The New York City subway system is a hell of a machine. With 468 stations in Gotham's 468 square miles, this maze of rails and turnstiles moves nearly 5.5 million commuters around town on an average weekday. And, because it never closes, maintenance is a tricky proposition. Case in point: the Bowery stop.
Originally opened a century ago in March 1914 to carry passengers downtown from the newly completed Williamsburg Bridge, the Bowery stop has long been one of the least-used stations in the entire subway system.
In fact, with just 2,746 riders on the average weekday in 2012—the most recent year for which there are final figures—the Bowery stop is the third least-used station in Manhattan. It's used so little that the original metal treads are still on the stairs. Though it's a large and important street, the Bowery has also long been home to New York City's skid row, notorious for drug addiction and homelessness.
But the Bowery is changing. With the addition of everything from the New Museum of Contemporary Art to the Bowery Ballroom concert venue, the area's become a gentrified destination for New Yorkers and tourists alike.
Serving the JZ line—yes, the same line from which some say the eponymous rapper got his name, though this is debatable—that carts Williamsburg hipsters to SoHo, the Bowery stop now serves a whole new clientele. There's even a Whole Foods just two blocks north of the station—and if there's anything Whole Foods patrons would notice that the area's old junkies might not, it's the absolutely abysmal condition of the Bowery stop.
I have to be completely transparent here: the Bowery stop is my stop. Gawker Media HQ is just a block away, and since I'm (somewhat abashedly) one of the aforementioned Williamsburg hipsters, it's pretty damn convenient. However, as someone who's interested in the subway, politics, and cities in general, I've always viewed the Bowery stop as a curious little microcosm of how the Metropolitan Transit Authority takes care of New York's transit system.
Put bluntly, the MTA does not take care of it. Not all of it, at least. The Bowery stop looks like a bombed out cesspool where dreams go to die—yet you walk six blocks away to the Broadway-Lafayette station that serves SoHo's shopping district, and it feels like you're strolling into a chrome-plated portal to the future, neon light art installations and all.
How can two stations that host similar lines be so dramatically different? This isn't just an issue at the Bowery, either. The 6th Avenue stop on the L train is comparably derelict, while just one stop down the line at 8th Avenue, you can find celebrated bronze sculptures and immaculate hallways.
The answer, it turns out, is very simple. While New Yorkers often gossip about how the MTA gives preference to certain boroughs and specific lines (read: rich people), the truth is much more logical. "I would never say that it would be priorities based in geographic location," the MTA's Kevin Ortiz told me in a recent interview. "Priority is based on the amount of ridership at each individual station and the amount of work that needs to be done." The Broadway-LaFayette stop is nicer, quite simply, because it sees 37,283 daily average riders, nearly 14 times what the Bowery sees.
The state of the Bowery serves as evidence that the MTA's just not doing enough. While some stations get floor-to-ceiling renovations, the Bowery has been rotting before my very eyes for the five years I've been traveling through it. In fact, that's a calculated decision—and one that reveals the challenges of maintaining one of the oldest and most complicated subway systems on earth.
If you were a foreigner who just arrived in New York City for the first time and hopped on the J train at JFK and off again at the Bowery, you'd be mighty surprised by what you saw. Frankly, you'd think the country was falling apart.
The Bowery is in bad, bad shape. While a little bit of grime and a broken tile or two is normal in any given subway station, the Bowery appears to be constructed entirely out of rubble and filth. The blackened ceiling is peeling off in pieces and falling onto the blackened floor, which is so dirty that it's actually slippery in places. And that's if you manage to avoid the pools of standing water that have presumably been there since World War II.
The cracked corridor that you enter today is half the size of the original station. Behind some haphazard panes of plywood, covering holes in the wall on the station's south side, is a graffiti-covered cavern that was abandoned in 2004. Altogether, there are four tracks that pass by the Bowery station's two platforms, though only two tracks are in use. What's funny, though, is that the half of the station that remains open looks just as squalid as the half that's abandoned.
This is predictably problematic. Going to the Bowery station isn't so bad. You hop off the train, hustle up some nasty stairs (with original metal treads!) and out the exit. There's even a station attendant, sometimes, who can tell you how to find Broadway.
If you're leaving from the Bowery station to go somewhere else, though, you might want to bring some wet wipes. While stepping into the station is kind of like going back in time, with the original (though crumbling) tile work and all, it's also like zooming ahead to some dystopian future where zombies rule the city and Will Smith is the last man alive. The tracks are full of trash—one time I even saw a car tire down there—and rats run across the platform on a regular basis. The JZ is not the city's busiest line, so sometimes you have to stand in the squalor for 20 minutes or more, waiting for your train. And you must stand, too, because the platform has no benches.
On the upside, getting on the subway has never felt as luxurious as it does after you've been stuck waiting in the Bowery stop for 45 minutes.
I don't like the dirt. I really don't. And I'm no clean freak, either. It's just hard to hold down that delicious dinner you ate in SoHo when you're dodging vermin and stepping in puddles of what appears to be nuclear waste.
The real drawback of the station is how unsafe it feels. With Rudy Giuliani's beloved broken windows theory in mind, you can't help but wonder who's lurking on the other end of the platform, where you're never stuck for less than a quarter of an hour. It's also hard to figure out who might hear your screams, since the Bowery station has so little traffic. It's not unusual at all to be the only one in the entire station at night. There doesn't even appear to be a trusty CCTV security camera to hide under.
One more thing: For the past few years, the escalator has been broken at the Bowery. But a brand new one recently opened up. Before, the giant blue wooden box surrounded the hulking piece of machinery left little room on either side for foot traffic—so every time you had to walk to the stairs, you felt like you were going to fall onto the trash-covered tracks, where a rat king was waiting to eat your eyeballs and wear your shoes.
The bright, shiny new escalator—which only ferries passengers up, since there is no down—serves as proof that the MTA isn't ignoring the Bowery entirely. The blue box is gone, but the escalator's sparkly stainless steel still highlights how dirty the rest of the place is.
Such location! With new bars and restaurants now flanking the station, you've never had more of a reason to visit the Bowery. You can see a world class concert, eat world class food, see world class art, and shop at a classy grocery store without straying more than a couple of blocks from the station. And if you get bored with all that fun, SoHo, the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown are just a ten-minute walk away.
It bears mentioning, too, that unsafe as it feels, the Bowery station has never actually given me trouble. (The Bowery station rats, on the other hand…) There's also reason to believe that the MTA will finally get around to doing some renewal work with its soon-to-be announced capital program for 2015 to 2019. During the capital program period that just ended, the MTA did work at 187 of its 468 stations.
Here's where we can glean some insight into why this station has been so bad for so long—and what it says about the MTA's approach to maintenance. Instead of renovating entire stations, the MTA does what it calls "component" or renewal work to specific parts of the station. It's a bit like the broken windows theory—by fixing small things at a wider number of stations, the MTA avoids letting more stations fall into complete disrepair. Which means that now that the Bowery's escalator is up and running, the station stands to get even more improvements.
The Bowery is an awesome, memorable part of the city, and while the condition of the station is pretty bad, it gets the job done. That new escalator is pretty nice, too! Again, I'd recommend traveling to the Bowery station and catching a ride home somewhere else—like the nearby Broadway-LaFayette, for instance.
Now that New York is actually not the post-apocalyptic wasteland it once was, some say it's lost its edge. (Did I mention that the city's old skid row is now home to a Whole Foods?) New York's edge has evolved, though, and remaining outposts of decay like the Bowery stop serve as a refreshing reminder that Gotham is still a hulk of a city that's marred by imperfections and challenged by limited resources. The Bowery stop exists like a microcosm of New York's social and political reality—and a reminder that not every corner of town has bounced back from the squalor of the 1970s as easily as others.
Go—but do me and your worrisome mother a favor: take a friend.
All images by Nick Stango