The Best Ghost Towns in Town (2008)

Hidden in the city that never sleeps, isolated urban outposts that never wake up

Who doesn't want to be Richard Neville, last human on earth and hero of the 1954 horror classic, I Am Legend? Minus the bloodsucking vampires who keep Neville company, the novel's stripped urban landscape is a paradise. Ordinarily, only massive grid failure can empty the five boroughs. So it was in the blackout of 2003: the day milk went bad in a million stalled refrigerators, the night the intersection of 14th Street and Ninth Avenue was bare but for a silhouette directing phantom traffic with a flashlight.

But the Financial District is a ghost world every night, its masses fading with the closing bell of the Stock Exchange. In the months before every art nouveau gem goes co-op and arugula's available around the clock, it's still possible to feel small and beautifully alone on a bike at 1 a.m.

Begin at the Nassau Street pedestrian mall, a strip of discount emporiums carved into the shadow of Wall Street. The tiny shopping district is obscure enough during business hours; after dark, it's positively vaporous. In the gloom, see the burned-out neon script of a famed sweets shop, Loft's Candies (86 Nassau, closed), and the ragged, boarded-up rabbit hole of the Nassau Street subway entrance—man, you can't tell me there aren't zombies down there.

Speed past the terra-cotta figures, half man, half dragon, who squirm down the front of 56 Pine Street. Duck as you pass under the stern limestone warriors lined up on the rim of 20 Exchange Place hundreds of feet above the street. Stop to run a hand along the side of 23 Wall Street, the money palace pockmarked by an anarchist's dynamite. Then take in Delmonico's (56 Beaver Street, 212-509-1144), the legendary steak house whose pillars were imported from, without a doubt, the ultimate ghost town—Pompeii.

Up in the Bronx, there's an ancient coliseum whose street life hinges on whether Joe Torre's at home. Take the 4 train to 161st Street when the Yankees are on the road, and only spirits populate River Avenue, the long street beneath the El. Stan's Sports Bar (836 River Avenue, 718-993-5548) is open only when the team is playing in New York. Arrive on Sunday afternoon, and even Stan's other shops, packed with official Bomber wear and souvenirs, are shuttered and lifeless.

Looming just above the stadium is the menacing Bronx County Courthouse (851 Grand Concourse). When court's not in session, there's no better place to spook yourself than on the wide limestone terrace of the building where David Berkowitz, who took his orders from a Labrador retriever, was tried and convicted. Feel like an architect's tiny scale figure as you overlook the Grand Concourse and the Lorelei Fountain, named for the mythical hybrid of girl and bird whose singing lured sailors to their deaths. Feeling vulnerable give you an appetite? Restore yourself with a plate of rice and beans at Restaurant Cuchifritos (95 East 161st Street, no phone); though they keep their cashier locked inside a Lucite booth with the register, the food comes fresh and fast.

If the very thought of the Yankees makes you wish you were dead, flee to Brooklyn—to Sunset Park's industrial waterfront (17th Street to 65th Street between First and Third avenues), where a metric ton of foam pads and support pantyhose and gilt-framed paintings of the Taj Mahal are waiting to be transported around the world. Cut off from the rest of the neighborhood by the Gowanus Expressway, this manufacturing park can seem desolate at high noon. At night it's flat-out shady and should be traversed only in a car.

Among the small warehouses and garages on the old cobblestone side streets, find metal and marble fabricators, mechanics, and purveyors of kitchen equipment doing business. Take in the scents of rubber, lacquer, curry powder, fuel, and saltwater. On beautiful 41st Street, pass the green and white Gilmour building (152), the ultramarine lettering of Blue Skyview Roofing (150), and the patchwork corrugated metal roof that zigzags up the side of abandoned 136. Embedded in the ground are tracks for the city's smallest operational rail line (1.5 miles).

For a resident of G-rated Manhattan, additional relief's to be found here. Unique Video's 25-cent peep show. Sweet Cherry Bar (202 42nd Street, 718-788-9810). And Corrado's Club (3915 1st Avenue), the defunct four-star topless bar where $20 once bought a dance, either at the table or in private. A couple of regulation-size train cars, confident as Cadillacs, now rest in the club's small yard.

Across the Verrazano, the southwestern coast of Staten Island is the perfect merging of ghost town and necropolis. Nearly 300 derelict barges, ferries, and tugboats rest in the Arthur Kill, the narrow, winding body of water that separates the island from New Jersey. Five marine graveyards are home to this vast phantom fleet of abandoned ships, all rotting and oxidizing, sinking or sunk. Masts lean to two and 10 o'clock, old booms spread out around their boats like drowned Ophelia's waterlogged dress. Among the beautiful remains is the phantasmagoric scrap barge, the Town Hall, whose giant paddlewheel was built from a recycled generator motor. And an ancient prison ship with iron manacles welded to its interior.

If your kayak is in for repairs, Arthur Kill Road and Rossville Avenue is the best vantage point for a viewing. There, you'll also find the 18th-century Blazing Star burial ground and the grave of Catherine Gertrude, dead of a mysterious illness at the age of five. Recite her a bit of Edward Gorey, who would undoubtedly admire the ancient, sad script on her headstone. Though she can't be resurrected, you can. Cross the road to Big Nose Kate's (2448 Arthur Kill Road, 718-227-3282), a small saloon where a pitcher of beer's only $6 and the theme is—natch—Tombstone, Arizona, year 1800. Pour yourself a glass; raise a toast to ghosts and phantoms everywhere.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >