Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Abandoned Subway

About three weeks ago, I went with a couple of friends to see Rochester’s abandoned subway. This is a story I believe can be told almost entirely through disclaimers, so here is the first one:

Disclaimer: We were not trespassing. This was a tour given by the Canal Society of New York State, as part of Rochester’s River Romance festival. It’s still not clear to me how a dark, dusty underground cavern that smells strongly of urine in some places is romantic. Not surprisingly, at no point did any of my fellow tourists propose to any other tourists. For one thing, you do not want to get down on one knee in that dirt. You might as well roll in kitty litter. For another, they were probably waiting for the cemetary tour later in the weekend. Because you want to start a new life with the person you love in a place where corpses are decaying beneath your feet. That’s what we call romance in Rochester.

We started at the South Ave entrance, right next to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. In the picture below, left to right: Minas Morgul (eye of Sauron out of order), the First Federal Building with the funny hat which apparently used to rotate, and the red brick Dinosaur building. And below that, a portal to what the River Romance guide calls “Rochester’s historic underbelly.” I have never heard of an “historic underbelly,” but I have heard of a “seedy underbelly” and I can only assume that’s what they meant.

Disclaimer: The abandoned subway is not safe and nobody should go down there even though I and two hundred other people did. The Canal Society of New York would like to turn the subway back into a canal, or something, it’s hard to picture exactly, and therefore opposes the city’s plan to fill it in. That’s why they hold these occasional tours. The city, however, makes the rather compelling argument that the tunnel is not structurally sound. So I repeat: people really should not go down there even though it is totally cool.

This was the last tour, and we just barely caught it. I didn’t actually see or hear the tour guide until the very end, because he was way ahead of us. Therefore, when I took this picture of hordes of people marching trustingly into pitch blackness, I could not be totally certain that the Pied Piper was not at the front of the line.

It’s tempting to make a lot of jokes about Moria. Like, if only I had Gandalf's magical 120-watt staff, I wouldn’t have had to use the flash on my camera and therefore catch all of the dust in the air.

Up these stairs, that’s where the orcs live.
Pretty sure they live here, too.
Oh, and definitely here.
I have no idea what this was for, but the fact that it has windows suggests how extremely different it must have once been down there. The way it is now, those windows would hardly let in any light at all, and even if they did, it isn’t as if there’s a view.

Little House in the Subway

Some parts of the subway were curiously pretty:

But those were the parts with sunlight. Once the tunnel goes underground, it becomes less pretty, and exponentially more menacing. We hadn’t realized they were going to let us roam free (I thought that would be asking for a lawsuit), and didn’t bring a flashlight. It started to look like this:

Here are the smart people with flashlights:

Here's one of the random pictures I took because I was using my flash to tell me what was in front of me:

I might die here, but at least Jesus loves me.

At a certain point, the absolute pitch blackness was too overwhelming, and we turned around. Moria jokes aside, it really was very much like being in a mine. Fascinating, and at the same time horrible and suffocating. In short, I’m glad we did it and gladder we came out alive.

The real value of the subway now, in my opinion, is the atmospheric combination of art and decay. It’s like a huge museum, but if the city of Rochester were to make it safe enough and palatable enough to be opened to the public, the effect would be completely ruined. For it to mean anything, it has to remain ungoverned, heading toward destruction. As Wallace Stevens says, Death is the mother of beauty.

Disclaimer: I have not scrutinized the graffiti in these photos. Even if I had, I would not have been able to figure out what most of it means. But I’m guessing much of it could be taken as offensive. Especially if you like grape Now and Laters. (Any opinions of grape Now and Laters expressed by graffiti artists are not necessarily those of the proprieters of this blog.)

In chronological order:

“Specialized To Vandalize”

Possibly Animatronic Thing In Blue

Possibly Organic Thing In Blue


There’s something really ominous about that shovel.

Angry and Antennaed From Here To Oblivion

Few People are Familiar with Jackson Pollock's Brief "Badass" Period

See Above Disclaimer

I do not really know what this is...

...but I think it might be scary.

No comment.

Pretty colors.

Insert Final Insipid Caption Here.
I think uploading those pictures took more time than I spent in the tunnel. But there's one more. Upon emerging once again into sunlight and fresh air, this cement thing with weeds in it (garbage too, but I managed not to show it) struck me as beautifully natural. Happily, it is hiding the very bad words in the graffiti behind it.

Seriously kids, don't go down there.


Christi said...

I think there should also be a disclaimer in here about the rats, and the fact that one was never sure what one was actually stepping on... bones and feces aside... and the fact that asphyxiation by the dust was also quite possible... and that it was totally AWESOME.

Simon said...

Disclaimer: What Christi said PLUS it was totally awesome.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, funny, insightful descriptions! There are some very talented artists somewhere in the darkness. Almost makes me wish I had been on the tour, too. If they hold another, I will bring a flashlight, perhaps some flares, a GPS unit, a large ball of string and breadcrumbs.

Katie said...

This was so awesome! Although I think I'm a little glad that I live thousands of miles away, and thus experienced it through pictures and words instead of stepping on bones and feces and being asphyxiated by dust :)