Home View from Underground Photo: What lines the walls at Chambers St.

Photo: What lines the walls at Chambers St.

by Benjamin Kabak

Thanks to some messed up mid-day headways on the IRT express on Wednesday, I had a few minutes to kill at Chambers St. following some meetings downtown. As I waited for the next uptown train to arrive, I had the opportunity to soak in the sights at a key transfer point between the express and local trains. Tourists tend to congregate there to and from Battery Park City, and Tribeca is directly overhead.

At the northern end of the uptown tracks, the wall is a mess. That’s what the photo atop this post shows. From a combination of runoff, water damage and who knows — or wants to know — what else, the wall has taken on a mulit-hued tone nearly reminiscent of art. If the MTA slapped a brass plaque on the wall, you could confuse this mural for an Arts for Transit installation, but the damage to the old mosaics showing Kings College as it used to be are a dead giveaway.

Over the years, I’ve seen these walls go from bad to worse, and today, it’s hard to find a patch of white tile untouched by the destructive elements. Unlike the long patch of black soot that remains on Grand Central’s ceiling as a reminder of what once obscured the majestic mural, this damage is simply a matter of the never-ending battle to achieve a State of Good Repair. Until the tiles fall off the wall, the damage is merely cosmetic and doesn’t interrupt transit operations, but there’s something to be said for a clean presentation.

Today, Chambers St. is a strange of amalgam of a station. The mezzanine level, replete with ADA-compliant elevator ramps and an open view of the trains entering and leaving the station from the south, is a gem, and the floor exists as part of a long-forgotten 2009 pilot program to combat the scourge of gum spots. It was to be cheaper and easier to maintain, but after five years, only one station has ever seen the floor arrive. The platform levels though haven’t been renovated in some time, and the wall shows its age.

In a sense, presenting a nicer station is akin to the Broken Windows theory of transit ops. Tiles are purely aesthetic but serve as signals to passengers. If the station looks nice, maybe riding the rails won’t seem to be as much of a burden as many New Yorkers make it out to be. Maybe they’ll be kinder and gentler to the subway system. For now, though, it makes for a dramatic photo. State of some repair indeed.

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Larry Littlefield August 21, 2014 - 7:25 am

That’s the ghost of New York’s past.

It’s approaching midnight for the MTA capital plan. Best not to fall asleep.

Linda Fisher August 21, 2014 - 7:59 am

I’ve been using this station for over 20 years and have watched the Brooklyn Bridge stop get redone time and time again while Chambers Street sits and rots. The only explanation was that the ridership of the J (and previously M) we’re undeserving of a decent station – why should MTA care since the train makes so few stops in Manhattan. Perhaps now that Williamsburg and Bushwick have gentrified someone will notice and make some noise.

JMB August 21, 2014 - 8:28 am

Agreed on all points, but I think in this instance he is talking about the Chambers Street 1,2,3 station.

Larry Littlefield August 21, 2014 - 9:26 am

Actually, the Brooklyn Bridge was left to rust for decades, and has only been painted in the past few years.

As for the J/Z at Chambers, I think it should be left as it is as a reminder. Once Generation Greed gets through with us, the rest of the system will catch up to it, and the reminder will be no longer needed.

John-2 August 21, 2014 - 9:04 am

I think there’s some sort of rule in the MTA bylaws that says if a station is named “Chambers Street”, the platform walls must be kept in decrepit condition. It may even go back to the pre-Dual Contracts charter with the IRT and BMT — No wall/side platform maintenance allowed at Chambers Street.

I’m only surprised they weren’t cited for violating the rule when they rehabbed the IND’s A/C/E complex (though they may have gotten around it legally by considering the the entire thing to be “World Trade Center”).

Christopher Stephens August 21, 2014 - 10:27 am

I’m not sure which is more depressing: the fact that the MTA has let this station deteriorate, or the fact that this rot might be – even jokingly – confused with art. Which is more degraded – the MTA or the contemporary art world?

JJJJ August 21, 2014 - 10:39 am

Is there any transit system in the world that’s in a similar state of poor repair?

Elvis Delgado August 21, 2014 - 11:51 am


Although it might not qualify due to the well-deserved observation that “I’ve seen bigger systems in some of my friends’ basements.”

JJJJ August 21, 2014 - 4:41 pm

No way. Boston is hospital clean compared to New York subway stations. If there are any water problems, theyre over the track, not the passengers

Paris does have a serious graffiti issue, but I cant recall any water damage style problems. But my experience is limited.

JJ August 21, 2014 - 1:58 pm

Paris is awful
The cars smell , there’s graffiti everywhere , the signage is worthless … but you’re in Paris

Brandon August 21, 2014 - 10:17 pm

This was definitely not my experience in Paris. I cant say I explored the subway that heavily (I actually biked a decent amount there) but I rode to at least 2 edges of the city by Metro and the trains were fantastic, particularly the new ones, and clean and in good shape. The stations were as well, and are a good example of what New York’s stations could look like (many of them are also pretty old).

Tower18 August 22, 2014 - 9:32 am

Agreed with this. Paris smells like pee, and depending on which quarter of the city you visit, occasionally like BO. But you know what? The same is true of New York. Moving beyond that, I found the Paris Metro spotless compared to New York. Graffiti is a problem occasionally, but the filth problem is 100% under control, as in London, Madrid, and other world class cities.

Superlambanana August 22, 2014 - 7:59 am

Agree that Paris smells of wee. The RER is worse than the m├ętro. However, *some* (not all) of the smell is due to the rubber tyres on the trains which create a funny smell somewhat similar to wee.

Bolwerk August 21, 2014 - 11:01 pm

At least as of a few years ago, parts of Berlin were pretty grim. But I don’t think they ever approached this.

Ian MacAllen August 21, 2014 - 11:06 am

The bottom line is the entire system could use better maintenance and better cleaning, but the MTA’s “good enough” approach and differed maintenance programs mirror all the civil services across the country. Unless its an infrastructure project that the wealthy directly profit from, its not worth maintaining.

JJ August 21, 2014 - 1:56 pm

MTA is so pathetically lazy

D in Bushwick August 22, 2014 - 12:44 pm

Does anyone know how much a typical MTA union member makes?
They shuffle along never lifting their feet off the pavement as they slowly empty the garbage cans.
And that’s all they ever do.
I’d like a job that easy with benefits and pension. Who wouldn’t?

BruceNY August 21, 2014 - 2:16 pm

While I think we can all be grateful that the overall condition of rolling stock is dramatically improved since 30 years ago (for those of us that can remember), it is appalling that stations are allowed to remain in this decrepit state. Even recently renovated stations (14th/Union Sq., 8th Ave/42nd) are becoming covered in grime and filth. Why can’t they simply scrub these stations down more frequently?
Why can’t they apply the same mindset and same resolve to maintain a certain level of cleanliness the way they did when the made the conscious decision to eliminate graffiti from the trains?
And how about those peeling ceilings? Are paint and spackle nowhere in the budget?

Quirk August 21, 2014 - 10:48 pm

I remember seeing a cleaner in the subway station sit around for a good 10 minute while I was waiting for the train. It’s time for the greedy unions to be dismantled. They are no longer needed and “protect the rights” of lazy people. If a cleaner wants money handed out to them for free, then apply for public assistance.

Brandon August 21, 2014 - 10:19 pm

Sadly, with how short they are on money, I cant blame them for putting station maintenance last. At least the tracks and signals are in good working order, even if half the signals are pre-war and in need of replacement.

BruceNY August 21, 2014 - 11:11 pm

Lack of money has always been a problem; have they ever run a surplus, or broke even? Of course not. It’s simply a matter of management resolving to take on a seemingly impossible issue (graffiti in the 80’s) and developing a strategy and focusing some existing resources to overcome it. They were able to clean up the trains, and keep them reasonably clean since them. They could do it too for stations if only they chose to.

Rikard Grafstroem August 22, 2014 - 10:53 am

I suppose this meets the standard of NYC Subway art, but I will always fondly remember the Stockholm Subway art, my hometown. Every station is just breathtaking.

tacony August 22, 2014 - 11:39 am

The condition of the stations is truly embarrassing. I hate waiting for a train surrounded by filth that’s never cleaned.

We greatly improved the condition of the interior of subway cars from the depths of the bad old days. Why not stations next?

sonicboy678 August 22, 2014 - 9:27 pm

Because it’s more important to make sure the ceiling isn’t about to come crashing down at any moment.

Also, some stations are receiving improvements, though those are primarily elevated stations. That’s actually justified because elevated lines are more exposed to the elements.

curious August 22, 2014 - 9:43 pm

I have a great idea. Anyone living off welfare should be made to clean the stations. It would be good, honest work for them. Let’s utilize our resources. If I have to break my back at work, why shouldn’t they?


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