Alternative NYC: Abandoned Spaces and Secret Places

New York City has it all. Culture, shopping, Broadway... But there's also a hidden side to this majestic city—one that many people never, ever get to see.

What is it about abandoned places that appeal to us so much? Is it the beauty in that which is decaying and falling apart? Is it the knowledge that few people know such a place exists? Or maybe it’s the historical significance of the area that draws us in. Whatever it is, we just can’t stop admiring the beauty, and sometimes creepiness, of abandoned places around us.

Many of these spaces can be hard to find, especially in a place like New York City.

New York City may be known for culture, shopping, eating and just being an awesome city to visit because of the wealth of things to see and do, but there’s far more to the Big Apple than what meets to eye. Even if you had limitless time and funds, it would be very hard to see everything the city has to offer.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s impossible to see everything in New York City, no matter how much time or money you might have. And the reason for that is because while it might appear that the city is filled with people 24/7, there are some parts where people aren’t even allowed to visit.

There’s a good chance you may even be walking right by them and never even know they’re there, unless of course, you know what you’re looking for. And even then, it doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed inside.

While some of these locations are completely off-limits to the public, it doesn’t mean you can’t catch a glimpse (or more) of others. Sometimes it means jumping through several hoops to get access, while other times it’s as simple as walking there yourself. Of course, before you can do that, you have to know what you’re looking for, right?

And that’s where we come in. To help you find some of the many abandoned places in New York City.

Hart Island


Sure, maybe not a lot of people know about Hart Island, but it is inhabited by more than one million people. Of course, all of those people are dead. Hart Island served as the city’s potter field, where those who were unclaimed or whose families couldn’t afford a funeral, were buried. It’s also the largest tax-funded cemetery in the entire world.

If that bit of history isn’t creepy enough, don’t worry, there’s more. The island also served as a Union Civil War prison camp, a psychiatric hospital, a sanatorium for those with tuberculosis, and even a boy’s reformatory. Today, it sits vacant and abandoned, but over 2,000 burials are conducted a year, mostly for prisoners from Rikers Island who are ferried over. In addition to the burials, the majority of which are babies infants sadly enough, the island also handle the maintenance of the cemetery.

But if you are hoping to visit to island, you’re out of luck at this time. The Department of Corrections maintains the island, and while they do everything they can to allow relatives of the deceased to visit, there is no other way to get to the island currently. The only ferries that run are non-passenger ferries carrying remains or one ferry from the Department of Corrections for relatives of those buried on the island.

There are also no utilities, no restrooms and even if you do get access to the island, you’re very limited on where you’re allowed to go. Even relatives of those buried there aren’t allowed to go very far, and they aren’t even allowed to visit the spot where their loved one is buried (because there are no funeral markers). Instead, there’s an area of reflection with a gazebo for them to gather.

There are a few notable people buried here, including Bobby Driscoll, the child actor who voiced Peter Pan in the animated film. When he died, he was thought to be homeless and was taken to the island for burial. Also, in a case that’s truly sad, the grave of the first child to die from AIDS is located here.

The Secret Train Platform Underneath the Waldorf-Astoria


There’s more to the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria hotel than meets the eye, especially if you’re only look above ground. The reason for this is because there’s history to be found not just within the hotel itself, but also underneath it. You see, there’s a “secret” train platform that at one time, serviced the hotel and its most famous guests.

But the train platform wasn’t technically built for that purpose; it just so happened to be in the right place at the right time when the hotel was being built. Due to air rights, the underground tunnels, which were built between 1903 to 1913, became property of the hotel, which was built from 1929-1931.

Originally built as a loading platform for a powerhouse, the platform was never intended for passenger service. However, after the powerhouse shut down, the hotel planned to allow passengers with private rail cars to use it to get to the hotel discreetly. Even though the original plan called for the elevator leading from the tunnel to go into the hotel, it actually opens up onto the street.

There are rumors that Franklin Delano Roosevelt used this tunnel to transport himself to the hotel via private rail car. Other uses are also noted, including a 1965 underground party for artist Andy Warhol.

Today, the platform is restricted and blocked from visitation, but it doesn’t mean you can’t catch a glimpse of it. If you look to your right while riding the Metro-North train leaving Grand Central Station, you may catch a glimpse of the abandoned security train cart that remains there to this day.

The Site of the 1964 World’s Fair

The Site of the 1964 Worlds Fair

While Flushing Meadows – Corona Park was the site of the 1939 World’s Fair, it’s the ‘64 fair that left the largest imprint on the area. Several structures remain to this day including the New York Pavilion, the Tent of Tomorrow, observation decks, and the Unisphere. Almost all of them showcase a unique architectural style of the ‘60s, which showcases what they believed the future might look like.

The theme of the fair was “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” and included exhibits such as “Futurama” by General Motors and the original “It’s a Small World” by Walt Disney. However, while the fair had over 50 million visitors, it was far less than expected. Also, because it wasn’t sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, many nations were encouraged not to participate, leading most of the exhibits to be American-centric.

Several of the monuments are still there to this day, but as you might expect, they’re beginning to show their age. The spaces were temporarily used for other purposes, including concerts and even a roller skating rink in the ‘70s, but due to the condition of these monuments, those uses have long since been abandoned. However, the observation decks were re-imagined for the film Men in Black, where they were shown as spaceships.

The New York State Pavilion has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and there is work being done to help clean up the exterior and return the site to its former glory.

Dead Horse Bay


With a name like Dead Horse Bay, you’d almost expect it to be creepy. And you’d be right.

The Bay, which is situated next to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, contains remnants of – you guessed it – dead horses. You might be asking why you’d want to visit an area just to find horse bones, and if that was all there was to see, we’d have to agree with you. However, there’s more to this area than that, otherwise it wouldn’t be of interest for most of us.

In addition to horse remains, you can also find garbage. But not just any garbage – vintage garbage, some of it older than a hundred years old. There are bottles, which you might write off as trash until upon closer inspection you see that they’re perfume bottles from the early past of the last century. Sure, you’ll find your fair share of creepy toys and doll heads, but that’s part of the charm, isn’t it?

So what is this place, you might be asking? It is exactly what it sounds like. A garbage dump dating back to about 1850 and operating until 1930. In addition to being a trash heap, the site was also home to a horse rendering plant from the 1850s until the late 1910s, which explains the horse bones.

Fort Tilden


Fort Tilden is an Army base that dates back to 1917, but it also was used a lot during the Cold War. Many of the remnants that remain are from the Cold War era, harkening back to an interesting time in American history.

The fort is located on the Rockaway Peninsula located in Queens. While the site is mostly reclaimed by nature, sometimes making it difficult to get around, there are still things worth seeing. Because of the location between New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, this area provided the military with an ideal location for defense. Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Gateway Recreation Area. Many of the buildings, however, haven’t been maintained and are starting to show their age. Very little focus is on the educational aspect of the fort, with many of the battlements and silos gated and ignored.

Even though there’s little to explain the historical significance of the site, you will see Battery Harris East and Battery Harris West rising from the terrain. These two structures once provided protection for NYC through the use of canons, which could be shot up to 30 miles in any direction.

In the 1950s, Fort Tilden became home to Nike Ajax and Hercules missiles, which were stored underground at a launching site. Hercules missiles were able to carry nuclear warheads up to 75 miles away, and they were housed here until the site was taken over by the National Park Service in the mid-1970s.

Bannerman Island: The Ruins of a Castle


While you may think America is rather lacking when it comes to great castles (and you’d be right, compared to Europe), there just so happens to ruins of what some consider castles in New York City. Yes, you read that right. Castles. In New York City.

Of course, as expected, the Bannerman Island Castle isn’t technically a castle in the formal sense; it just so happens to resemble one. And yes, they were designed to look like the European castles, which were the inspiration for the buildings.

The now-decaying structures were originally built by a businessman named Francis Bannerman, and many of them were warehouses for his business focusing on military munitions. The island was originally purchased for $600 along with $1,000 in notes paid off over two years. Over time, Bannerman built the structures the island would become famous for, drawing them out on napkins.

Sadly, many of the old buildings are showing their age, and succumbing to a number of incidents including a powerhouse explosion and an incredibly harsh winter that led to some collapsed walls. However, you can still visit the ruins today. Tours and events are regular occurrences, and you can get to the island by boat or kayak.

So what is it about abandoned places that appeal to us so much? Maybe you can’t answer for everyone, but we’d love to hear your insight. What draws you to these types of places? Have you visited any of the places we mentioned above? Are there others we should have mentioned, but perhaps didn’t? Let us know in the comments section.

About the author

Kristen Duvall

Kristen is a writer of tales both real and make-believe. A Midwestern girl at heart, she currently resides in Southern California with her boyfriend, a Great Dane, and two rescued kitties, one of which is known simply as the KiKi Monster.

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