 pm

OK, maybe not so much a full-service restaurant as a snack bar/coffee joint. As you can see by the numerous postings on SAS, there are tons of transit geeks and tourists who love trains and would gladly sit with a cup of coffee and watch trains go by.

Marc Shepherd November 4, 2010 - 1:43 pm

That station is in terrible condition. You’re talking many millions to renovate it. Snacks and coffee don’t make much money.

The regular posters to SAS wouldn’t keep a coffee shop in business. How many of them do you think would head over to 18th & Park on a regular basis, just to order coffee and watch trains go by? There are plenty of places you can watch trains for free, if that’s what floats your boat.

I mean, is there a rule somewhere that 80 percent of train geeks are required to flunk economics? This just makes no sense at all.

Edward November 4, 2010 - 2:24 pm

Damn man, lighten up, it was just a suggestion. I’m not running for Mayor on a transit geek platform and asking you to pay for it. Maybe you need to take a few days away off from SAS.

Alon Levy November 6, 2010 - 12:40 am

I mean, is there a rule somewhere that 80 percent of train geeks are required to flunk economics?


Older and Wiser November 4, 2010 - 3:50 pm

No need to install restaurants or even restore these stations to original glory. On some small scale, the sites might even become revenue generating tourist meccas. Not quite the catacombs of Rome, but fascinating to many nevertheless.

paulb November 4, 2010 - 9:34 am

Could the unused station be moved to 41st and 10th Ave?

Benjamin Kabak November 4, 2010 - 11:21 am

How do you propose to do that? It’s built into the ground and another subway station…

Edward November 4, 2010 - 11:30 am

Lighten up Ben, comment is obviously sarcastic 🙂

Benjamin Kabak November 4, 2010 - 11:31 am

Hah! You’re right. I completely missed the sarcasm.


paulb November 5, 2010 - 2:12 pm

Not so much sarcastic as just aiming for facetious. But I certainly have been smiling here trying to figure out a way to actually move that d**n station.

Marsha November 4, 2010 - 9:45 am

Tours of the 91st St. stop? I never know that. How come we never went on one?

duddes02 November 4, 2010 - 10:13 am

I live on Amsterdam between 90th and 91st-so I’m obviously enthralled with this article. (I also have this “thing” for omanticizing what life must have been like like back in the day)

Do you have any idea where the entrance to the station was? Was it on 91st or on Broadway? East side or west side of the street?

Marsha November 4, 2010 - 10:33 am

It was on both sides of 91st St. as it was a local train. The entrances were on the north corners of 91st St.

Benjamin Kabak November 4, 2010 - 11:11 am

My parents have a great old photo of the 91st St. station, but I cannot find it online unfortunately. As my mom just said, the entrances were on opposites sides of Broadway on the north corners. You can still see the access points as grates in the sidewalk. Here’s a photo of the inside of the station. I’ll see if I can find some old shots of the outside.

petey November 4, 2010 - 2:49 pm

“As my mom just said”
hi mrs kabak!

“Here’s a photo of the inside of the station.”
how’d you get it so bright?

John November 4, 2010 - 10:27 am

You saw a similar thing about a decade ago, when the MTA locked down the old Ninth Avenue el tunnel in the Bronx just to the west of the new Yankee Stadium, which allowed the line to rise up from the Harlem River bridge crossing to meet the Woodlawn line just north of the 161st Station (the train’s old route would actually have run through the outfield of the new stadium). The tunnel was left unsecured for years after its 1958 abandonment following the Giants’ departure for San Francisco, but once it became too well-known that the tunnel was there, it was gated and closed to all but authorized personnel.

Jerrold November 4, 2010 - 12:04 pm

They used to build subway stations too close together.
NOW they’re building them too far apart.

Edward November 4, 2010 - 12:07 pm

Hell, except for the never-ending SAS project and the stub-end #7 train to nowhere, they’re not building ANY subway stations!

Jerrold November 4, 2010 - 1:52 pm

Those are the lines that I was talking about.
As it stands now, the gaps will include:

#7 – Times Square-Javits Center

SAS – Houston St.-14 St.
42 St.-55 St.
55 St.-72 St.
72 St.-86 St.

mike November 4, 2010 - 8:09 pm

This is how the stations SHOULD be spaced. Yeah, it seems like they’re far apart based on our current system, but I have little tolerance for stations closer than 9-10 blocks apart. Keep in mind that with 14 blocks in between (as per your Houston/14th st example) that the MAXIMUM someone would have to walk is 7 blocks. That’s 1/3 of a mile.

Rapid transit should be just that, rapid. Consider the extra time you would spend walking 2-3 more short blocks, vs all the time added on to your commute if the train has a few more stops in between. According to the Times (I think), the average commute in NYC is 9 stops. Going from 86th to 14th on the Lex IRT would only be 5 stops. Yeah, I would rather walk an extra 2-3 small blocks at my destination (possibly 2 minutes extra) in order to eliminate 4 stops on the commute. Those 4 stops would surely take more time the the couple blocks walking at the end of the trip. Just my $0.02.

Alon Levy November 5, 2010 - 7:24 pm

We’ve been over this before. With those huge station gaps, SAS would still have shorter interstations than most major subway systems. If the subway were built to the standards of Singapore, one of the higher-interstation systems, it’d look like this.

mike November 8, 2010 - 8:29 pm

Didn’t know that map existed, Alon. It got me all giddy inside just looking at it! Oh well…

Marc Shepherd November 4, 2010 - 12:34 pm

I don’t really agree with Ben’s characterization of them, as being “too close together.” The stations on the Els had been a similar distance apart, and the subway designers were emulating that.

Actually, what they failed to anticipate was that the stations were too small. The Worth, 18th, and 91st Street Stations all were abandoned as the direct result of nearby stations being lengthened.

Alon Levy November 4, 2010 - 1:11 pm

The subway was meant to be faster than the els; it was sold initially not as a less noisy alternative, but as one that could better develop suburbs like the Upper West Side.

I tend to agree the narrow stop spacing was a product of the time, though. The Paris Metro was built with very short interstations, too. The London Underground wasn’t, but London has always been much less dense than New York and Paris, requiring wider-spaced stations.

BrooklynBus November 4, 2010 - 12:44 pm

Don’t forget the IND was designed to have subway entrances at each end that’s why they are further apart than the IRT and BMT. The planners never envisioned that those in charge today would limit access to only one end at many stations although fare entry and exit is now mostly automated not even requiring an agent.

Steve November 4, 2010 - 1:09 pm

Would it be impractical for the MTA to offer high-end tours of the Underbelly project? Assuming it’s possible to make those interested in a tour sign away all their rights first, what would it cost to prepare the station for limited public access? It seems feasible people might pay $500-$1000 for a tour, not least because of the allure of the abandoned. Could this realistically be a (minor) revenue source for the MTA? Or would the overhead of setting up a tour program, ADA-compliant access, etc. eat all the revenues?

RadioNed November 4, 2010 - 2:21 pm

Unfortunately it seems some vandals have made it down there already. You can see the evidence of some tagging here.
and check out comment #18 here:

what a shame.

Steve November 4, 2010 - 4:02 pm

Wow. A lot of the photos in that flickr stream show tagging. How lame.

Photos from a recent trip to the Underbelly :: Second Ave. Sagas November 5, 2010 - 2:01 pm

[…] from the perspective of street art morals and artistic romanticism, the taggers shouldn’t have defaced the Underbelly Project. Rumor has it though that locals […]


Leave a Comment