New York's Newest Subway Station: a Gateway to Dubai-on-the-Hudson

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A boy takes a picture of the train platform after getting off at the new 34th St./Hudson Yards subway station in midtown Manhattan, New York, September 13. After eight years and $2.42 billion, the 34th Street and 11th Avenue stop on New York's 7 train line has opened, featuring the longest escalator and first inclined elevator on the city's subway system. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The bathrooms were already locked, makeshift "out of order" signs taped to the doors, after what must have been an especially heavy first day of use. The new Italian elevators, which move at a diagonal, like funiculars, were very much in order and kind of thrilling to ride. The astrologically themed mosaic by Xenobia Bailey, "Funktional Vibrations," is a decent execution of public art, though its lack of allusion to New York's history is disappointing. The webbed glass canopy is pretty and inoffensive, in that vaguely corporate way of pretty glass things.

Those are my first impressions of the new 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station, which opened on the west side of Manhattan, where a massive luxury housing development is now taking shape. The station is the first in the city since 1989, and the 469th in a system that is more than a century old, often conspicuously so. The station extends the 7 line for 1.5 miles, from Times Square to pretty much the Hudson waterfront (New Jersey is so close, you can almost smell it). The whole project took $2.4 billion and some eight years to plan and build.

I hope I am not coming across as a subway snob, though I am very much a subway snob. You have to be, if you were raised in Leningrad, where each subway station was a paean to Homo sovieticus. Some were Art Deco, some Italianate, some as awesomely severe as socialism itself, but each a splendor of its own. We didn't have much, but we had public transit as an art form.

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The station has the feel of a courthouse designed by a second-year architecture student: It's all very clean, but also a little antiseptic, the author writes. Alexander Nazaryan

The new Hudson Yards station is fine. This is the best and worst thing about it. Nothing built today could rival the Guastavino tile lining the vaulted ceilings of the old City Hall station, long unused, or even the utilitarian grace of any average station on the IRT line, the city's oldest. Nor does Hudson Yards match the new Fulton Center in lower Manhattan, which The New York Times branded "a new jewel" in the city's dusty jewel box of public transportation system. It does not approach the new World Trade Center commuter station, either, designed by Santiago Calatrava, an enormous white dove swooping down on what once known as Ground Zero. No such ambition is evident here.

The station has the feel of a courthouse designed by a second-year architecture student: the mustard tile, the fluorescent lights, the steel trim. It's all very clean but also a little antiseptic. You enter beneath the glass canopy, after passing through the modest parkland newly installed at street level. After paying your fare, you walk through one of two ovoid steel portals, which look like they've been salvaged from a spaceship. You can then take the Italian elevators, which are intriguing but also painfully slow, or the escalators, which whisk you 125 feet below the surface under the unflattering glare of bright fluorescence. More art on the austere lower mezzanine, and on the platforms (another level down), would have enlivened the vast and lightless space. Instead, a gray subterranean gloom pervades.

The inclined elevator at the Hudson Yards subway station Alexander Nazaryan

The Hudson Yards station is served only by the 7 train, which will take you to Times Square and, if you stay on, into the endlessly intriguing immigrant neighborhoods of Queens, where the real New York of grit and color can still be found. In 1999, the 7 train gained some notoriety when Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker complained of having to take it to Shea Stadium, then the home of the Mets: in a Sports Illustrated interview he offered that riding the Flushing Line was akin to traveling through Beirut, sitting "next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old-mom with four kids."

Well, Rocker can be assured that Hudson Yards looks nothing like Beirut. But much like the rest of Manhattan, it is coming to look like Dubai. The surrounding area, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had once hoped to build an Olympic stadium, is being developed by the Related Companies, which calls the project (rising atop a rail yard, hence the name) "the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States and the largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Center." The spiffy website for the spiffy project touts the arrival of a Neiman Marcus outlet, a restaurant by the celebrated chef Thomas Keller, something called a "culture shed" and an "Equinox-branded" hotel, which I guess is a hotel with especially luxurious treadmills. The new Hudson Yards subway station is touted as just another amenity. You know, in case Uber is doing its congestion-pricing thing.

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A panoramic view of the Hudson Yards by the author Alexander Nazaryan

The new Hudson Yards station mimics the development it is going to serve: clean, cool (the only climate-controlled station in New York!), efficient, lacking all character. There is no grime, but also no mystery, nothing to fascinate nor inspire. Hudson Yards feels like the subway station for people who want minimum contact with the city. It is a sad irony that the superrich who have come to colonize so much of New York see the lower classes with as much disdain as Rocker did. They are only better at hiding it.

When the station opened on Sunday, city and state officials patted themselves on the back for the completion of a vast municipal project. Meanwhile, vast stretches of the outer boroughs remain without any subway access. These are unglamorous places, with unglamorous names, where nobody is building skyscrapers: Throggs Neck, Bulls Head. Canarsie. There, dollar vans and buses will have to do for those who work far away, putting in long hours for little pay.

Art at the Hudson Yards subway station Alexander Nazaryan

But the citywide joy at the opening of Hudson Yards deserves to be acknowledged. It is a genuine joy, good and uncomplicated. A new thing has come into being. Men and women went down into the ground and bore a very long tunnel deep under the earth. And then they made trains run through that tunnel, while other men and women built a station, so we could take those trains, so we could emerge into the riparian glory of the Hudson, with its generosity of space and light. This is impressive. And it is why so many New Yorkers, who disdain tourists taking pictures of everything, having been coming to Hudson Yards, taking pictures of everything. The city is maddening in so many ways. Yet we remain in love.

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The Hudson Yards subway station, one stop from Times Square, is Manhattan's first new station in more than 25 years. Alexander Nazaryan

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Guastavino​ tile.