New York Secrets

Anna Balkrishna and Erin O'Hara

New Yorkers love to think they know everything about their city—where to find the best street-meat cart, how to avoid paying full price at museums, what route to take to skip traffic down Broadway. But New York City can reveal new treasures to even its most grizzled veterans. Beyond the city where we work, eat, play and commute every day lies a hidden New York: mysterious, forgotten, abandoned or just overlooked. We've compiled a list of New York City's coolest secret spots, ones you're not likely to read about in any guidebooks. Get out there and discover them (well, those that are accessible anyway) for yourself. Anna Balkrishna

Hidden Subway Station Beneath City Hall
The New York City subway has long been the country's most comprehensive transportation system, and now it even lets you travel back in time. The majestic subway station underneath City Hall has been inactive for nearly 69 years, closing for good on December 31, 1945. The station is an underground architectural marvel, with tall arched ceilings covered in antique tile and glass skylights that flood the space with natural light from above. It's been sealed like a time capsule since then, but you can see it with your own eyes (from inside a subway car). Here's how: take the 6 train to the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station (the last stop, if you're heading south), but don't get off. The train will turn around the City Hall station loop, which will give you a one-of-a-kind view of the otherwise unreachable location. Until recently, passengers were supposed to exit the train at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station before it made the turnaround, and only attendees of special events or tours sponsored by the MTA and New York City Transit Museum (or anyone who managed to linger on the train) could see this gem. On that note, there is one reason to take the official tour: the lights in the station are turned on. When the 6 train rolls through during its U-turn, the space isn't always illuminated.

Another underground masterpiece is even more secretive: the Underbelly Project is a clandestine "gallery" consisting of street art installed on the walls of an abandoned subway station, the whereabouts of which had been unknown to everyone but the artists and the attendees of the gallery's one and only open night (which happened over the summer of 2010). Though rumors have circulated that the installation is located in a never-used South 4th Street stop in Williamsburg, don't try to see for yourself—not only is it dark and dangerous, but it is also illegal; there have been at least 20 arrests of trespassers trying to visit the space. Erin O'Hara

Whispering Wall in Grand Central. Photo: Alex Lopez

Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal has many secrets (just for starters: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other VIPs had access to an underground railway that led to the Waldorf Astoria hotel), but the Whispering Gallery is its most romantic. This unmarked archway, located in front of the Oyster Bar & Restaurant, possesses a mystifying acoustic property: when two people stand at diagonal arches and whisper, they can hear each other's voices "telegraphed" from across the way. According to rumor, jazz legend Charles Mingus proposed to his wife, Sue, in just this manner. Today, the Whispering Gallery remains popular for such murmured sweet nothings. Just don't confess anything that you don't want strangers to overhear! —AB

Rooftop Gardens at Rockefeller Center. Photo: Michelle Rago

Rooftop Gardens at Rockefeller Center
Some of the most beautiful gardens in New York are hidden—hundreds of feet above the ground. Rockefeller Center maintains five spectacular roof gardens originally designed by English landscaper Ralph Hancock between 1933 and 1936. The gardens, located on different buildings throughout the complex, have been closed since 1938, but three can be spied from the Top of the Rock observation deck. You can experience one first-hand if you attend an event at Rockefeller Center's 620 Loft, which connects to the outdoor greenery atop the British Empire Building. And there's a chance you've seen that garden up close: it appears in a scene from the 2002 film Spider-Man. —AB

Bowling Alley at the Frick Collection Bowling Alley at the Frick Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Bowling Alley at the Frick Collection
The Frick Collection, a mansion on the Upper East Side formerly owned by 19th-century industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is an architectural beauty in its own right. But did you know that the building contains an underground bowling alley? Commissioned by Frick in 1914, the antique alley is a real tycoon's playground, with mahogany-paneled walls, immaculate pine-and-maple lanes and a custom-made set of balls that remain in working order. After Frick's death in 1919, the bowling alley was abandoned (except briefly, when it served as a library storage space in the 1920s). The Frick Collection restored the alley to its former glory in 1997 but keeps it under tight lock and key. —AB

Berlin Wall Remnants. Photo: Alex Lopez

Berlin Wall Remnants
In the lobby of the office building at 520 Madison Avenue is an unexpected piece of history. Five sections of the Berlin Wall, in total measuring 12 feet high and 20 feet long, are on display featuring the dazzling work by German artists Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny. The opposite side of the wall, however, remains a blank slab of concrete—a reminder of the oppressive political climate in the former East Germany. This Cold War remnant was bought in 1990 by real estate mogul Jerry I. Speyer (of Tishman Speyer, which owns the buildling), and displayed in Paley Park next door until it was removed for restoration and preservation work in 2015. When it was returned, it was placed in the lobby so that it won't be subject to the elements, and is open for viewing by the public seven days a week. —AB

Cemetery Behind the Bowery Hotel. Photo: Alex Lopez

Cemetery Behind the Bowery Hotel
Bowery Hotel guests who gaze through the lobby's back window often admire the tranquil green lawn located behind the building. But few realize that they're actually glimpsing a hidden cemetery. (Part of the confusion: the deceased are interred in underground marble vaults marked by plaques, not tombstones.) Founded in 1830, the New York Marble Cemetery, located in what is now the East Village, is the City's oldest nondenominational public burial ground—and also one of the hardest to find. The cemetery gate is located at the end of a narrow alley leading from Second Avenue; it's typically unlocked to visitors only for a few hours on the fourth Sunday of each month from April to October. Visit the caretaker organization's website for the schedule and more information. —AB

Staten Island Boat Graveyard. Photo: Jayson Photography

Staten Island Boat Graveyard
One of the spookiest places in town is the Staten Island Boat Graveyard. Located far from the urban bustle in Rossville, Staten Island, this swampy patch of the Arthur Kill Road waterway is the final resting place for dozens of rusting, decomposing and abandoned boats of all sizes. In the film Graves of Arthur Kill, two filmmakers document the history of the site and its boats. The rotting ship hulls, protruding from the watery depths, are oddly majestic and beautiful (but also kind of gross; we recommend wearing long pants and sturdy shoes if you go). The gravesite is located off of Arthur Kill Road near Rossville Avenue, about 13 miles by bike or car from the ferry terminal. As of 2013, there's no longer a public path all the way to the water, but you can steal a glimpse of the boats before a padlocked fence gets in your way. It's a truly forgotten corner of the City. —AB


Old Atlantic Avenue Subway Tunnel. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Old Atlantic Avenue Subway Tunnel
For more than a century, the lost Atlantic Avenue subway tunnel in Brooklyn was a thing of legend: In 1893, The New York Times printed a story about pirates dwelling in the tunnel, and sci-fi author H.P. Lovecraft portrayed it as a vampire den in a 1927 short story. The tunnel's actual history is not so fanciful but still interesting. Cornelius Vanderbilt, then the operations director of the Long Island Rail Road, oversaw its 1844 construction in order to reroute LIRR trains that were accidentally mowing down pedestrians. The tunnel was abandoned in 1861 and only rediscovered in 1980. (A steam engine is reputedly still buried somewhere inside.) At one point, New Yorkers and visitors could see the tunnel for themselves, but tours of the underground space are no longer available. —AB

Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church Slave Galleries. Photo: Alex Lopez

Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church Slave Galleries
Within the simple walls of Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church on the Lower East Side lies an unlikely reminder of racial segregation in New York. Cramped staircases lead to two concealed rooms, located behind the balcony, where African-American worshippers could hear church services without being seen. The rooms were informally known as the "slave gallery," even though slavery was outlawed in New York by the time they were built in 1828. Fugitive 19th-century politician Boss Tweed, then being sought for corruption charges, reportedly hid in the gallery to attend his mother's funeral. Ignored and branded for decades as a shameful part of Saint Augustine's past, the space was eventually restored and opened to the public (by appointment only) in 2009. —AB

Cold War Bomb Shelter in the Brooklyn Bridge
In 2006, City inspectors stumbled upon a hidden chamber inside the Brooklyn Bridge, located just under the bridge's Lower Manhattan entrance ramp. The room was stockpiled with decades-old military provisions for surviving a nuclear bomb attack: blankets, medicine, water containers and around 352,000 crackers. Supply boxes stamped with the dates 1957 and 1962 indicate that the bunker was used during the height of the Cold War, later to be sealed up and forgotten. For security reasons, City officials have kept the exact location of the chamber a secret—most of the 150,000 pedestrians who cross the bridge each day have no idea that it even exists. —AB

That's not the only secret space inside the belly of the bridge; located within its base, a series of vast rooms known as the Brooklyn Anchorage was used for music and theater performances, readings and art exhibitions for nearly 20 years. Each of the eight impressive rooms has brick walls and a 50-foot-high ceiling. The space was closed for business after 9/11 for security reasons and, unfortunately, will not be open again anytime soon. —EO

Tunnels Under Columbia
Below Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus, a series of underground tunnels connects various school buildings. Tunnels below Buell Hall are just a few feet wide and are thought to date back to the insane asylum that once sat in its place, while the tunnels below Pupin Hall were a meeting place for scientists who built a cyclotron in the building's basement during the beginning stages of the Manhattan Project. While not entirely off-limits—students and faculty are technically permitted to use some of the tunnels to travel between buildings—security for the forbidden tunnels has increased in recent years in response to rogue tunnel explorers. Still, Columbia's tunnels are everything a City secret aspires to be: dark, difficult to find and brimming with history. —EO

New York Public Library. Photo: Will Steacy

Pneumatic Tubes
Pneumatic tubes are a lingering ghost of New York's past. Once upon a time, they were used to shuttle mail (and, on one occasion in the late 19th century, a cat—don't worry, it survived) around the City and often across the Brooklyn Bridge. Nowadays they're scarce, even moreso since the New York Public Library, probably the most famous place to see them in action, has ceased use of its system—though of course the tubes still exist. Previously, slips of paper bearing book requests would be shot via tube seven floors down to the stacks, where the desired book would be located and sent up on a Ferris wheel–type apparatus. Roosevelt Island, a small residential isle between Manhattan and Queens in the East River, uses extra-large pneumatic tubes to transport all of its garbage directly from buildings to the transfer facility, where it's automatically separated into light and heavy items and compacted for pickup. —EO

Pomander Walk
Twenty-seven buildings resembling Tudor homes with colorful doors, shutters and timber frames grace this gated street that's tucked away on the Upper West Side, nearly completely out of view to passersby. Comissioned by 1910s-era restaurateur and Irish émigré Thomas Healy, Pomander Walk—which is modeled after an old London street and the set of a stage play, both of the same name—earned landmark status in 1982. Surrounded by buildings that tower hundreds of feet above its rooftops, this pedestrian-only lane of residences is a peaceful respite from the people and cars that hustle and bustle past its wrought-iron gates every day, unaware of the sanctuary within. You can't access the haven unless you have a key or know someone who does, but the picturesque spot is still worth a peek through the gate. —EO