For at least twenty years, media outlets have been singing “The Ballad of Manhattan’s Disappearing Gas Station,” its familiar chorus bemoaning the rising rents and development pressure that push owners out, fretting about the potential implications for emergency services, and memorializing the city’s pre-gentrification grit. Less than thirty remain, concentrated north of 96th Street. With more and more car-owners adopting electric vehicles, and a statewide mandate for zero-emissions vehicles by 2035, the need to charge cars and trucks will bring more change to the streetscape. (New York City’s infrastructure — in terms of both actual charging sites and a power grid that can support potentially millions of vehicles plugging in on a daily basis — is currently unprepared for massive electrification efforts.) Electrification will hopefully cut down on climate-heating carbon emissions and the air pollution that plagues heavily trafficked neighborhoods. We won’t mourn these fuel fossils, but the changes to New York City’s daily rhythms will surely be immense. For Laura del Pino and Sam Narisi, who live in Washington Heights and don’t drive, gas stations are simultaneously omnipresent and mysterious. Drawing inspiration from Ed Ruscha’s laconic Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and perhaps William H. Whyte’s motion studies of Manhattan plazas, the architect and writer looked closer, and came upon a vehicle-based social scene not always apparent to the pedestrian eye. These surviving interruptions to the grid hold space for some old-fashioned disorder, convenience, and conviviality — for the time being.
Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!
From “Filling Station,” Elizabeth Bishop, 1952
Dirty, uncomfortable territories, gas stations are designed to be used but not enjoyed. Like the elevators or fire stairs of a skyscraper, they are part of the city’s back-of-house. Because fuel-hungry cars and trucks are the primary users, the design is rounded and guiding; pedestrian paths are an afterthought. Benches, trees, or human-scale furniture are rarely part of the layout. Yet gas stations offer a counterintuitive realm for spontaneous public interaction in New York City. Grubby and chaotic, they stand out against a homogeneous urban landscape. The utilitarian design facilitates layered social interactions free of tight scrutiny. Gas stations are prayer spaces, hangout spots, and informal eating outposts. They are also coffee shops, bodegas, and auto-shops. Despite the constant noise, clutter, and pollution, they provide cab drivers and delivery workers whose days are inevitably connected to vehicles the necessary space for a break.
There are less than 30 gas stations left in Manhattan today, steadily giving way to residential and commercial development. Most are found uptown, with its slightly higher presence of light manufacturing and slightly lower real estate pressure. Only an estimated 22 percent of Manhattan households owned a car in 2018, and even fewer drove it on a regular basis. If many New Yorkers purchased cars during the pandemic, fearing contagion on public transportation, this increase in car ownership has not translated into more gas stations.
Surveying a few on foot, we found that each gas station hosts delicately choreographed non-automotive activities alongside the flow of cars. Gas stations serve non-drivers looking for candy and snacks, or in search of beer for an unexpected house party. Between visible urban fabric and behind-the-scenes territory, they lie at the edge of our urban perception.
Steady and consistent over 154 years, this gas station in Queens has evolved from a blacksmith shop outfitting racing horses to a spot for refueling and repairing cars. Located in College Point, just across Flushing Bay from LaGuardia Airport, it is part of a traditional industrial district peppered with strip malls, distribution centers, bottling facilities, and water treatment plants. A small residential section of Cape Cod-style homes was built amidst the businesses in the 1920s. The urban fabric has remained almost unchanged since cars took over, as has the ownership of the station. This is the fifth generation of ownership by the Farrington family, as integral to the neighborhood as the steady noise of the landing planes.
Horseshoes and photographs of the site’s equine past decorate the walls of the store. The small building is also a mosaic of signage and lettering, a conversation between the graffiti letters on the adjacent wall and the many business owners who are selling you something: “Cash & credit!” “Open 7 days!” “5 am – 10 pm!”
Private cars circle the small central pump while avoiding the electrical pole on the corner. Because the residential blocks that surround it do not welcome passing traffic, there is not much space for hanging around. On the sidewalk opposite is a quiet corner deli where two tables and a few chairs offer accommodation to the locals that stop by; there is no center and no periphery.
The traffic flows slowly during the daytime, with impromptu conversations and tune-ups, but no time is wasted when the sun sets. After the rush hour press of cars, a calm settles on this hidden corner, as the station’s lone worker starts locking the pumps and securing the garage doors of the adjacent auto shops. The station is now closed for the night, but the openness of the structure is inviting. Curious cats lounge as nocturnal runners jog through this improvised plaza until the rhythm of refueling restarts at 5 am.
The triangle between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue is a collage of Spanish and English signs and small red and yellow canopies. You can get physical therapy, prepare immigration documents, buy cereal and milk, and get a haircut within 50 feet. It is 5 pm on a fall Saturday; rumba, salsa, and animated conversations transform the sidewalks into a small public plaza. However, one triangular fragment where Broadway intersects with the city’s grid remains strangely empty. Nobody feels compelled to bring their chairs and relax on this island. Like a Donald Judd sculpture devoted to traffic regulation, the yellow poles surrounding the large Shell signal a feeling of trespass for pedestrians.
But the moment we cross this border, the music and the atmosphere mirror the sidewalk scene: mopeds have substituted for the chairs. The talk is about where to go for a quick ride before returning to this spot. The air pumps of the station are a spot for young motorbikers to do figure eights and pop wheelies. In this large triangle, their small vehicles can go in circles while steering clear of the traffic lanes of Broadway.
Motorbikes buzz in and out of the site, moving in loops, briefly meeting the cars passing by on Broadway. The gas station feels like an oversized beehive. The expansive roof and the minimal vertical structure of its large canopy set the stage for these dances. It is a public plaza for two-wheeled vehicles. Private cars stop just for short fillings, and pedestrians are not part of the flow.
By 9 pm, the rhythm has changed. Music still drifts out from the beauty salon, but lower temperatures have moved the chairs back inside. The night air dissipates the smoke from the hookahs and quiets the click-clack of the dominos. Lazily, the motorbikes still come around for goodbye meetings. The vehicles drive in compact curves around the pumps. The filling station is now a lighthouse announcing the start of the Little Dominican Republic.
Walking west towards Tenth Avenue on 37th Street, the strange tangle of roads and tunnels that announce the connection between Manhattan and New Jersey brings an unexpected disruption to the continuous grid. The smooth curves of a concrete railing under the overpass leading to the tunnel hint at an underground world whose organic geometry rejects the orthogonal network above ground. With its long horizontal canopy, a lone filling station contradicts the vertical fortifications rising nearby.
When Hudson Yards took form like a fragment of Hong Kong, it displaced the repair shops, warehouses, and light manufacturing that traditionally had nurtured this gas station. They were too chaotic and dirty, and too small for such valuable land. In the past, the gas station was more than an anchor for the large tunnel infrastructure; it was a social spot for the workers of the surrounding industrial facilities. Yellow cab drivers reminisced with us about the time when the rhythm of loading and unloading trucks was mixed with mechanics eating lunch on the sidewalk and night shift cabbies sleeping in their cars.
Although it is open 24 hours, it has become a leftover territory in a new tourist island. It is eerily empty on a Sunday evening. One would expect cabs and drivers lined in the back parking spots, praying or having dinner, but the new buildings at Hudson Yards have created a physical and psychic barrier. A small, detached convenience store still has a steady influx of customers, coming and going by foot. Vehicles tend to bypass the street as they rush towards the tunnel. Cab drivers prefer to loop around more crowded areas near Times Square than traverse this quiet territory crisscrossed by ever-widening accesses to the tunnel.
The lights of the gas station shine bright. After the long blocks of mute ground floor facades —loading docks and garage entrances — the windows of the gas station store and its overlapping prices, logos, and signs somehow provide a sense of safety, relief, and welcome. But the pumps are mostly empty. The store clerk seems to snooze lightly. Everything is silent.
Traces of the extensive network of filling spots once known as Gasoline Alley survive among storefronts, neglected signage, and strangely shaped lots downtown. Stations and workshops lined Houston and neighboring streets in the 1960s, a central spine of services for a growing vehicular fleet. Now, the car washes, the parking lots, the mechanic shops, all of them have been substituted by tall condominiums. With one exception: the last gas station in Downtown Manhattan, located at the triangle formed by Eighth Avenue, West Fourth Street, and West 13th Street.
A small memorial garden to gay rights activist and preservationist Reggie Fitzgerald sits across the street. The tribute is so humble and such an unexpected partner of the gas pumps that passersby may assume that the city has simply added new planters to a leftover corner. The third wedge of the intersection is Jackson Square, one of the oldest parks in New York.
At noon on a weekday there is a steady flow of yellow cabs, medium-sized vans moving film crews and furniture, and Uber vehicles lining up along Eighth Avenue towards the central pumps. Not long ago, the walls were covered with playful murals, but they have been painted over in burgundy. Drivers briefly stop in front of this temporarily clean canvas before navigating around a metal fence and rejoining the flow.
Later in the afternoon, the cadence of vehicles and customers shifts. Students enter the store to buy candy or drinks, and fewer cars stop by to refuel. The tiny, triangular store looks like a two-dimensional stage front where there will be nothing once you open the door. As the sun sets, the only worker at the station puts up metallic fences to divide the flow of cars and larger vans from the groups of pedestrians celebrating the night. The long linear shadows of the fences, a bit like prison bars painted on the pavement, continue the curves of the newly sprayed tags of the walls. The station’s owner, Athanasius Hondros, has made it clear in multiple interviews that he wants to be the “last gas man standing in New York,” like Simon of the Desert, balancing atop his pillar for decades. But will it last?
The rise of the start-up economy and decline of fuel stations in the 2010s brought new businesses promising to deliver fuel to a parking lot or your own home. Now, the gas station could be carried around on your phone and accessed whenever and wherever you needed it. This could have been the natural evolution of the typology: hidden in the small unused corners of the city, gas stations could become completely invisible. However, the model was not profitable. Initial costs were high, the margin of benefits was small and, unlike the brick-and-mortar stations that complement gas profits with convenience store purchases, the delivery system relied on the sale of fuel alone. Strict laws to prevent fuel spills and accidental fires added expensive safety measures. Drivers preferred the convenience and immediacy of the gas station. One of the first start-ups in the sector, Filld, disappeared, and the best-known, Booster, now delivers gas to large fleets of trucks and other commercial vehicles.
Gas stations will almost certainly not completely disappear, but their footprint will be transformed by the arrival of electric vehicles. Those early 20th century sidewalk pumps that materialized next to the grocery and hardware stores may reappear as electric chargers controlled from your phone and another layer in the infrastructural network grafted on congested sidewalks. Cashless and contact-free, the gas station will give way to a core of chargers where customers will either drop the car for one hour or park overnight.
Manhattan stations move farther and farther apart, and the streetscape where cars and pedestrians detached from the light industries that once fed it. The gas station’s formal incoherence defies the pursuit of cleanliness and control of public space. With their open floor plans, extended business hours, and varied services, gas stations fill functional and recreational needs of drivers and pedestrians alike. Combining a certain level of comfort and convenience, they provide the opportunity to be just idle. Losing the station means losing emissions, noise, even an uneven streetscape, but also a rebellious space. To remove a gas station is to extract a polluting piece of infrastructure and to displace daily routines and rituals of drivers and pedestrians alike.
All images by Laura del Pino and Sam Narisi
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.