When the average person walks through Rochester to the Public Library or to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, he or she takes notice of the roaring Genesee River and the old stone archways that straddle the river’s expanse. Known to few, however, the Broad Street Bridge has a secret beneath its constantly traversed road. Several meters below the surface is the Rochester Underground — a tunnel system that not only housed Rochester’s own subway system, but also was, originally, Rochester’s own original waterway.
In 1836, engineers constructed the Rochester Aqueduct, which weaved the Erie Canal over the Genesee River where the current Broad Street Bridge is located and went up through the city to continue to other towns. Trade was the lifeblood of Rochester, and the aqueduct made the city a major port destination for the shipment of supplies and goods across New York State. Unfortunately, in 1918, the Erie Canal was redirected and no longer connected with downtown Rochester.
The UR Urban Exploring Club made a trip down into the murky depths of the subway station this past Saturday — for me, this was an opportunity for an adventure that I could not miss out on.
When we arrived the weather was rather unpleasant, due to the frigid temperature. Despite this, my excitement still bubbled over, as I was anxious to see what lay dormant under the pavement.
Armed with three cameras and a flashlight, I descended into the subway with my fellow explorers. The entrance was a concrete maw in the earth, left over from the subway’s deconstruction. Graffiti artists, leaving colorful decorations to the otherwise run-down site, tagged the concrete walls and pillars.
As we entered into the depth of the underground, however, with only flashlights to illuminate our way, the subway took on a new light — or rather a lack thereof. Not only was it astonishingly creepy inside the darkness, it was also beautiful at the same time.
The only sounds we could hear were our footsteps upon the concrete and the water dripping from the ceiling. The smell was musty and stale, as if the air in the subway hadn’t been circulated since it closed. As we continued, our tour guide through the tunnel shared the story of the subway.
After the redirection of the Erie Canal, the city of Rochester began work on its first subway system in 1919 to accommodate the growing number of people in the city. The subway, spanning from the General Motors stop to Rowlands, was built using the former aqueduct. In 1927, atop the subway tracks, a broad street was built to accommodate car traffic across the Genesee River, and, unimaginatively, the city named it the Broad Street Bridge. The city would still be prosperous through the Great Depression and into the ’50s, albeit with some amount of difficulty.
However, this would not last, as Rochester suffered another blow to its financial stability. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower enacted the National Interstate and Federal Highways Act, ordering the construction of the Interstate Highway System. This would have been a great improvement for the city of Rochester, had the highway that was built through Rochester connected to the city. In fact, the highway was built too far south -— it bypassed the city completely, effectively cutting it off.
It wasn’t long after this that the city began to feel the effects of financial downturn. Rochester businesses either left to find a new, more prosperous location, or simply closed. When the jobs left, so did the people. The Rochester Subway was closed when the city no longer found it economical to sustain it, with only parts of it open for freights carrying supplies for Gannet Newspapers, until they moved in 1996.
Searching through the darkness, we came upon the gallery, an 800-foot walk of professionally done graffiti. The graffiti changes quite frequently, and the artists are well-coordinated. On one occasion, there was a graffiti competition where the whole of the gallery was painted white and artists demonstrated their talents and skills. This was all done in secret, with only their art as evidence of their presence.
The spray paint remnants of the gallery were gorgeous. With the archways, murals and the roaring of the Genesee River as the Rochester scene backdrop, it was like we were standing in a church devoted to freedom of expression.
By the end of our trip, I was amazed at the history of such an unnoticed structure and how it really was the beacon of prosperity back in its day. But I was more amazed by how many iterations it had gone through to now become an artist’s canvas. It once was a mighty public structure that brought Rochester together. It now stands as part of a city revitalization project.
Since 1956, the subway system has remained abandoned, though new life is being breathed into it through urban exploration and renegade graffiti artists.
However, the ancient subway has raised some safety concerns with some city officials, as people are still finding their way down into the subway. The repairs to keep it from collapsing alone are a financial burden, costing the city up to $1.2 million a year. In order to avoid these costs, the city decided in 2004 to fill the entire subway with dirt.
Upon hearing this news, there was a public outcry that the tunnel should not be filled, and they demanded another solution be found.
Currently, as part of a city revitalization project, plans for the deconstruction of Broad Street Bridge are being made to open up the lower subway level in order to develop a waterfront recreation area for the citizens of Rochester. The entire project is an effort to make developers and businesses move back into Rochester and stimulate the stagnant economy.
The entire project is estimated to cost $66 million and will consist of four major phases to accomplish its goal of returning Rochester to its former glory.
While Broad Street Bridge may go through another change in the near future, only time will tell if Rochester can build upon the bones of its past to create a new future for itself.
But for now, Rochester houses a true artifact of the past — if only you are only able to find it.
Minahan is a member of the class of 2012.