Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jubilate Subtervia: Happy 106th

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.





5 comments:

dorki said...

Subways and the like are quite interesting are they not? My limited experience with the subterranean passages of cities larger and in colder climates than mine have been enlightening. The subways of NYC, Washington, and London are very different but effective (mostly). The underground "sidewalks" and shopping centers are a very sensible solution to the winters of Minneapolis and Toronto.

As you mentioned, almost all of these have unique touches of art. It is a hopeful sign that someone in these cities has a given some thought about the human spirit.

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, I'm glad you've been on subways--everyone should have the experience of flying underground.

One time I was on my uptown #1 train at 34th street. As we were pulling out, the #2 express was pulling out, and a #3 downtown was coming in, and you can see all this in parallel.

There was a midWestern family visiting, and when the father saw this--that you can really see individuals on those other parallel trains--he said "it's like something out of Hitchcock" and that was a great description.

Jean M Bsquared said...

Are you seeing any connections between all this and the Hymn to Saint Cecilia (By Benjy Brittain who was not down on his knees, I don't think) Considered Smart enough to use his words at any rate and might have used the tube.

Boston's subways cannot touch any of the ones you mentioned, btw

M.A.Peel said...

Hi BSquared. I've never been on the Tube, but the idea of "red line" "blue line" does seem a little theme park.

Britten's setting of Smart is Rejoice in the Lamb (which I've never heard). The Hymn to St. Cecilia is based on Auden. I've never heard that either.

So basically, I don't know anything that you're talking about (just like high school :)

Jean M Bsquared said...

Apparently, I didn't know what I was talking about, I did mean Rejoice in the Lamb and have sung both, but being an alto, and not even a soloist, who cares about us in the back row and lower rungs of the staff anyway. It's a wonder I remember anything I have sung. Maybe I should stop trying to sound smart and Get Smart, but that would make you 99, then, right?

The Boston subway is just called the T, which hardly suits it.