For I will consider the New York Subway System
(For you English majors out there, this is based on Jubliate Agno: "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry" by Christopher Smart, circa 1760)
# The New York system has 26 lines and 468 stations.
# Average weekday ridership is more than 5 million passengers
The first underground section of the actual New York subway system went into operation 106 years ago today, on October 27, 1904. It’s a complicated history of several private, competing systems that eventually came together as a municipal system.
The first two were Brooklyn Rapid Tranist Company, or BRT which then became BMT, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, and Interborough Rapid Transit, the good old IRT, later joined in 1932 by the Independent Subway System, IND.
I am a fan of the system, just like Pacino’s Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate. I like to think that I help to balance out the evil that knows how to travel underground (although as we saw in that film’s denouement, pride is the gravest of the deadly sins.) There’s a great photo of Bing Crosby on the subway in the 1970s that I couldn’t find. He knew it was the fastest way around. And you aren’t beholden to a taxi driver or a car service driver. You have so much independence when you swipe through that turnstyle.
I marvel at the engineering that went into creating the system and celebrate all the men who made it happen. Which makes me think of the fabulous Claudette Colbert/Fred MacMurray film No Time for Love, where MacMurray is a sandhog, which is how tunnels are built, but since the film was 1943 he was probably building the Lincoln Tunnel, not a subway line.
I love that the system never closes, and was designed to never close. Which posed a problem on 9/11 when the authorities thought it should be shut down. Viva freedom of travel!
The New York Times is celebrating with a subway issue that shows some great vintage and contemproray photos (some shown here, including Mayor Bloomberg).
For I Will Consider the Stupid Side
Recent cutbacks have meant that many stations no longer have a human being in the token/metro card booth. For any station, this means that it decays rapidly: litter builds up quickly, and homeless people move in, with no outreach for better places to sleep.
For I Will Consider the 50th Station on the IRT, #1 Line
The downtown station is a veritable mecca for countless tourists staying in midtown hotels. That downtown station no longer has a human being. Each morning I see tourists trying to get to South Ferry/gateway to Ellis Island. They no longer have anyone to ask. I see them struggle with the Metrocard machines. I see them unfolding subway maps, trying to make sense of it all, as the rush-hours hoards throngs literally engulf them.
Across the way, on the uptown IRT 50th station, there is still someone in the token booth. Not so many tourists are trying to get to Columbia University.
WHO MAKES THESE DECISIONS? HOW STUPID IS THIS!!!
I travel a lot, and I don’t usually mind that the NY subway system is the least friendly IN THE WORLD. But not to have a person in a designated tourist hotspot like downtown 50th, when the signage is already unclear, is stupid and mean.
For I Will Consider the Poetic Side
The 2 best things about the subway in the last 10 years have been the art done in certain stations, and the Poetry in Motion graphics in the cars themselves.
There are 2 stations graphics that I love: the flying hats in the 23rd street BMT, a tribute to the days when the intersection of Broadway and 7th at 23rd street’s Flat Iron building and the wind that whipped around there lead to the expression “23 skiddo” (because lady’s skirts flew up); and a stylized memorial to soldiers of the 77th Division killed on October 3, 1918, Argonne Forest, France, by Pablo Turner in the Woodhaven Boulevard/Queens subway station as part of the MTA Subway Arts project (Lost Battalion Hall is on Queens Boulevard.)
Inside the subway car, I have been moved to tears by looking up at a Poetry in Motion card that has a snippet of poetry. At the end of a difficult day, it can really bring back some perspective: there is still art, and literature, and timeless feelings amid the frustrations of city life.