97-year-old rail bridge over Astoria Park incites intrigue as well as high-speed rail traffic
Resting high above where the East River and Long Island Sound converge, Hell Gate Bridge is a monument to a different era of city bridge building. Do not take it as the literal gate of hell, since the name is derived from hellegat, a nautical term used by Dutch seafarers for troubled waters. But if you look at the water underneath the bridge, you will see currents swirling with unrest. Those same currents sunk the passenger ship The General Slocum on a bright day in June over a century ago, killing over one thousand church picnic goers.
Hell Gate is a system of viaducts and bridges over 17 thousand feet long connecting the South Bronx through Randall’s Island to Astoria. At the time of Hell Gate’s construction, there was another Island, Wards Island, which is now joined to Randall’s Island through landfill. The most famous of the three bridges at Hell Gate is the “Big Hell Gate” spanning the East River at 978 feet long, 100 feet wide.
It was the heaviest and longest steel bridge of its time in 1916 when designer Gustav Lindenthal built the bridge from opposite ends of the river simultaneously. The colossus of masonry and steel looms over the water, its trestles extending in-land for miles. The splash of severely faded “Hell Gate Red” that we know was a paint job from the 90s, its first paint job in 80 years.
Now, perennial as ever, the bridge is owned by Amtrak and carries three tracks, two for passenger service to and from Boston, and one for freight operations which are on the perpetual decline. Its iconic arch has only recently been buffed of graffiti as sporadic work began to improve some of the temperamental footing at the edges of the bridge. At times, what separates you from the plunge down into troubled water is only a thin wooden board hidden beneath ballast rock.
The view from Hell Gate is incredible at 305 feet above desolate Queens and gentrified Astoria. The Bronx too can be seen in the faint distance connected by the “Little Hell Gate.”
As you approach the bridge from Queens on a late night excursion, the trestles elevating the rails will bring you from the average height of an Astoria residential building and slowly ascend way above civilization. Remember to have an Amtrak schedule on hand and know when the next trains will pass. Aside from the locomotives, the walk is safe.
You will immediately notice the overhead catenary wires, which deliver electricity to the Amtrak’s passenger trains – like an elevated third rail that trains latch underneath. The walkways on either flank are littered with graffiti paraphernalia. Old spray cans, beer bottles and caps, and construction debris lie scattered around the area. Yet the arches do not lose their prominence at a closer proximity.
Each of the bridges two masonry towers has a rusty spiral staircase inside that is layered in years of dusty paint fallen from the walls. At the top of the stair, there is access to a walkway atop the trusses that curve between the arches.
Despite all this, Hell Gate Bridge is a sanctified structure, well out of the reach of the city surrounding it. It is odd to think how this strange and quiet place earned its foreboding name. Even the trains that pass by seem to glide without making a noise.
But Hell Gate hangs over disquiet waters – waters anxious from the barrage of activity buzzing hundreds of feet above and ashore the city. Against the odds, the bridge has stood for nearly a century, and will likely be many more.
All photos by MARIE CURIE except the day time photos by JONES HUMPHREY
Never completed station from scrapped subway expansion project now home to an illicit art gallery under Williamsburg
Underneath the stylish streets of Williamsburg’s behemoth pop culture lies an artistic gem surpassing in skill and scope to the art which befuddles the self-centric neighborhood on its ground level. Indeed, if you seek good art from Williamsburg and you are not on a rooftop, then you must be in an incomplete and abandoned subway station.
Development began on the IND Second System in 1929 when there were plans to build a new train line connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. The South Fourth Street station was built at the site of an existing station so that patrons of the Cross Town line could transfer onto trains going into other boroughs. The Second System project was eventually scrapped and by the 40′s development of any kind ceased altogether. There isn’t any official explanation as to why, though it seems the project’s funds diminished and South Fourth Street and the other Second System stations became obscure.
Sprawled out along the perimeter of the enormous subterranean vault are four empty road beds with room for six tracks, four island platforms, and a plethora of beams covered in decades of layers of dust. Architecturally speaking, the station is structurally complete, however it is completely unfurnished and without façade. There are no third rails, no signs of plumbing nor electricity; no tracks are laid out and there aren’t any signs telling visitors the name of the station. The tunnels that were to connect this husk to the rest of the train system were never built. Now it is just an unassuming hole in the tunnel wall with slabs of concrete and beams which hover over the desolate track bed like lonely watchmen in a dark narrow.
With no passengers to give South Fourth validity, the station remained inactive until the turn of the 21st century. As your feet crunch on broken glass, and empty aerosol paint cans, bags of potato chips and spent candles, you can almost see the faint specters of people and things from the strange times this station has hosted.
On the walls, written and painted, splattered and lost, either stenciled or free-handed, is a collection of images and symbols drawn by graffiti and street artists alike. Some depict grotesque portraits of rats and street urchins, whereas others have their looped and jagged tags sprayed in a myriad colors accompanied by a variety of intricate borders and designs.
A sort of urban history is displayed along these walls. And with it another, more lucrative, project has led artists to burrow themselves inside this eerie subterranean hot-spot. Referred to as The Underbelly Project, its participants included some 100 or so artists from all over the world who visited the site at intervals between 2009 and 2010. The most focused idea was that by taking temporary homage in the underground station the artists could escape the hype and commercialism that their art became entrenched in the conventional world. They wanted their art to be preserved in the rawest form, something to be unseen by almost all of time. The walls were their canvas. Darkness, their spectator.
Unfortunately, as you are walking along the empty track beds, trudging through some light mounds of garbage, a few of those murals and images and tags you notice are damaged from – so to speak – an ongoing war. This war is fought largely offensive, and mostly by certain enthralled graffiti artists – not street artists. Mind you, don’t confuse the two, you might be reprimanded if so.
Whereas graffiti artists prefer to spray paint their designs, usually by free-hand, street artists prefer other methods which graffiti artists perceive as inauthentic. Street artists, although known to use aerosol at times, tend to use wheat paste to stick their made-at-home paper creations to walls. Much to the detriment of the street art, wheat-pasted pieces tend to have a very short lifespan due to the weaknesses inherent in using paper as an outdoor medium. When paper is wet, color bleeds from it. It also tends to shrivel and contract until it eventually peels off of whatever unfortunate surface it clings. Indeed, not three years since the Underbelly Project began, much of the wheat-pasted items are already expired.
Many of the most artistically inclined portraits and murals were defaced, though not destroyed completely, with offensive markings or tags written on the images by graffiti writers. More or less anything that wasn’t written in aerosol paint was vandalized with messages like “NOT REAL GRAFF” and “FUCK STREET ART.” Among the defaced pieces: above and along a small stair leading to one of the outer platforms, a black-and-white sketching of two rats resting on one another; totems of cartoon faces painted vertically along a series of columns; a lone man sitting in a subway car; a zig-zaggy rendition of the United States of America flag.
Beside the two defaced portraits of women in S&M gear along a middle platform, is a slice of something that won’t be harmed for a long time. “SANE” reads the tag which is painted as if to burst from the concrete wall. Its cool colors and classic graffiti style have met technique and skill in an equilibrium of reverent beauty.
Only a few portraits designed by supposed street-artists remained immune to the destruction of their ilk. Noteworthy were the pale boy in the dark looking up into a pipe with the phrase painted above his head, “The People Upstairs Are CRAZY”; a portrait of a man snickering at his audience from atop a concrete slab on the middle platform, which directly below sits a tiled map of the Manhattan subway system cemented to the dusty platform floor.
At intervals amid this hushed darkness you are ambushed by the great humming and screeching of 36 tons of steel passing on the G line, carrying the world’s most hurried commuters to and fro at only a few arms’ lengths below your feet. The floor trembles and reverberates in your mind, reminding you of the fatal risks that each and every one of these artists took to get here, to be alone with their imagination – and all the artists and patrons who made the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed South Fourth Street is not without its casualties, the most recent of which occurring over the summer.
Beyond the stylish, sometimes prophetical, words and images nestled within the South Fourth Street station there is an untouchable form of beauty which is forever transfixed in the mind of the beholder. It hides in the dust and lingers in your soul every time you cross train tracks. For the casual South Fourth Street visitor, there is no question but to mind the gap between the train and the platform.
All photos by DOCK ELLIS
Abandoned South Bronx tunnel is den to filth and dread
Underneath the South Bronx there is an abomination. For 16 hundred feet, the Saint Mary’s Park Tunnel has become a house of grime. Abandoned and once serving trains, the tunnel is now partially flooded. Along the tunnel’s west wall a narrow slip of gravel paves a wavering path through the stagnant water, yet demons still lurk in the darkness. Strewn all over the dryness and creeping in the forbidden water there are scores – if not hundreds – of used syringes.
The tunnel and the trenches leading to it are notorious dumping grounds for all sorts of neighborhood garbage. When tracks were in service, trains were equipped with snow plows all year long – to plow through the piles of garbage that constantly grew in the train’s path. Now the Port Morris Branch has been stripped of its tracks, and although trains no longer run, little has changed about the line’s day-to-day activity.
Unfortunately for the doomed branch, the tunnel and its trenches are susceptible to flooding. Yet the filthy pools don’t seem to deter local drug addicts from haunting the tunnel. Poking in and out of the gravel is an impressive collection of hypodermic needles from highs long past. A used pregnancy test and a condom wrapper beg the question who would do that here?
Built in 1842 and abandoned in 1998, the tunnel’s owner is a complete mystery. In 2009 the city’s Department of Environmental Protection spent $350,000 to pump 625,000 gallons of tepid water from the Port Morris Branch and cleared the track bed of decades of South Bronx debris. Unable to determine the property’s rightful owner, the city got stiffed with the bill. Amtrak, the MTA, CSX and several others have all denied ownership.
The trenches on either side of the tunnel underneath Saint Mary’s Park are home to less morbid attractions. Sectional pieces of sofa are scattered throughout the Port Morris Branch, which is just under two miles long and used to connect the Hell Gate line with the Harlem Line leaving Grand Central Station. The trench walls hold an assortment of graffiti, the more detailed works lying underneath the street overpasses. By contrast, graffiti is far less prevalent in the tunnel.
The tunnel is consumed in pitch blackness save for one section where one of the tunnel’s two towers leading to the park about 30 feet above brings in light. On the surface, one of the grates is covered while the other is corroding to dangerously thin levels.
If this location leaves any imprint on visitors, it is one of dread. When exploring abandoned locations, one always thinks to themselves will I ever return here? No other location gives a resounding No quite like this one. Even if you have shoes thick enough for the needles, you are still strongly advised never come here.
All photos by MARIE CURIE except the hypodermic syringe and the graffiti mural which are by GORDON BOMBAY