To emerge from the Washington Heights 191st Street subway station, the deepest in the city, riders of New York City’s 1 Train have two options: take the elevator or walk through a three-block-long tunnel. The lengthy underground stretch, an essential thoroughfare through the hilly neighborhood, has long served as a canvas for graffiti artists. But on the morning of Friday, January 20, the Department of Transportation (DOT) cleaned and sanitized the passageway and painted its walls a drab beige, completely covering up any trace of street art.
Now, some residents are accusing the city of failing to consult the community before whitewashing the tunnel.
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Niria E. Leyva-Gutiérrez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), and District 20 Council Member Carmen De La Rosa said in a joint statement that they were informed of the paint job only after it had happened and decried the “continual lack of transparency” from city agencies. They also said that despite their calls to keep the tunnel safe and clean — it has become dimly lit, dirty, and littered with trash and needles — they had never advocated for the erasure of the art that was “emblematic of the tunnel.”
The passageway plays a larger role in the neighborhood than just providing an exit from the subway. “If you’re older or you have a baby or a stroller, it’s a vital artery,” said Washington Heights resident Led Black, who runs the news outlet Uptown Collective. The tunnel connects Broadway to another Washington Heights thoroughfare, St. Nicholas Avenue, which he said runs a staggering 18 stories higher.
Despite the tunnel’s necessity, it’s long been subject to city neglect. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Black said the tunnel was dangerous, a point reiterated by another neighborhood local who preferred to stay anonymous. “The tunnel wasn’t a place to be in and I never walked in it,” she told Hyperallergic, adding that although she sometimes scribbled on its walls with her friends like many other middle and high schoolers, her first memories of actually using it were around 2015, when the city launched a public mural initiative.
“Now we walk through it almost daily,” she said.
In 2014, DOT replaced the tunnel’s lighting fixtures, painted over the existing graffiti, and created a plan with NoMAA to commission artists to paint the passageway with $15,000 stipends, culminating in an expansive mural project. The Washington Heights resident said that although people were concerned about the murals becoming a street art tourist destination and contributing to growing gentrification, it was a welcome addition to a forgotten spot.
The city’s plan seemed to be a success, but Black lamented the lack of upkeep. “If you don’t clean that first tag when it goes up, it’s gonna go downhill from there,” he said.
Although the tunnel has lost its association with violent crime, it has still fallen into disrepair. The longtime resident said the passageway isn’t as brightly lit as it used to be, and when it’s windy or rainy, water leaks in from the walls. She also mentioned the needles that collect on the sides of the tunnel, which Black captured for a January 2022 Uptown Collective post. The photo prompted De La Rosa to pressure the city to clean the passageway last year.
Soon after, the tunnel was dirty again, a problem Black blamed on a bureaucratic “mish-mosh of agency” oversight that results in cleaning that is “more reactionary than a process.” (Unlike other subway passageways, this tunnel is under the supervision of the DOT rather than the MTA.)
A spokesperson for the agency directed Hyperallergic to statements made yesterday, January 23, by NYC DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez. Rodriguez said the agency is “planning to begin looking for potential artists” to redesign the 191st Street tunnel. “This is a priority for me because I understand the symbolic meaning behind this cultural mural,” he added.
In their joint statement, NoMAA’s Leyva-Gutiérrez and Council Member De La Rosa insisted that the city perform daily cleaning and maintenance and called on them to provide services for unhoused people who gather in the tunnel. They also called on DOT to immediately engage with the community to re-install the 2015 public art project.
“As kids, we ourselves added our own graffiti tags in it and wrote messages,” the longtime Washington Heights resident said, adding that even now that she’s older, she still sees a lot of life in the tunnel.
“Kids racing through it on foot or on bikes and skateboards. You’ll see people filming DIY music videos in there. In some ways, it’s come to symbolize a lot of the culture and feel for the neighborhood,” she continued. “Everyone is doing their own thing and claiming their space, even in this little underground space.”