Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
Much of Broadway Junction’s character derives from its impressive size, maze-like layout, relative isolation, and a design that contains little regard for conventional beauty.
Editor’s note: This is the final installment of Camilo José Vergara’s Crossroads project. Previous stories covered Newark’s “Four Corners,” the Bronx’s “Hub” and its corner of Southern Boulevard and Westchester Avenue, Harlem’s 125th and Lexington, and Bed-Stuy’s Fulton and Nostrand.
In the heart of Brooklyn, Broadway Junction stands as the third-busiest station in the borough—a transfer point for six connected subway lines and buses that line up along Van Sinderen Avenue outside the station’s only exit. A short walk to a spooky underground passage leads to the nearby East New York Avenue Station of the Long Island Railroad. Sections of this station date back to the 19th century and one can still see the remains of the trackways once used by the Fulton Street elevated that closed in 1956.
Much of the station’s character derives from its impressive size, maze-like layout, relative isolation, and a design that contains little regard for conventional beauty. Few people actually live in the area immediately surrounding this busy transportation hub. The population who use the station is overwhelmingly black and latinx, but a stream of white people—primarily young—transfer trains there on their way to and from JFK airport. In the station’s corridors, several women sell churros.
From the outside, the facility reveals its evolution as a large, old, complex, and confusing facility which supports the train tracks and connects the subway lines. The latest effort to modernize the station can be seen in the corridors decorated with stained-glass windows and covered with green and rust colored corrugated iron that link the elevated lines with those underground. The soundtrack of the station is the rumbling and creaking of passing trains and the loudspeakers announcing the next arrivals. From the L train platform one can see, eight miles away, the sun setting on World Trade Center One.
Near this large, century-old iron structure, stores sell grave markers to the area cemeteries and several motor-vehicle repair shops do business. Some remaining cobblestones of old Conway Street are still visible. The largest nearby facilities are the East New York Subway Yard across the street with protective fences topped by concertina wire, and the High School for Safety and Law with its windows sealed for security.
Walking out of the station can be disorienting as you face strange iron structures that serve the L, J, M, and Z trains. Inside the station people move in waves along stairs and corridors as they transfer to their trains. Waiting for the trains to take them home, travelers stand silhouetted against the light, making them resemble sculptural groups.
The station has its own transit police precinct and a rare working bathroom open to the public. But it also lacks elevators, forcing the elderly and the disabled to walk up several sets of stairs. Stranded pigeons fly around inside the underground A and C platforms.
Taking photos here makes some people nervous. During the tense days after 9/11 in 2001, a traveler asked the police to arrest me for taking pictures on the J platform. Not long ago a man asked me in a threatening manner why was I staring at him—I told him I liked his sense of style.
Lacking restaurants, stores, and residences, this part of Brooklyn doesn’t feel like the type of place that would host such a critical transit hub in one of the world’s largest cities. The closest thing to a permanent business facing the station was a newsstand and variety store that survived until two years ago. In 2018, a food truck sells its fare and street vendors offer falafel, flowers, ice cream, and clothing by the entrance. Exiting the station, I recently met Hat Man Shane, a Rastafarian salesman who offered me one of his hats for $135.
Broadway Junction is not a destination, but it is an excellent setting for a New York City history lesson—a place to experience the hustle and bustle of a big city commute, and a great location for a film noir. City officials are envisioning a transformation of the area in the form of new businesses and housing developments. So far, though, there are few signs of the changes that may come.