The Rentable Basement Maze

[Image: The subterranean vaults of Manhattan, seen here in City Hall station, which closed in December 1945; photo by David Sagarin (1978), via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service].

A city with an abandoned underground train line, one that cuts beneath some of the nicest townhouses in the city, develops an unexpected new real estate idea: renting out temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars.
Access stairs are cut down from each individual house till they connect up with the existing disused train tunnels below; each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.
Then, for a substantial fee – as much as $15,000 a month – you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children's toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can't pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.

[Image: The great Manhattan underdome, photo by David Sagarin (1978), via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (which includes many other incredible photographs of that subway line)].

Within a few years, the market matures.
You can then rent bar cars, home gyms, private restaurants, cheese caves, wine cellars, topless dancing clubs, recording studios, movie theaters, and even an aquarium. You can't sleep in the middle of the night and so you wander downstairs to look at rare tropical fish, alone with fantastic webworks of coral beneath a slumbering metropolis.
Bespoke planetarium cars are soon developed; you step into your own personal history of the sky every night as the clanking metal of distant private rail switches echoes in the tunnels all around you, basements unlatching and moving on through urban darkness.
Shoe storage. Rare book libraries. Guest bedrooms. Growing operations. Swine flu quarantine facilities.
The catalog of newly mobile subterranean architectural typologies comes to include nearly anything the clients can imagine – or afford. Rumor has it, a particularly wealthy widower on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has whole exhibitions from the American Museum of Natural History parked beneath his house when the Museum closes at night; he goes down in his slippers, and he looks at dinosaur skeletons and gemstones as he thinks about his wife.
But then the economy crashes. The market in rentable basements dries up. The lovingly detailed personalized cars that once trolled around beneath the city are dismantled and sold for scrap.
Within a generation, the very idea that people once had personal access to a migratory maze of temporary rooms far below seems almost impossible to believe.

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Blogger AlexB said...

Very clever. Except that it isn't. The City Hall station isn't abandoned, it's where the 6 train turns around. Except for short little sections of track here and there, none of the New York City subway goes unused and none of it is abandoned. The post doesn't make any sense.

May 01, 2009 9:58 PM  
Blogger Sam Dodge said...

While AlexB makes very good points, I think this idea is great. Would it actually work? Probably not, there are so many variables and risks and issues. But should it be tried? Yes. If I lived in the area and had the money, I'd let my mind run wild with possibilities.

May 01, 2009 10:11 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

AlexB, your obvious intelligence awes me.

May 01, 2009 11:45 PM  
Blogger betterthanhuman said...

Alex is kind of a party pooper. A little bit of not-to-distant future fantasy fiction is just what I need to read on a Friday night. Great idea!

May 01, 2009 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for the rain on our parade alexb. really? no where did he say "New York City" the images are there to illustrate the feeling of this very plausible fantasy. the very first words are " a city ". your closed mind astounds me... pessimist.

May 02, 2009 12:05 AM  
Anonymous m1k3y said...

beautiful design fiction.

thank you!

May 02, 2009 12:12 AM  
Anonymous owen said...

or, four mutated ninja turtles happen upon said abandoned subway station and make it their temporary home! i was immediately reminded of 'the secret of the ooze' when i read this, even though there aren't really many parallels... that scene when they happen upon the abandoned station/train fascinated me when i was a kid - and continues to - as does this post/blog!

May 02, 2009 12:34 AM  
Anonymous jean c. said...

I find the last two paragraphs of the story the most intriguing:

"Once we used to do this crazy/luxurious/expensive/indulgent/trendy thing. Then, for whatever reason, it became obsolete, out of fashion, or just no longer possible. It took hardly any time for us to begin to disbelieve and discredit our past..."

of course, this could apply to almost anything in our collective history, from Victorian women wearing bustles and corsets, to Europeans in the 1940s aiding and abetting the Nazis' mass killings.

and then: how many things that we customarily do today could easily become impossible & almost unthinkable in less than a generation? I often think of private motor vehicles as a future parallel to Geoff's fantasy... sometimes of the mass-processing of animals into meat... sometimes of the use of petroleum-based fuels...

"how could they have done that?"

May 02, 2009 4:10 AM  
Blogger Luke Jones said...

thanks a lot for the link to the library of congress photo site. amazing photos. how do you find this stuff?

May 02, 2009 4:24 AM  
Anonymous MissSpite said...

I would SO live in a converted subway car. Sounds like glorious sleep.

May 02, 2009 5:55 AM  
Anonymous REBAR said...

ah, this is vintage BLDBLG - brilliant, visionary, odd, unique, even. Who cares if it's feasible? I for one enjoyed the beauty of the ideas and the distance you ran with them. Great post, Geoff.
From Matthew @ REBAR

May 02, 2009 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

but wouldn't it be fantastic to use the tunnel and platforms as an extension of our houses or with new public functions completely instead of the claustrophobic subway cars we are in every day anyhow. wandering at night in your slippers and robe through the tunnels...discovering an underground club or gallery, whatever. very inspiring article. HJ

May 02, 2009 2:12 PM  
Anonymous BenB said...

I like the idea. There are so many directions it could go. The only plausibility issue as I see it is that carriages would have to pass eachother, unless perhaps using a carriage converted into a drilling/rail-laying machine, dead-end sidings were created under people's houses where the appropriate carriage would pull in.

There are other directions, too though. Railbound thieves. Bomb-factories and cult meeting halls on the run from the authorities, disguised as function rooms and being transferred rushingly between conspirators' houses. Ultra-low cost apartments shunting back and forth which, after you leave work, automatically send you a text to tell you where they are in the city. Chapels of rest which pull up under your house following a death and ship the body of the deceased and the mourners to the graveyard whilst the sermon takes place.

I wish I'd come up with the concept! :P

May 02, 2009 3:14 PM  
Blogger muthacourage said...

You know the art director who did bladerunner said he thought of the main ground/street level of the city as a sort of seedy basement, maybe this is how it got started. The economy crashes, and the bums who live surreptitiously in the adjacent disused tunnels discover the rentable cars and take them over. Enough people are foreclosed on and dispossesessed that stealing and defending a subway car is a better bet than holding onto a home. A little bartering economy is hatched among the subway cars, city authorities stop checking the infrastructure and earth tremors open the caverns up to unreliable sunlight.

May 02, 2009 3:23 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Awesome comments! Love these ideas.

So I'm about to hop on an airplane again, from Melbourne to the US, but glad you all (or almost all...) like the post. And I'll have more stuff going up soon.

Was out till 3am last night - which is not recommended if you're about to fly across the Pacific Ocean.

May 02, 2009 5:53 PM  
Anonymous GlenH said...

Great idea for a kids fantasy film, perhaps by Tim Burton! It also reminds me a little of the fate of many massive grand luxe apartment houses, like the Ansonia,in NYC.

May 03, 2009 2:35 AM  
Blogger irve said...

the congestion issue is resolved with a private railstrip: when you order a cellar, you lift it from the transport tracks to the storage tracks using cranes which sit on their own little rails which are welded to the ceiling.

May 03, 2009 11:03 AM  
Blogger akb1710 said...

Nice observation Owen (Ninja Turtles), the pictures also reminded me of Ghostbusters 2 and the river of evil slime coursing under the city. Perhaps Geoff's boyhood influences are coming through in this post? Eh, I don't care great post Geoff! I suppose underground abandonment just seems more romantic than that at grade.

May 03, 2009 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Studio Lindfors said...

Great post, Geoff. Your description reminds me of a little known rail siding underneath the Waldorf-Astoria in midtown.

When President Roosevelt stayed at the Waldorf, his private train would be diverted to the underground siding directly under the hotel. This enabled the president's aides to carry the paralyzed Roosevelt through a special door and then by elevator directly to his room, avoiding the public altogether.

More about this private 'presidential siding' with some photographs and maps here:
http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/abandoned/gct61.html

May 03, 2009 3:08 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

"and then: how many things that we customarily do today could easily become impossible & almost unthinkable in less than a generation?"

Doesn't it already seem weird that just a few years ago, when you wanted to talk to someone, you had to phone a building and hope that they were there?

May 03, 2009 8:45 PM  
Blogger stanley said...

Nice post, Geoff. The City Hall Station actually has a stairway that leads directly up into City Hall. During the Giuliani Administration, the Transit Museum wanted to open the station with more exhibits but the Mayor wouldn't allow it. There was also a problem with the intruder alarm system, which kept getting set off by rats.

I also remember in the 70s when the US was looking for places to hide its missiles, and some suggested that we put them on subway cars (except that then no one would be able to find them, not even us.)

May 04, 2009 8:05 AM  
Blogger k.v.n. said...

a trick a Columbia teacher taught me once. if you want to see the old city hall station... simply stay on the 1,9 2,3, after the ferry terminal stop. it still passes through the station as a turn around to go back uptown.

May 04, 2009 12:02 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

A reader named Kelby Schumacher emailed with this comment:

"The beautiful vaulting in the photographs you posted is the work of Spanish immigrant Raphael Guastavino and his son. He pioneered vaulting techniques in the United States which originate in Spain, known as Catalan vaults. Essentially, it consists of ceramic tile bound together by quick drying cement, and is applied in layers. It is a particularly durable method, and he and his son have a hand in many of the most famous landmarks in NYC, Boston, and Chicago. Wikipedia offers a fairly succinct history and list of more famous works.

"Also, rafaelguastavino.com documents a breathtaking exhibition in Valencia of their work."

(Thanks, Kelby!)

May 06, 2009 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are abandoned subways around: Rochester, NY and Cincinnati, OH. The latter was never completed. The former is in danger of collapsing and may have to be filled in. It was last used in 1956 (?).

December 29, 2009 11:06 PM  
Blogger michael said...

Responding to the previous comment:
I have been in the Rochester NY subways. Eerily undisturbed since they were last used to transport early-morning editions of the newspaper between the printers and the main office building (above and to the right of the Blue Cross Arena / War Memorial).

They're still accessible via the underside of the E. Main st Aqueduct bridge. Just jump down to where you see all the amazing street art and head left into the most ominous darkness... (don't forget a light and to make some noise, many homeless take shelter there)

May 25, 2010 4:47 PM  

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