5 Things You Didn't Know About the NYC Subway (not relating to that mysterious smell)

filed under:
Image credit: 

by Tess Baldwin, Hunter College

Ah, public transportation. In the wake of skyrocketing oil prices, it has become a welcome alternative for people across the world. New York City's subway system registers as one of the largest and most complex. However, we all have heard horror stories of the underground world. Thefts, incredible crushes during rush hours, leaky roofs, train cars without air conditioning... the list can go on forever. But rest assured, the NYC subway system has tricks up its winding, extensive sleeve, tricks that can make even the most hardened commuters, sweaty, tired and just a bit uncomfortable from the person across the train staring at them, appreciate the uniqueness of the subway.

1. Connecticut Turnpike Connection

tokenOne of the lasting public images of the New York Subway is it's icon token. The tokens were first introduced in 1953. The tokens were adopted due to the fare increase to fifteen cents (the fare had remained at five cents for 44 years, almost bankrupting the subway system in the progress); the fare collection machines at the time couldn't handle both a nickel and a dime. However, people were determined to avoid paying the fare. Tokens were also used for turnpikes, and it just so happened that their tokens from the 1980s fit perfectly, and fooled the fare machines. It is thought that this error occurred because the Connecticut Turnpike tokens and the New York Subway tokens were made by the same manufacturer. This virtual "token war" continued for a few years, until Connecticut took out their tolls. The subway system phased out tokens in 2003.

2. Manhattan to Manhattan

One of the oddest things about the system can be seen when you are riding the 1 train, which goes from the southernmost tip of Manhattan to near the end of The Bronx. In its journey, it goes over the Harlem River, but here is where one of New York's greatest idiosyncrasies can be seen: this connection features the only place in New York where you can travel from a Manhattan station over a bridge and water to another Manhattan station. The station on the mainland is on ground that was once part of Manhattan. In the early 20th Century, a ship canal was built, leaving this area an island, surrounded by the river and the ship canal. When the river was filled in, the area became a part of the mainland and, as one would believe, The Bronx. However, the residents campaigned to remain under Manhattan's jurisdiction, and this area is today considered politically Manhattan. The next stop on the northbound train, six blocks away, is contained in The Bronx.

3. Media! Media!

miss_subways1.jpg

The original architects of the subway loathed advertising and countless people have had much to say on the subject in the hundred-plus years since. Advertising is seen in every station and is featured in the cars. However, the subway system has been represented in all types of media, from "Take the A Train" and the famous "Subway Series", to backgrounds on Sesame Street and, most recently, influencing the new Grand Theft Auto game. In can be argued that almost any movie taking place in New York will involve the subway in some way - it is that much a part of the lifeline of New York City. If a movie is being filmed, crews usually use an abandoned station (of which there are many to choose from in the system). The famous Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3 is currently being remade and features stars such as Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini. A popular staple in train cars for 30 years were the Miss Subways, women who graced placards with their images as a form of advertising. Interestingly, the program featured women of all backgrounds, artfully reflecting the diversity of the city from the 1940s to the 1970s. The new incarnation, Ms. Subways, coincided with the centennial of the subway in 2004, although it only lasted one year.

4. Right out of 1904

There are 468 stations in the system, but several more have slipped beneath the radar, glimpsed only through the windows of a passing train or by noting grates, tiles or columns that could indicate where a station used to be. Several stations have abandoned platforms or areas, which are there for all to see. The subway, which was once comprised of three separate systems, features a few relics of the past for each system. People often wonder about the ghost stations, and why they were abandoned. Some, such as the once-heralded "crown jewel" of the original system, the City Hall Station, were closed because of low passenger volume, while others were closed because of close proximity to other stations (usually due to platform lengthening when longer train cars were needed). There are a few that are just mysteries, such as the lower level of the 42nd St. Station, shrouded in speculation. Few people have seen an abandoned station up close, but they, like any other forbidden entity, draw attention nonetheless.

5. Art Cards

ALICE2.jpg

To an untrained eye, the subway stations themselves are just places to wait for the train, but they are awash with art and, often, music. There are many unique stations within the system. Many stations feature art from well-known artists, thanks to the Arts for Transit program that helps make the commute more colorful. In the system, you can find flowers, birds, fossils, eyes and even Alice in Wonderland. There are also posters from this program in the subway cars, appropriately known as art cards. In addition, many of the original stations feature beautiful tiling and plaques, put in place so that the stations would be light and airy and would encourage people to travel underground and relieve surface traffic. The Arts for Transit program also sponsors a music program, which features some really talented musicians who make the subway a more pleasant place to be.

June 7, 2008 - 6:14am
webby
submit to reddit