A Ride on the Rochester Subway: An Adventure in Transit

A Ride on the Rochester Subway: An Adventure in Transit

“Because inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change. It’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it.” – Marshal McLuhan

IMG_5972  IMG_5971  IMG_5967

     The tunnel entrance is spacious, slipping away from South Street, careening underneath the public library, and curving west over the Genesee River. The ground beneath our feet is what remains of the Erie Canal bed, used as the foundation for the subway. The space is large and bright. The walls are open arches. Pillars are dressed in radiant colors. I pass out our tickets from the Rochester Transit Corporation, valid for one week in April- they expire in a few days. As we stood on the platform, we could hear the train’s roar approaching the Court Street stop. It’s about a mile to West Main Street- a scant two-minute ride.

     However, it took our group 45 minutes to emerge on the other side of the subway tunnel. Why you wonder? For readers who are familiar with the city of Rochester, you are already aware that the last train car operated on this line in 1956. This year marks the 60th anniversary of that last train’s commute. Most of the subway today is gone- the western section buried, some parts built over, and tracks removed. What remains is a submerged mile, directly beneath Broad Street. The airy section with open arches has become a local hot spot for graffiti artists and urban explorers.

     The “ride” on the Rochester Subway was meant to replicate the experience of a once-elite public transit system. The tickets distributed were copies from April 1950. We “boarded” at the court street stop and exited at W. Main street, following the original pattern of the rails. The sound of our approaching train was prerecorded track of NYC’s subway played back through headphones. The sounds of the subway we listened to were meant to give life back to a now ghostly remembrance of what was once an elite public transportation system.

     We slipped underneath Broad street, leaving the sunlit arched tunnel behind. Darkness welcomed us into a cavern of abandonment illuminated by the electric light of flashlights, headlamps, and cell phones. The train “riders” were mostly quiet, drifting one way and then another, allowing the scene to make an impression on their own silver guts. I encouraged them to adopt the stance of the urban flaneur, french for “stroller, idler, or walker.”  I asked them to “ride with the intention to experience the subway, absorb the sights, sounds, smells and feelings.” Occasionally someone would draw the group’s attention to an interesting graffiti artwork, a sealed off entrance or the remains of the rail tracks.


     The cars speeding by overhead- thump, thump, thump- created an eerie echo- the percussion of present technology reverberating into a past layer of infrastructure. Our feet kicked up dust that sprinkled white dancing specs of reflected light back to my camera as it flashed. We passed through the silent darkness, ourselves ghosts, a collection of bright orbs idling through the void.  What business did we have down here in the absence of the train cars? We were walking through a space that was never meant to exist as it is, and yet it is. How can walking the path of what once was help us understand what now is?
Transit technology is something most of us experience every day. The majority of people drive cars. Yet attached to this technology is an ecology of infrastructure, embedded in the backdrop of our lives, silent and unnoticed. Roadways, bridges, and parking lots are the obvious components and easily gain opacity when thinking about infrastructure. But the infrastructure of the present is built on the past, creating invisible layers upon layers of filtering and mediation. It becomes troublesome to see the reality of the environment clearly. We are one step behind our own technology, and fail to recognize the new environment  that infrastructure creates. The “ride” on the subway re-contextualized transit, asking the questions we didn’t know needed to be asked.

Walking through the subway on foot was meant to disrupt our usual method of seeing (or not seeing) the infrastructure of transit. To break free temporarily from our blasé attitude as urbanites to adopt the flaneur’s, to really look at one piece of infrastructure and question the use of another. Instead of driving over a dead space in the city, we explored it, questioned its existence, and persistence and reconsidered the perversions of the automobile and its infrastructure into our everyday lives.

A Mediated Journey Through an Ecology of Infrastructure

“People commonly envision infrastructure as a system of substrates- railroad lines, pipes and plumbing, electrical power plants, and wires.  It is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work.” Susan Leigh Star


     Most attendees, myself included, drove to the abandoned subway. I listened to a CD as I traversed the city. My wheels guided by white and yellow lines, my tires gliding over the asphalt and my engine burning the gas I pumped earlier that week. My movements, restricted to the paved roadways, were guided by electric light, mostly green. We arrived after parking on a bridge between two other cars, feeding some coins into the meter, and placing a crinkly parking pass on my windshield. On a four mile journey, it seems outlandish to have interacted with so many technologies. These components of infrastructure usually escape our attention. With so much stimulation in the urban environment, its easy to move about with a blasé attitude, filtering the scene with a blunted perception. (e Silva 33).

     This filtering gives us a weak impression of the city. Infrastructure is more than a flat layer of material construction. It’s “a multidimensional set of relational properties that become an ecology of infrastructure.” Rather than a flat facade dropped over the original landscape it has dimensions- a physical layering upon layers. Nor are these layers uniformly stratified but rather these “spatial arrangements of relationships draw humans, things, words, and non-humans into patterned conjunctures.” (Murphy 104) For the technology of the car, there are also roads, and crews of people and machines to maintain those roads, who also use the cars on the very roads they maintain. There are gas stations for those cars, with pumps designed specifically for adding fuel to cars, and the gas is delivered to the station in trucks. Specialized shops exist solely for the purpose of repairing those cars and trucks. Not to mention the factories used to make those cars. Streetlights guide the drivers and need metal to hold them up, wires to transport electricity, electricity that is generated elsewhere and fed through wires to provide energy to the streetlights and the gas stations, repair shops and factories. It’s intertwined- separating the connections of layers is difficult.

“The future of the future is the present.”- Marshal McLuhan

     IMG_6037      But this ecology is also temporal. It reaches into the past. Broad Street embodies a century of transportation history in the form of layers upon layers of infrastructure. The subway stands on the arches of the Erie canal aqueduct, is below Broadstreet and will soon also be beneath a new promenade complete with apartments. The story of the Rochester subway begins with the shifting of tons of earth to build the Erie canal, linking Lake Erie and the Hudson River, “connect[ing] local agricultural products to distant markets in the U.S. and Europe” according to a historical sign along the river. The canal mobilized commodities and people, doubling the city’s population twice in as many years. This first layer of infrastructure transformed the city from a “wilderness settlement” know as the “lion of the west” into a “prosperous”, “four city.” The canal infrastructure embodies some old views of nature; it tamed a wilderness, and “harnessed” the power of the Genesee.

     The aqueduct was diverted from its original route through the center of the city the bed was untouched until the subway construction began in 1927. Building on the canal’s foundation prevents further shifting of tons of earth retired for a subway. With the light rail came more goods and commodities, fueling corporations like Eastman Kodak, Bausch IMG_5959& Lomb, and General Motors continuing the boomtown trend. The city was “carried along on technology’s currents”  from the canal to the light rail. And we began to move away from a “connection to local places, to the earth itself,”  as the rails transferred us “into a world of places being homogenized… dispelling the independence of wilderness,[and] remoteness.”  The local, the wild nature of the bioregion, the glacial characteristics of the regions and the health of waterways disappeared.  In other words, “it was as though they sacrificed the near to gain the far.” (Solnit 22)

     However, the canal route was less than an ideal path for the urban subway. Its future was underpinned by the past. Additional problems plagued the subway, spelling its decline. The subway itself was constructed in anticipation of rapid urban expansion that was predicted based on past growth. However, Rochester’s Version 2downtown population peaked in 1950, declining as sprawl pushed people into the suburbs, beyond the reach of the subway lines. People used the automobile more than ever and demand the subway dwindled. The power houses of industry also began to crumble.

Home Ecology: A “City of Circulation”

     Today, as the railroad has fallen from the radar of public transit, the “near is still sacrificed to gain the far.” Sixty percent of the land in downtown Rochester is parking lots. More than half of the city is space for cars. And what if we include roads in that figure. What is left? A local environment dominated by dead spaces. The urban flaneur is also extinct, lost alongside the vibrant and busy spaces of the city accessible by foot. Rochester is a city that has favored “mobility over sociability, and homogeneity over heterogeneity.” With globalization, cities became less individualized and more homogenous, and the privatized space of the automobile reigns large. Time is spent “alone and isolated within an iron bubble” that “enables a ‘partial loss of touch with the here and now.’” (e Silva, 31) That “lens through which to read and participate in the city exploring new angles and avenues… [as] a distant critic and immersed specter,” (e Silva 40) donned by the urban flaneur has clouded.


     Instead, we approach with the blasé attitude. The spaces between our mobilities are invisible, so mediated now we cannot see them. In this way “physical space is mere transit space.” (32) We travel here and there, oblivious to the spaces between our destinations. Rochester is now a “City of Circulation” (e Silva 32) propelled by mobility via the automobile.

     “The “City of Circulation” ultimately contributed to the erosion of urban centers and the justification for their renewal.”(e Silva 32) With downtown declining, the site of the east subway entrance, an apparent dead space to city planners, is the target of a revitalization effort.  A $ 4.7 million project is underway to build the Erie Harbor Park, a public promenade.

     Moving forward with the project entails a permanent closure of the south entrance to the subway, burying a past layer of “defunct” infrastructure while further immortalizing another. There is no direct mention of the underground subway on the cities website despite its claims to “educate the public of the site’s industrial history. To the City of Rochester, this is a story of celebrating local history, the creation ofIMG_6042f new public space, and the beauty of the river. Plans even call for the consideration of once again adding water to the original route of the Erie Canal, through which the subway now stands and supports Broadstreet. This narrative obscures the history of the Rochester subway, overlooks the problems implicated by the need to “educate” the public about their own city space, and overall creates an area of pseudo-functionality.

Environmental Invisibility: The Rear View Mirror

“Most people… still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus, we are always one step behind in our view of the world. Because we are benumbed by any new technology – which in turn creates a totally new environment – we tend to make the old environment more visible.” -Marshal McLuhan


All new media and technologies create new environments that change the “scale or pace or pattern [of] human affairs.” But we can’t see these new environments. “The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly.” (McLuhan) The invisibility of infrastructure which has become the landscape of our lives also renders invisible the change that has occurred. We think that cars, roads, media and technology distract us from the environment, the original landscape and from the ecological damage done to these landscapes. But we are living with “an outdated view of the world as ‘natural systems with humans disturbing them’” and  still struggle to see that “’human systems [have] natural ecosystems embedded within them’”(Ellis and Ramankutty qtd in Shock of the Anthropocene). It’s more than being blind or ignoring the environment. Rather, technology has amputated our ability to understand that our environment as we once knew it is gone. The ecology, derived from the greek word meaning home, is of infrastructure and mobility, stitched together by dead transit spaces. We living in a new paradigm and are still thinking in terms of the old, but we are also completely blind to this new environment. It’s as though we are looking in the rearview mirror living by the rules of the last environment, unaware of our current environment.


Looking Through the Windshield

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

     In our efforts to save the environment, we continue with old ways of thinking. The proposed solutions, especially with the automobile, are disconnected from reality and represent a major failure to act in a way that brings about meaningful change. Using the hybrid car as a solution to climate change is to look at the past to save the future. Today’s efforts in sustainability “work from the presumption that a certain kind of amputation has not already occurred.” The amputation is the numbing of our ability to see how the automobile and its ecology of roadways have taught us to poison our world while imitating superficial solutions. Weston describes this phenomenon as  “rest[ing] [hopes] on supplements and substitutions, rather than a concerted attempt to reorganize a mode of production.” (Weston 449) We’ve extended our bodies and our nervous systems but numbed our ability to recognize our solution “entails no fundamental reorganization of business as usual, no critical perspective on the industrial strategy of profit-driven reinvention, or indeed any deep appreciation of the limits that business as usual has soldered into place.” (Weston 446)

“There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” Marshall McLuhan

In words of one participant, “going down there with the added soundtrack created a more immersive environment to reflect upon the abandonment of the subway. It really made me wonder what it was actually like back then when all those people rode the subway regularly and it was actually in use, especially because the soundtrack was anachronistic — there are electronic sounds that you hear in it that you wouldn’t have heard back then presumably (I’m sure they had some equivalent sounds… or maybe they just had people yelling?). But I suppose the anachronisticness of soundtrack aided you in recontextualizing the subway in today’s world–i.e. this experience begged the question, how would the experience of Rochester be different if there actually were a subway with these sounds? It’d be a totally different city.”

    Walking through the subway on foot was meant to disrupt our usual method of seeing (or not seeing) the infrastructure of transit. To break free temporarily from our blasé attitude as urbanites to adopt the flaneur’s, to really look at one piece of infrastructure and question the use of another. Instead of driving over a dead space in the city, we explored it, questioned its existence, and persistence and reconsidered the perversions of the automobile and its infrastructure into our everyday lives.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 7.33.01 AM


“Abandoned Subway.” Rochester Wiki. Web. 08 May 2016. <http://rocwiki.org/Abandoned_Subway>.

Adey, Peter. “Mobility.” London & New York: Routledge, 2010.267

“Back to the Tribe.” Next Nature Network. 2009. Web. 08 May 2016. <https://www.nextnature.net/2009/12/the-playboy-interview-marshall-mcluhan/>.

“Erie Canal.” Rochester Wiki. Web. 08 May 2016. <http://rocwiki.org/Erie_Canal?action=show&redirect=canal>.

e Silva, Adriana de Souza, and Jordan Frith. Mobile interfaces in public spaces: Locational privacy, control, and urban sociability. Routledge, 2012.

Governale, Mike. “Rochester Subway: MIke Governale at TEDxRochester.” YouTube. YouTube, 2013. Web. 08 May 2016.

Murphy, Michelle. “Chemical Infrastructures of the St. Clair River.” Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945 (2013): 103-15.

“The Promenade at Erie Harbor Park.” City of Rochester. Web. 08 May 2016. <http://www.cityofrochester.gov/article.aspx?id=8589947272>.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The ethnography of infrastructure.” American behavioral scientist 43.3 (1999): 377-391.

Solnit, Rebecca. River of shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west. Penguin, 2004.

Weston, Kath. “political ecologies of the precarious.” Anthropological Quarterly 85.2 (2012): 429-455.

Leave a Reply