Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
“This is the last stop,” calls out the train operator in a tone not to be trifled with. But myself and a light sprinkling of curiosity seekers remain seated. We know better and will not be daunted. She calls out again but we sit firmly in silent protest. An amiable college student approaches her to ask if he might be allowed to remain aboard as the train loops back to make its return trip uptown. But she’s not having it. He can very well take his puppy eyes and pleading tone and get the hell off her train. And that goes for the rest of us too. A standoff. Then an orange-vested worker comes to the rescue. He pokes his head through the doors and urges her to let us ride the loop. The train operator shrugs and steps back into her compartment. A moment later the train jolts to life. The stubborn passengers smile to themselves, a bloodless battle won. Collectively yet independently we keep watch out the right side windows, seized with a giddy anticipation that we are soon to witness something rare.
The subway station located beneath New York’s City Hall first opened in 1904 and was abandoned in 1945. The powers that be determined the station didn’t receive enough traffic to pull its own weight. A pity because its elegance put all other stations to shame. This was the dinstinguished gentleman’s means of travel—brass chandeliers, stained glass skylights, tiled archways, brass fixtures. Everything but a grand piano. A Roman bathhouse of a station, by all accounts.
One intrepid young adventurer has his point-n-click readied. How he intends to get a decent shot of anything but his own reflection in the grimy window is beyond me, but who am I to discourage? The train slows as it heads into a curve and we are rewarded with our first glimpse of the forgotten station. From the perspective on board the train it is impossible to glimpse much of the station’s rumored splendor. The chandeliers and skylights are above the range of sight. The dusty platform itself, illuminated by the murky glow of a series of lightbulbs that look straight from Edison’s workbench, could pass as the lair of some unknown breed of subterranean prowler. A flight of stairs lead up into mystery. There are no visible footprints in the dust.
And then it is over. The train passes through several yards of darkened tunnel then emerges in the brightly-lit Brooklyn Bridge station, poised for its uptown run. We stagger out as though from a sinister carnival ride into the daylight, emotions stirred by what we have seen. Or did we see it? The kid with the camera is fidgeting with the playback mechanism, eager for evidence that it wasn’t some sort of fleeting hallucination. He managed to capture a blurred image of a green tiled sign that can just be discerned to read “City Hall.” It was there after all.
To be honest, the City Hall station is far from forgotten. Photos are in abundance all over the Internet. To the train operators who pass through it everyday as part of their route it is just another tedious part of the workday, much like an elevator or a water cooler or the gated entrance to a parking ramp. If anything, a nuisance to attract goggle-eyed history buffs with their cameras and persistence. To those of us with limited access, though, it remains an urban Atlantis, its existence spoken of in hushed reverence like a closely guarded secret.
[Postcard from Forgotten NY]
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