Another Graffiti Sanctuary to be Displaced by Redevelopment in Rochester, NY
Story by Rebecca Rafferty – Photos by @Lobbyist and FUA Crew
Rochester’s Abandoned Subway, a primary destination for graffiti and street art, is under threat by proposed development. Graffiti and street art fans are invited to sign a petition demanding that city officials block the development. The petition explains the development proposal, and explores why and how the subway should be spared from demolition, remain freely open to the public, and be preserved as a public art park where the art is allowed to continue to flourish.
The subway became what it is today organically, at no expense to the city. It’s an asset to local artists, to tourism, and in its historic value. The subway exists as a landmark, a testament to the historic art that can be traced back to the 1980’s.
Local Rochester writer Change was one of the first artist to put up pieces in the tunnels, and has been able to watch the progression of the art there for more than thirty years.
“For me, the Broad Street Bridge tunnel was and is a place of magic,” he says. “To be sure, when I first set foot down there in 1985 it was a place of menace and mystery. It was a known spot for junkies and the homeless, and of course, there were the stories of people having been murdered down there. As I walked the trench that lead in from the southeast side of the Genesee River, I was simply in search of a good day spot to catch some wreck. Genesee Valley Park had been my main gallery for doing burners for six months, but it was finally getting hot with the cops and it wasn’t a place that could be hit during the day.”
Change learned of the tunnels from photographer and urban explorer friends. “They mentioned seeing some sparse rocker graffiti down there — band logos like ACDC and Van Halen,” he says. “That made sense since the bridge was right next to the main rock stadium in town, the War Memorial. However, there wasn’t any of the “subway art” that was making its way out of NYC to the rest of the world. It was a vast virgin canvas.”
As a city that purportedly enjoys its identity as an arts-centric town, Rochester needs to more carefully consider how we support or deny opportunities to our artists and art audience. The subway is not a niche interest, and should not become yet another landmark regrettably lost to Rochester’s history.
In the abandoned subway you can spot suburban moms pushing strollers through the tunnels, politely asking working artists to tell them about their art. Others use the subway art as the backdrop for music videos or modeling sessions, highlighting this unique venue with hometown pride. Yes, beautiful young women and photographers carrying expensive equipment feel safe there. One underconsidered element of this whole discussion is how the underground art has been a free source of improving the safety of this particular area of the city. With more viewers, there’s been more vigilance. Even the police seem to agree, by and large turning a blind eye in enforcing the no-trespassing signage.
In recent years Rochester has made several moves to revitalize its downtown. This is all well and good. Our argument is that the city shouldn’t discount the power of the subway as a cultural destination. Any development in the area should be centered around, not on top of or competing with, access to the subway as it currently exists.
As it stands, the art is a draw for thousands of people every year, all of whom who spend money during their visit. With support from the city, this number of visitors could be in the tens of thousands, all looking for other attractions and places to dine within walking distance. The beautiful Genesee River, paired with the art and other developments positioned nearby, could make for a diverse downtown experience that would be lucrative to developers and businesses alike.
Rochester-based artist Thievin’ Stephen can attest to the subway’s draw. “I was painting for The Bushwisk Collective last year and tons of Brooklynites came up to me on the street when they saw ‘Rochester’ on my hat,” he says. “All these people said they came all the way up to the Roc just to see our street art and graffiti scene. My mind was totally blown! I didn’t know we even had tourists in Rochester, let alone cool ones. Every single one of these people all gushed about how much they loved the abandoned subway and how bad they wanted to come back and see it evolve.”
One of the godfathers of old school graffiti, DAZE, sees some connections between what’s happening with the Rochester underground and what happened to 5 Pointz, an iconic graffiti destination that was torn down in 2014 to make room for apartments.
“In both cases, you have a location where people are painting in a real democratic fashion, and it’s a cultural go-to point,” he says. “All of a sudden it’s taken away or erased because of development, and it’s always replaced by the same thing. Never replaced by a park, or something that could serve the public, it’s always replaced by something for a very elite, private sector.”
DAZE sees New York’s High Line as a model of what could be done with a space like the subway. “They turned it into a kind of park, with a lot of pressure from the public,” he says. Development has sprung up along the High Line, a previously abandoned rail line in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood which has been used as a cultural feature, instead of being torn down to make way for that development.
The same concept could be applied to Rochester’s abandoned subway. In it you can find an embarrassment of riches right beneath our feet. In addition to work by countless local writers, visitors can view work by graffiti crews from across the nation, and by established artists from just about every continent. There are works by artists from Ecuador, Brazil, Belgium, and Kenya, to name just a few.
There’s value in having an open-air, democratic gallery, where local artists’ artwork is seen by visiting artists, and was photographed alongside more established artists’ work when Martha Cooper has come to town. The subway tunnels are a place where young artists hone their skillful letterforms, illustrations, and portraiture directly alongside more established writers.
“I remember years ago, when I had just started painting, seeing everyone else’s work and being inspired, thinking ‘wow, I can’t wait to get THAT good someday,’” says Rochester-based artist Yews. “It’s different having it right in front of your eyes rather than on someone’s Instagram, or in a magazine, knowing we have this in Rochester!”
What exists in the Rochester tunnels is not only incredibly unique, it’s incredibly precarious. It is a carefully balanced covenant between artists and their audience, and altering that during its growth would destroy a portion of Rochester’s as-yet untapped cultural potential. Though the subway’s benefits to our city have been underconsidered, the enthusiasm among artists and fans, near and far, has only grown. It would be a tragedy to smother that on its rise.
Both city officials and developers should carefully consider how they can benefit from the subway as it is, and how their projects can become front-row seats to its uniqueness, without altering or commercializing it directly. The loss of the easy access to the space would ruin what makes it interesting to the established and growing audiences. It’s the rawness and the availability of the artists who work there that makes it so compelling. We can develop without homogenizing Rochester’s culture. We can develop without a population of our artists taking the hit. And the subway can be the driving force for attracting tourism and successful downtown developments, if it is allowed to flourish as a public space, open to all.
“Whenever I paint in that historic crossroads I feel a connection to Rochester’s past,” Change says. “The ghosts of so many amazing things — the barges that floated along that aqueduct, the subway trains that briefly connected the community, or the scores of talented artists who have graced the walls with their inspiration.”
Even if the development project goes through, Change says he doubts it will attract the income and people that the developers promise. “There is already richness and beauty in this place that those who measure the world only in dollars and cents will never understand,” he says. “Those who seek to monetize every aspect of our lives will never understand the wonder, magic, and intrinsic value to be found in this imperfect heaven. They will never connect to the magic of the anonymous artistic angels who transformed those walls.”
Learn more at savethesubway.com.
Rebecca Rafferty is a writer living in Rochester, New York. She keeps a blog at theiconoclassed.com.