June 8, 2018: Ode to Bad Chambers St

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 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 the same model I had in my house as a kid. It’s 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 looks like the teeth of a chain-smoking coffee drinker dipping into his late 50s. The yellow tiles around the border may or may not have always been yellow, it’s hard to tell, but in any case they’re 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” of “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 St 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 St was the undisputed poster station of the system’s decay. It is crumbling.

Mr. Green@timesnewronin

@NYCTSubway Ceiling is literally crumbling and falling onto the J platform @ Chambers Street pic.twitter.com/DjrCRf7jmc

June 6, 2018
Yet, in the very deep recesses of my conscience, I secretly hoped they wouldn’t fix Chambers St.

I don’t mean this in a “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 St. 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 St so everything’s cool now. In fact, I fear this will be the exact outcome when they do clean up Chambers St later this year.

I guess I really buried the lede here; they’re cleaning up Chambers St. I’m sure it will look nice and I’ll appreciate the mosaic work that much more along with all the other niceties 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 3D 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 St’s existence in this way, even if I don’t have strictly positive feelings towards 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 St, are barely holding it together.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • Please enjoy my debut at Gothamist about why *not* fixing the subways will cost the NY region far more than whatever the Fast Forward Plan ends up costing.

  • Some of the important things we don’t know about the Byford Plan.

  • The Second Avenue Subway Phase II is coming along extremely slowly as predicted and service could begin as soon as…2027.

  • The MTA board questioned Lhota about his potential conflicts of interest during the closed-door executive session. He refuses to release emails he said he received from the ethics board blessing his multiple roles. Some activists like Reinvent Albany think the emails don’t exist.

  • Sounds like a deal has been reached to fund Fair Fares for six months.

  • An elevator and other ADA-compliance improvements are coming to the 86th St R station in Bay Ridge. The contract is for $17.9 million and the projected completion date is sometime in 2020. There will probably be some nights and weekends closures to complete the work.

  • Clever move by the Post to FOIL the number of late slips riders requested from the MTA. Surprise, surprise: it’s a lot!

  • “But the strongest determinant of ridership’s rise and fall may not be the lure of another mode—it’s service cuts on bus and train systems.”

  • “It’s hard to see the light at the end of the billion-dollar tunnels when the crew we’re entrusting with them can’t manage to write useful signs.”

  • NYT Ed Board Sez: Fixing Subway Good

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: June 2022

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

No maps this week unfortunately due to a technical difficulty. But here are the service advisories as usual:


  • 1 - No service between 137 St-City College and 242 Street (Sat. only)

  • 4 - No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

  • E F - Manhattan-bound service is local-only in Queens

  • E R - Outbound service is express-only between Roosevelt Av and Jamaica Center

  • N - multiple diversions

    • No service between Queensboro Plaza and Ditmars Blvd

    • All service runs via D line between 36 St/4 Av and Coney Island

Late Nights:

  • 2 - No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 3 - No service (Tues. morning only)

  • A - multiple diversions

    • No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

    • All service runs via F line between W 4 Street and Jay St

  • F - multiple diversions

    • All service is local-only in Queens

    • Manhattan-bound service runs via E line between Roosevelt Av and 5 Av-53 St

  • G - No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Court Sq

  • N - All service runs via D line between 36 St/4 Av and Coney Island

  • R - No service

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Two Capitals players have taken the DC Metro to their Stanley Cup Finals games in order to “avoid delays related to road closures around Capital One Arena.” TJ Oshie, who doesn’t take the Metro often (probably for reasons related to his $46 million contract) came up 35 cents short of the exit fare. A station attendant let him through.

  • Boston’s T is bringing back late-night hours with a focus on working people instead of drunk college idiots.

  • Portland has a plan to arrest its declining bus service as well.

  • France is doing some stuff with its rail:

    Yonah Freemark@yfreemark

    France's Senate passes the country's rail reorganization, which will allow open-access competition on high-speed routes (TGV) in 2020 and require bidding for concessions to operate regional routes (TER) in 2024. https://t.co/DmGnGFq5Ct

    June 5, 2018
    Yonah Freemark@yfreemark

    The reorganization also includes the national government absorbing €35 b in debt of the national rail agency, SNCF (much of which comes from the cost of constructing high-speed lines), with the goal of preparing that agency for competition.

    June 5, 2018
    Yonah Freemark@yfreemark

    While taking on the debt is undoubtedly good for the rail service, the Macron government's focus on "modernity" through competition and changes in employees' functions & benefits is a sad reflection of how we conceptualize public service today: https://t.co/HsxqFKYyyB

    June 5, 2018

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

Man in a red-and-black all-Nike warm-up outfit who sat down next to me, removed and carefully cleaned (with windex and a napkin) some sort of tablet device, and then started watching the 1997 Laurence Fishburne vehicle HOODLUM.

Dog in a Bag

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Laura Jarrett

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, transit reporter for the Village Voice.

If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway and peruse the archive here. And if you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.