Saturday, November 21, 2009

The New York Transit Museum

Like most New Yorkers, I take the subway everyday and I take it for granted. Unless the train is running slowly, I never stop to think about how the subway runs, how it was built, or even how metrocard revenue is collected and counted. My visit to the New York Transit Museum today was informative and, more importantly, fun.

To enter the museum, visitors (appropriately) descend down the stairs of a decommissioned subway station at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street. A friendly staff members sells tickets from a historic ticket booth (I wish they still made them with beautifully varnished, turned wood bars). The museum's first gallery is a passage with a low burlap cloth ceiling, which evokes the feeling of being in an early, unfinished subway tunnel. The passage is papered in historic images that show the construction of the city's first subway. There's also great clips from newspapers of the day that feature quotes from workers who survived freak accidents, the city officials who celebrated the new initiative, and critics who lauded the city's technological advancement. And I was surprised to learn that the subway began as a private enterprise and was not a civic amenity until well into the 20th century.

One of my favorite displays in the museum illustrated the evolution of the subway's fare system, from paper tickets to tokens to today's metrocards. The best part were the examples of fake tokens that people had passed off as the real thing, including a quarter that someone had taken the pains to punch a "Y" out the middle of, just like a real token from the '70s. The board of fakes perfectly illustrated a conversation Sal and I had on our way to the museum. As he tells it, there was a coin in Costa Rica that was the exact size, shape, and weight as the MTA subway token. Illegal vendors on the street would sell a bag of the coins for a few dollars to fare evaders. Still, even the metrocard introduced in 1994 and fully phased in by 2004 experienced evasion kinks when it started. Someone discovered if you creased the magnetic strip just so, the computers in the turnstiles would think a valueless card still had enough value on it for a ride.

In the same gallery as the subway tokens are old station turnstiles. The first turnstiles had heavy wooden arms and were operated by an attendant who pushed a footlever which allowed a passenger to turn the arm and enter the station. It's a far cry from the sleek, polished stainless steel, computer operated turnstiles the MTA uses today. We even learned why the sides of the today's turnstile are slanted and the barred passage is so narrow. The slanted slides keep people from getting a purchase on top, so they can't jump over the arm. The narrow entrance dissuades people from crouching and going underneath the arm. Given that challenge and the opportunity (we wouldn't be arrested for fare evasion in the museum), we took turns sneaking through the turnstile. We also tested the other historic turnstyles and loved that the museum allowed us to interact with and touch the artifacts (after withstanding millions of people year after year, what's a few thousand more at the museum?).

The lowest level of the museum is the decommissioned station's platform, where 19 subway cars dating from 1904 to the present are lined up on the downtown and uptown tracks. Down the center of the platform are interpretative boards with detailed descriptions of the subway's evolution. Outside each subway car is a label telling the car's length of service and context of use. Interesting fact: subway cars were wooden until an accident shattered one and killed 93 people in 1918 After that cars were made of metal. Another interesting fact: subway revenue used to be collected at the stations at night and then taken by specially guarded subway cars on dedicated tracks to a carefully concealed money room in Brooklyn (since 2006, it's taken by armored car to Queens).

The subway cars are open and people are free to wander in and out, sit on the seats, and hang on the straps. In the cars, we spent a lot of time looking at the old maps--graphic design has come a long way--and the old advertisements, which have been around since the very beginning. As we were traveling back to Park Slope, we looked around at the ads in our car and realized that the ads have evolved a lot. There are fewer of them and they're longer and horizontally oriented. Even up until the 1970s, there were more and they were smaller, with a more vertical orientation. Our ads push services , sell tourist experiences, or are sponsored by the MTA to make you feel good about the transit authority. The historic ads sold goods.

I really can't gush about the museum enough (I'm just going to ignore the exhibit on Robert Moses, which I thought had confusing explanations and illustrations of the Triborough Bridge) because I left so energized. I love when I go to a museum and it dynamically teaches me about a segment of the world I interact with everyday. I love that the museum allowed me to explore and touch the artifacts. I liked that my experience interacting with the museum objects was informed by and now informs how I relate to my everyday environment.

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