Second System Gems 2: Abandoned LES Tail Tracks

This tunnel is one that feels special to me, and it may be very hard to justify. It’s dirty (very, very dirty), pitch black, sealed up tight, hot, and stuffy. It’s long abandoned, having been sealed up in the 70s. The station that it stems from is infested by the homeless and always smells strange, if it doesn’t smell like urine. It also can get very crowded, being one of the only stations to serve the LES.

Why is it even worth bothering with, then? What makes it special in the grand scheme of things, and what makes it special to me personally? At a glance the station in front of the tunnel appears overbuilt, with high ceilings, island platforms, 4 tracks, only two tracks being utilized. However, there is more to the story.

To start off, exploring this place is not as straightforward as it seems. What seems like a simple two track tunnel is actually an enormous space, filled with several more trackways, lots of empty space, and many small rooms and side areas. At the end, on what would have been/was the Manhattan bound/Northbound track, there is even a (somehow) working signal, left over from the tunnel’s days of being active tail tracks. The two tail tracks are still down, though the third rail is disconnected from power and the tracks are covered in a layer of “brown snow”, or tunnel dust. The station before the tunnel was built with unusually high ceilings as a provision for the Second Avenue Subway, another relic of the Second System plans which has, contrary to the trend, actually come partially into existence.

While there is evidently some neat stuff to see here, the tunnel was supposed to serve a much more important purpose than satisfying the eyes of the few. It would have connected completely new lines in Brooklyn (including the S 4th St line/hub aka Underbelly—the topic of the last post—and the Utica Av line which is still discussed to this day) directly to the 6th Av line in Manhattan. Trains would have run through a new crossriver tunnel spanning from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg. This tunnel would have not only been beneficial to Brooklyn commuters for the past 80 years, but it also would have created a great alternative route to the L line between Manhattan and Brooklyn, helping to avert the problems with the L that have arisen over the past 15 years, from overcrowding to the shutdown problem.

Unfortunately, this tunnel lays dormant as just another relic of the IND Second System plans, destined from the start to be abandoned due to a lack of funds. However, for many years it was used in active service, the tail tracks used for train storage and relays, as the 6th Av line either ended here or continued through the Rutgers St Tubes into Brooklyn to merge with the Crosstown Line. 6th Av express trains, along with select local trains and more during service changes, used to terminate at this station and hence made use of the center tracks in the station and the tail tracks. The Chrystie St connection greatly changed service patterns throughout the system, most notably creating a new route for 6th Av express trains to connect through to Brooklyn’s BMT 4th Av and Brighton Lines, and a route for 6th Av local trains to connect to Brooklyn’s and Queens’s BMT Jamaica Line. As a result, the center tracks were taken out of active service and the tail tracks were abandoned following the completion of the Chrystie St connection. When the homeless began to inhabit the tail tracks during their abandoned time in the 70s, walls were built around the perimeter of the tunnel, blocking it off from easy access.

View of the end of the tail tracks, including the still-lit signal, bumpers, old tracks, candles, and a friend.

My thumb didn’t feel too good after lighting around 50 candles (luckily I had some help, as we used 100), so I hope you guys enjoy the photos!

Second System Gems 1: The Underbelly

South 4th St, better known as the Underbelly Project, is a “station shell” built by the IND during the construction of the Crosstown Line, completed in 1937. Station shells are provisions for future expansions of the subway system, mostly built by the IND, which was the original subway company run by the city. They are all built somewhere in the vicinity of an active station, and were built in anticipation of plans for the future, so that active subway stations wouldn’t have to be completely gutted while building new intersecting lines.

The station shell

Historically, this spot has some significance. It was built to eventually be integrated as an enormous hub into the IND Second System, a plan which would have doubled the size of the city’s subway system, but the city continued to run out of money and almost the entire plan was scrapped. To this day, we see what the benefits could’ve been for developing neighborhoods that would be on lines branching from here, along with various other Second System provisions. Now, spots like this lay decaying and covered in “brown snow”, our name for the subway dirt mostly composed of steel dust. The only plans from the Second System that actually materialized in some form were the 63rd St Tunnel, the stub of the Second Avenue Subway that opened several years ago and that construction will continue on for the foreseeable future, the Chrystie St Connection, the Jamaica Archer Av Extension, and the 6th Avenue express tracks. 

More recently, the Underbelly Project was completed by 2010. This art installation was a covert operation, involving over 100 artists being escorted into the station shell in the middle of the night. Everyone involved swore secrecy, creating a sort of secret forbidden art gallery underground. Upon completion, the “curators” removed their means of access and sealed up the spot, but word soon got out and hipster photographers flocked to the spot.

The usual shot people take

I always found interesting the lengths people have gone to and continue to go to in order to get inside this place. The MTA and NYPD have repeatedly cracked down on people visiting this place, resulting in arrests and heightened security (the peak being the installation of a cinder block wall over the old passageway leading in and a metal gate over the old doorway, along with motion sensors within). I personally am of the opinion that this spot is overrated, while there are many other great tunnels, but it may have been a better call by the MTA to try to preserve this place, possibly making it an underground gallery of sorts open to the public. People have flocked to this place since the Underbelly Project became publicized, for reasons ranging from a lack of creativity when taking photos to clout chasing to just trying to find an easier spot to get into that serves as a “cool” underground urban photo studio. Some have even come to the spot in order to destroy the artwork on the walls. However, there are some who are curious about the history of places like this, and I am thankful to those, as they help keep the history alive. Even by reading this and hearing what I have to say, you help to continue the story of this spot. Enjoy the photos.