• Benji Sills

Times Square’s Mysterious Hum

Paige and I had heard tell of a mysterious hum that’s allegedly been droning underneath one of the world’s busiest intersections for decades, almost entirely unnoticed. Nothing is more intriguing than a hidden secret in a familiar spot and as we’d spent the afternoon unearthing a hidden cave in Central Park, we were in the mood for exploration. We arrived in Times Square after dark, when the plaza is lit by advertisements and you’re in the greatest danger of being hunted down by a bootleg Elmo. We had a map of the hum's theoretical location, but it was vague and we were clueless. We wandered back and forth between the clusters of pedestrian islands, ears perked for any signal. “I think that’s it?” I posited, referring obviously to a roaring AC unit.

After we’d successfully convinced ourselves that every sound in Times Square was probably the legendary hum, we gave up and went home. This was two years ago, long before we found ourselves unceremoniously dumped onto the set of I Am Legend. Post-coronavirus New York tells a different tale: the streets are so empty now that the sham CD salesmen are soon going to start peddling their merchandise to each other. Nobody is sitting on the corner trying to sell you a light-up charger or a caricature that won’t turn out nearly as good as the samples. The lights are all still on but they’re casting a glow on hardly anyone, save a few curious locals and the dismal Elmo, headpiece pushed back to reveal a lady in a gas mask. We figured that if we couldn’t find the hum now, in this vacant post-apocalyptic New York, then we couldn’t find it ever.

We wandered back into Times Square, snapping photos and marveling at the emptiness. This time we had specific instructions to visit the pedestrian island between 45th and 46th Streets to find the hum. The sound is not just the stuff of myth (like sewer alligators or rent-control) but rather is a purposeful art installation that has long droned in Times Square. Originally installed in 1977 by artist Max Neuhaus, the noise is caused by a machine that amplifies the resonance of the Square’s tunnel junction. For some reason, the grate atop the hum was sectioned off by cones and crowd control barriers on this visit. Whether to intentionally highlight the hum or to pointlessly redirect people, this barricade helped to make the hum much easier to spot this time.

Without the horns and chatter, the Square was eerily quiet and the hum could be heard as a veritable roar. We couldn’t believe we’d actually found it and slowly circled the grate, listening to the odd metallic twang thrum far below us. It sounded like a UFO’s engine turning over. We were thrilled to finally complete our age-old quest and discover the hum. It’s worth seeing: with New York City virtually devoid of life at the moment, it’s one of the few things out there that’s left to do. In this strange time of silence, it also may be the only moment in our lifetimes that the hum will be New York’s loudest voice.

The hum can be found on the pedestrian island between 45th and 46th Streets, under the grate.

It's open to the public and free to visit. If you're in New York now, there might never be a better time to see it again.

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