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Miss Subways, Facebook

Here She Is, Miss Subways: Meet the Former Pageant Queens of NYC Transit

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Miss Subways, Facebook

Riding the subway was an entirely different experience 75 years ago—and not just because the cars weren’t air-conditioned. From 1941 to 1976, commuters rode in the company of esteemed pageant winners known "Miss Subways."

The Miss Subways contest was sponsored by the New York Subways Advertising company. Every few months or so, a new woman was crowned and photographed by the John Robert Powers modeling agency. Posters with the reigning winner's image would then be plastered on subway cars and buses, along with a short description to be seen by every public transit rider in the city.

Thelma Porter, a Miss Subways in 1948. Via Facebook

In order to qualify for the Miss Subways crown, candidates needed to meet two basic requirements: They had to live in New York City and regularly use the subway. The more nitty-gritty rules stipulated that a participant also had to be between 14 and 30 years old, and couldn’t be a professional model or actress. Still, that didn't mean they didn't have A-list charisma. As Peggy Byrne, one of the 1952 Miss Subways, told Radio Diaries, "When you looked at Miss Subways, you were looking at a star, no question about it."

Initially, John Robert Powers himself picked the winners, but in later years contestants’ photos were posted in the subway cars and commuters could vote by postcard (and later telephone) for the next winner. Once elected, Miss Subways represented the city at various functions. In this 1962 photo, for example, selectee Sally Pishney fulfilled her duties by accompanying representatives of a Japanese traffic survey during a tour. Such was the life of a NYC transit poster girl.

Despite the more problematic aspects inherent to any beauty contest, Miss Subways could be a force for good. In 1948, Thelma Porter was chosen as the first African-American Miss Subways, a whole 36 years before Vanessa Williams would be crowned the first black Miss America.

Miss Subways, Facebook

Photographer Fiona Gardner (who, along with journalist Amy Zimmer, collected the winners’ stories in a book called Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-76) told the Associated Press in 2012: "It was the first integrated and ethnically diverse beauty contest in America. I realized I had stumbled on a piece of forgotten New York history."

What Miss Subways did share with Miss America was a certain element of sexism. The poster for the Miss Subways of July 1946, for example, proclaimed that Enid Berkowitz "was plugging for [a] B.A., but would settle for an M.R.S."

Many took that Bachelor's degree and went even further. The campaign produced more than 200 Miss Subways in its run, and the winners went on to accomplish a wide variety of notable career achievements—from law degrees to positions in the CIA.

Miss Subways, Facebook 

While not all stayed famous beyond their 15 minutes as Miss Subways, some women did end up in Tinseltown. The very first Miss Subways, Mona Freeman, was discovered and signed by Howard Hughes. She went on to star in movies like Till We Meet Again, Black Beauty, Angel Face, and Jumping Jacks (with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis). The contest itself also got some screen treatment (of sorts): It was immortalized in Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 Broadway musical, On the Town, which featured a character who was the current Miss Turnstiles.

"Miss Subways is a little-known gem of New York history," Gardner told DNA Info. "And the women chosen are incredibly inspiring and have lived full and successful lives."

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science
Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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Pop Culture
Look Back at 50 Years of New York Cinema Packed Into 4 Minutes
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United Artists

Times Square, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty—these New York City landmarks are recognizable to people around the world, thanks in part to cinema.

According to Gothamist, film editor Sergio Rojo compiled clips from 70 films that span 56 years in order to make this epic supercut of New York City’s big screen appearances. Scenes from over 100 movies are filmed in the city in a year alone, so this doesn't come clost to covering New York’s entire filmography. But the films most famously associated with the setting—like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Manhattan (1979), and Ghostbusters (1984)—are represented.

You can find the full list of featured titles on the video’s Vimeo page.

[h/t Gothamist]

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