Note: I know I took a poll about what the next entry should be, but I’m overruling the vote since I visited an amazing place last week. Your choice, “Flushing Meadow Park and the New York Panorama” is coming up soon!
All day at work I couldn’t keep still in anticipation of the evening’s excursion. I ate lunch at my desk and took off super early, just to be sure to be on time. I headed downtown on my usual route, I-87 to the FDR Drive. It was cool in the car, and the clear, bright sky suggested a 70 degree rather than the hot 85+ degree day it was. I love this drive, and as much as I could I looked up and around at the structures on either side of me. I exited at Grand Street (though I realized in hindsight Houston may have been the better choice) and started to wind my way through stoplights and traffic to find a suitable parking spot.
It was a bit early for parking to be super easy – cars crowded the narrow, one-way streets on the lower east side and muni-meters were still in effect. After circling a bit I found a suitable 2-hour parking spot. At this point, it was time to hustle. I like to be early to programs and tours, though the Transit Museum ones almost never depart exactly on time. I speed-walked the couple of blocks and disappeared down the stairs to the Delancey/Essex subway stop.
I’m not familiar with the confusing layout of this station at all. The F, M, J and Z trains stop here on two different levels. As my eyes darted towards signs and my feet kept moving, I repeated the words from the confirmation email in my head: “J train platform (center platform) for Brooklyn-bound trains”. After one misstep I figured out the correct place and hurried towards those in orange vests. I got my wristband and tried to calm my nerves as we waited for the few stragglers.
It was hot and sweaty on the platform. Non-tour people – commuters, families, hipsters – squeezed by the blob of us tour folks on either side, a difficult task on such a narrow space. One woman checked in for the tour then changed out of her flip flops right there – she’d purchased flats on her way since her companion neglected to warn her about the closed-toe requirement. Train buffs rubbed elbows. Museum and MTA personnel talked tour logistics. I was briefly assigned to sit and watch the museum bags.
After rushed check-ins from a couple of last people we were on our way. I tried to stay close to the vested individuals and not get separated as we made our way down the platform. A gate was unlocked and held open for us, and we descended into a private staircase.
We were led through another gate, through an underground corridor that smelled like pool locker room, and up another set of stairs.
We emerged in a hallway-type space with the platform at our backs, visible through fencing. Here, amongst doors leading to crew facilities and a signal tower, our guide began his short introduction.
He spoke of the history of the place as a terminal for Brooklyn trolleys coming across the Williamsburg bridge. Laminated, black-and-white photos of the place during its use were passed around. The future of the space was also mentioned – the tour guide was from the MTA’s Real Estate department and talked about how they’re taking bids for creative ideas of how to redevelop it.
Finally, he introduced another man on the tour as one of the two working on a proposal for a LowLine park in the space. (Get it? Like the well-know High Line but underground?) I’d guessed that was who the man was, as the guide had quietly asked him before we crossed over whether he minded being pointed out. I was happy my guess was right, and interested that he was on our tour. I’d heard about the proposal months before from friends who sent me links, correctly guessing it might be of interest to me.
Before too long we continued into the terminal itself. It was a thrilling moment to enter this mysterious place I’d only ever seen in pictures and the MTA’s promotional video. I rushed to consume all the sensory information I could. There were so many details and so much expanse to take in, I was afraid it’d be like the City Hall Station tour, where there wasn’t nearly enough time to explore.
We were free to separate from the group and walk around our own. I started off wandering in the main, big, open space. I tried to take notice of absolutely everything in the surroundings, from floor to ceiling and on all sides of me.
The floor was covered in a thick layer of light brownish dust. It reminded me somewhat of the dirt in other abandoned spaces I’d visited . Under the dirt were cobblestones and the curved, loop, trolley tracks. Within the dust resided various discarded items (likely from workers in the area over the years) and other, unidentified debris. It was like an archeological dig minus the need to get out the shovels and brushes.
Above, the ceiling was made of concrete ridges, a design that can be seen in some modern subway stations as well. Paint was peeling worse than you’ve ever seen there, and in some places the concrete was damaged and decomposing. Hung below those ridges was a wooden trough with a trolley cable – the source of the trolley’s power – in the center. This assembly curved too, mirroring the tracks on the ground.
While the space was enchanting, it was hard to ignore our relationship with the platform from which we came. The tracks and platforms out there were almost surreal in their florescent-lit modernity. The wide, waist-high concrete wall separating us from this world seemed both like nothing and like a safe insulation (which it almost literally is; the tracks and third rail are just on the other side). Non-tour people sometimes stared, sometimes ignored from across. It felt like one of the two parties were on stage, us or them, depending on who was doing the looking at that particular moment.
Sort of by accident I stuck with a group at the beginning. I wasn’t scared to wander by myself, but one’s walking patterns naturally tend to follow those of others, curiosities are similar, and I wasn’t sure if there were parts that were off-limits. My little cluster huddled around and photographed an old, rusty machine; maybe some sort of cart.
After a few minutes the group fanned out. I wandered to the side furthest from the platforms. Here, the upper part of the walls were adorned with original tile. They was stained with years of steel dust and water damage, creating some sort of dingy marbling effect.
I looked back at the platform from here. The people were now less recognizable, our relationship even less clear. Did they even notice we were in here?
Spread out as we were, the tour group was beginning to migrate towards the far end of the terminal. In front of us were a handful of raised concrete shelves, about a foot high, as wide as the track gauge, and cutting diagonals from the subway tracks (we were beyond the station platform and low wall now) to the far side. I mused over their purpose. Maybe coverings for the cables that came up in open-topped bays near their ends?
I took a moment to look back at where we’d come from. Even though I wasn’t all the way at the end of the space, the columns seemed to repeat back forever. I echoed their symmetry into my viewfinder.
Before us, just past the first of the concrete bars, was a little house-looking structure, elevated a handful of ladder steps above us. This, said the tour guide, was the old dispatch tower. It reminded me of a miniature version of every abandoned building I’ve ever been in: broken windows, chipped paint, graffiti, and dirt. This observation made it somewhat familiar, though it was still ghostly and mysterious.
The space to the left as one faces the entrance to the tower was also fascinating. Here, nothing separates you from the live subway tracks but scattered support columns and, in our case, some vigilant train service supervisors making sure we stayed on the correct side.
Of course, this spot was even more exciting when trains rushed by. The supervisors acted as bouncers, keeping us safe as we took photos and video. “No flash, no flash! Don’t blind them!” yelled a museum worker, a sensible reminder to protect the train operators.
As I moved further alongside the tower building, I realized that bright blueish light I could see was the end of the tunnel. The trains went aboveground (or came underground) here to and from their trips over the Williamsburg Bridge. I wished I could have edged out just a little bit further to see the trains’ transitions from light to dark and dark to light better. But that wouldn’t have been a safe or permitted place to be.
The space narrowed back in this far corner. Strange remnants were still in abundance: another machine of unknown use, old railroad ties and rails, and more.
More modern structures coexisted with the old, rusty, and dusty back here too. There were more of these shipping-container-like sheds (these were scattered throughout the edges of the space) and newer-looking, but still filthy, maintenance materials.
Large graffiti pieces adorned the wall that narrowed towards the tracks.
I again worried that our time here was growing short, so I decided to head back towards the more open (and, in my opinion, more interesting) part of the space.
I stood on top of one of the concrete structures to get a better view of the dispatch tower shack, this time with no visitors in front of it. I wondered if I’d be allowed to climb up in it, but thought I’d better not risk it. Plus, I could see pretty well into it from here.
Still on my low perch, I turned back to where we’d come from. I tried to capture the size of the space, its repeating columns and ceiling arches, and all its imperfect details.
Another train came in to my right. I turned to snap a photo of it too before stepping off the concrete and continuing my exploring.
I wandered back and forth in random patterns in the big main space, framing tiny vignettes of the particles of dirt on the cobblestones, and giant, still life masterpieces of discarded work equipment.
While it had come into my peripheral awareness earlier that it was rather damp in spots, I now started to really notice the impact of water in the space. Even though it was a dry day, moisture dripped from the ceiling in several places. Mineral buildups were visible on the floor and ceiling in even more spots.
I wandered back and forth capturing and recapturing the more striking parts of the space. I started to realize my journey’s walking pattern was very nonlinear – I was driven by the hurry to see everything before we had to leave, by impulse, and by what caught my eye at a particular moment. I wanted to get every picture possible in the space and I wanted each one to be perfect.
Just because the space was so interesting didn’t mean I could ignore the people in it with me. I recalled the last nostalgia train, where I noticed the people more than on probably any other excursion. I tried to rekindle that interest, observing the different little clumps of people that had formed; standing or walking and conversing with each other.
I watched the clusters of people for a few minutes, then turned my attention back to the inanimate.
More details caught my darting eyes. I felt the impulse to study and photograph each discarded artifact and minuscule detail, as if I was collecting moments in time and space. I clicked away even as I knew that realistically such an extensive collection would be redundant and only some of the items were curious or aesthetically interesting.
I rapidly switched between focusing on these these details and absorbing the larger sense of the space. (In fact, I’ve rearranged some photos here, taking them out of strict timestamp order and grouping them together to make the entry flow better.) But a similar need drove me whichever aspect I was photographing: I wanted the pictures to describe exactly the dimensions of the place, what it looked like at this time, and how it felt to be there. There was a sense of urgency for me both in in the context of the day’s tour and in knowing this terminal would be transformed sometime soon.
Every once in a while my wandering would take me close to the LowLine man or another group chatting. Sometimes I’d pause to be with them, curious about the same things they examined, or drop a few words in their conversation-in-progress. I never spent much time glued to people, though. My random wandering was an individual experience.
At times I made my walking paths more purposeful, my steps following the curves of the old tracks that I could barely make out in some places. I tried to imagine myself feet higher off the ground, riding a trolley car with the wind in my hair on a hot day like today. I wished I could have experienced this place like that.
Near where we came in, a chain link fence surrounded a smaller chunk of the space. Dirty, formerly-white, plastic tarp hung around it. Holes had been torn so you could look in. I was unsure of the purpose of this fence – the space inside it looked almost identical to that where we were.
After pulling back the tarp to look in, I noticed how dirty my hands were. It wasn’t like the tan, abandoned-spaces, floor dirt either, it was thick, black steel dust. I grimaced, then giggled, then wiped my hand on my jeans. I knew everything had to go in the wash anyway after this excursion!
I slowly migrated back to the blob of people containing our tour guide, still happily surprised we hadn’t been escorted out already. I walked close to the low wall separating us from the subway station, noticing details along that way and from that perspective. Perhaps I hadn’t spent much time on that side before since it was close to the entrance/exit and I feared I’d be the first one out if I stood close to it. Silly, but it was probably a factor in my mind.
I milled around near our tour guide, maybe hoping to overhear some interesting questions and answers. Not having much of an attention span, though, I snapped pictures of things in the immediate area as I semi-listened.
I recognized a late arriver to our tour (how lucky she was to have made it in!) from past nostalgia trains, and introduced myself to her. We chatted a little bit about the subject and stood on the concrete structures as we waited for a moment to interject questions for our guide.
My new acquaintance got some partial answers, but one would have been better described by a visual. I told her about the big, laminated photos one of the museum people had. We found the person and the pictures, and by this time LowLine guy and acquaintance’s friend had joined the huddle. We studied the photos, carefully figuring out which perspective they were taken from and how the features had changed when the terminal had closed.
Just a minute later we were being herded away. Ah ha, this was it, I thought. But no, we were being escorted into the fenced-off area! I was happy to have more time in this place.
Many of the features inside were, indeed similar or identical to those outside: trolley cabling above, curved tracks below.
However, some details were a bit different. There was the biggest patch of decay in the ceiling. The “white” tile was at ground level. I touched it – it felt grainy and rough from all the layers of dirt. An empty, oxidized brass light fixture was built into a ledge that jutted out from the tile wall. New acquaintance and I found a strange piece of metal on the ground with wires coming out of it and a tag attached.
After a little bit of time in this fenced-in area, it was really time to go. I snapped a last picture of the tracks.
We were led out of the fencing, back through our introduction room, down and up the stairs.
Back on the platform we were back in real life, present day, and chaos. “Normal” people continued to scoot by us to their trains and their busy lives as our guide and the museum people attempted some words of wrap-up. Through the crowd, I snuck a glimpse of where we’d just been.
Our guide mentioned that he’d be taking a walk upstairs and we were free to join him for a few minutes. In his introduction he’d briefly referenced some of the (aboveground) future development plans for the lower east side. Tour participants had asked him more about these and about the area, so he offered to show us. He took off rather quickly down and up the station’s stairs, and I worked to keep him and the others in my sights.
Right across Essex from where we popped up from underground, he pointed out a walled-off portion of the sidewalk. We peered over the plywood walls as guide explained that this used to be a stairway. What a temporary-looking solution for a big infrastructural change, I thought.
We walked one block east to stand at the corner of Delancey and Norfolk streets. Big parking lots stood on our corner and the adjacent one. Here, he explained, affordable housing would be built in the next 3-5 years. These developments would make whatever the trolley terminal becomes even more highly trafficked.
He pointed out a perimeter of traffic cones and barrels. These, he said, defined part of the space above the trolley terminal. It seemed to be just dead space – a big shoulder or median not actually under construction but sectioned off to prevent traffic from occupying it. I tried to envision the future of this spot, with high-rises all around it.
Our guide began to do an impromptu explanation of some of the cultural institutions nearby. He ad libbed smoothly in front of our knowledge-hungry group. Some people walking by gave us funny looks, wondering why we were standing there. A man jaywalked then yelled into a cab driver’s window when he didn’t get picked up. We all noticed this tantrum and the tour guide laughed that the neighborhood is full of colorful characters.
Guide wrapped things up. We said our thank yous, I said goodbye to my new acquaintance, and we all dispersed. Tired and hot, I picked up a iced-tea-lemonade before getting back in the refreshingly air conditioned car. I wondered at the fact that an hour-and-a-half excursion took so much out of me, but figured it was a combination of the buildup beforehand, the somewhat stressful driving and parking, and the heat. Nevertheless, it was so completely worthwhile – I would definitely go back to this enchanted space if the tour were to be offered again, especially since it may be transformed soon so time for seeing it could be short.