An Elegy for the Sublimely Crappy Chambers Street Subway Station

The soon-to-be made-over stop may be decrepit, but at least it’s honest about the state of the city


Voice transit reporter Aaron Gordon will be appearing Thursday night at 6 p.m. at an AIA New York panel on infrastructure and waste, a topic on which he knows a little something. To mark the occasion, we’re running an essay that is adapted from Gordon’s free weekly transit newsletter Signal Problems, which you can sign up for here.

“Too often, life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days; whereas in fact it can be a great, living adventure.” —Fiorello La Guardia

Shortly after I moved to New York, I took my camera out to do some shooting. This photo is the only one I kept from that day. It’s not a particularly good photo — I didn’t get the lighting or framing quite right — but I’m nevertheless fond of it. Every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly down, I pull it up and look at it for a few seconds. It makes me smile, because it looks like how New York makes me feel.

On the one hand, there’s so much beauty and potential here. Look at that ornate, delicate mosaic or the clear, colorful Brooklyn Bridge design that’s still splendid from across the platform. The lettering on “CHAMBERS ST.” gleams even under the shabby lighting as if creating its own luminescence. Somebody once cared about this station, about this place, as something more than just a stop on a journey.

On the other hand, there was the office chair — which, it’s worth noting, was on an unused subway station platform for some reason; coincidentally, it’s the same model I had in my house as a kid. Its broken wheels and torn fabric collected layers of dust thick enough to bury Pizza Rat. The white tile above it, once clean and glistening, now looked like the teeth of a chain-smoking coffee drinker dipping into his late fifties. The yellow tiles around the border may or may not have always been yellow, it’s hard to tell; but in any case they were now a sickly dehydrated urine color.

I return to this photo, I think, because it is the subway. Someone once cared about it enough to make it not just functional but beautiful, the kind of art you could stare at like a museum spectator. But somewhere along the line, we stopped bothering. The mosaics went uncleaned — notice the discoloration, most notably the “E” in “CHAMBERS” — the tile fell into a state of disrepair, and someone left an office chair. I have no idea how long it was there before I took this photo, but judging by the dust it was not a short amount of time. For months, if not years, nobody could be bothered.

It’s no coincidence that, when the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on the subway’s disrepair, the photographer went to Chambers Street to document the station’s dilapidation. When the MTA announced some other station was getting the Enhanced Station Initiative treatment, the constant refrain from transit advocates and MTA board members alike has been “What about Chambers Street?” In a system overrun with tubby rats, crumbling tiles, elaborate water damage, and grime thick enough to grow its own grime, Chambers Street was the undisputed poster station of the system’s decay. It is crumbling.

Yet, in the very deep recesses of my conscience, I secretly hoped they wouldn’t fix Chambers Street.

I don’t mean this in an “I actually like things to be incredibly shitty, thank you very much” kind of way. I know the line between nostalgic and cranky is thin and typically in the eyes of the beholder, but I’m not nostalgic about Bad Chambers Street. I want them to fix it eventually, just maybe not until they fix the rest of the subway, too. I don’t want it to become a dishonest visual metaphor, in which the MTA claims, We cleaned up Chambers Street so everything’s cool now. In fact, I fear this will be the exact outcome when they do clean up Chambers Street later this year.

I guess I really buried the lede here: They’re cleaning up Chambers Street. I’m sure it will look nice and I’ll appreciate the mosaic work that much more along with all the other benefits that come with not being damp mold–adjacent. It will be better.

And here, I’m so sorry, I’m going to be insufferable for a second and channel my inner Jeremiah Moss: I have a vaguely irrational sentimentality for this monument to decrepitude. The city is increasingly becoming viscerally dull. Identical glass towers in Manhattan rent storefronts to the same several hundred chain stores. Yuppie boxes in the outer boroughs have architectural renderings that rarely consist of anything more than a 3-D rectangle with sad balconies. Most coffee shops feel like the physical embodiment of five white guys sitting around a table talking about Brands. Bars can either be described as bro-y or rich hipster (I assume there are tiers above this I really cannot afford), and that’s the long and short of it.

The point isn’t to lament what the city is becoming — which a lot of people like, and has its virtues — but merely to notice it. And so I appreciate Chambers Street’s existence in this way, even if I don’t have strictly positive feelings toward it, because I like when a city reflects its people. Some people are not shiny icons to a new era of prosperity. Some people, like Chambers Street, are barely holding it together.