Archive for Subway History

A Q train, tagged. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

While waiting for a Manhattan-bound Q train this Saturday, a rare sight crossed the tracks on the opposite side. The Coney Island-bound train that pulled into 7th Ave. had been tagged. Twenty five years ago, a train with some graffiti on it wouldn’t have been newsworthy, but since a late 1980s/early 1990s effort to clean up the subway, trains on the tracks with tags are a rare sight indeed.

As I pondered this train that passed through, I thought back to the trains of my childhood. While the worst of the tagging and the days in which the authorities seemed to cede the subways to graffiti came before my earliest memories, I remember the colorful trains that served as canvases for prominent street artists and troublemaking hooligans alike. As a young child, I was captivated by the colors, but even then, I sensed it was part of the image of the subways that made them seem dangerous.

The war on graffiti though started when I was approaching my second birthday. The tipping point seemed to come on December 22, 1984 when Bernard Goetz shot a group of teenagers on the subway. Transit authority officials, who had long recognized the need to improve the public perception of the subways, had recently launched an aggressive campaign to clean up the subways, but the Goetz shooting, for better or worse, seemed to spur the city into action. At the time of the incident, approximately 80 percent of subway cars featured some graffiti inside the cars, and the outsides were still widely used as blank slates for the city’s spray painters.

Three years later, the tide had seemingly turned. A Straphangers report issued in 1987 found the TA inching toward a fleet with 75 percent of cars free of markings. The original car wash efforts were plagued with scandal, but by May of 1988, the MTA could proclaim a year-end target for a graffiti-free system.

A memento I picked up at a street fair in the late 1980s is a relic of another era. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

By the middle of 1989, the MTA commemorated a graffiti-free system, and since then, graffiti has been more of a curiosity than a problem. Throughout the 1990s, The Times, for one, continued to proclaim the return of graffiti (1991, 1996, 1999), but the transit authority remained aggressive in combatting the problem. Whenever a car was reported bombed or tagged, the TA would take it over service for a rigorous cleaning, and the graffiti would infrequently roll down the tracks.

By the mid-2000s, a new form of vandalism had taken root: scratchiti. Instead of spray paint, taggers were using etching tools and acid to mar windows and stainless steel surfaces. Since then, though, treatment — including scratch-resistant window shields — has minimized the problem. Nowadays, the cars are free from graffiti, and we remember a different era through full-color photos and coffee table books.

Graffiti and its glory days still strikes our imagination though. A post I wrote in 2009 discussion the debate over graffiti’s value as art vs. the act vandalism remains one of the highest-trafficked posts on the site, and a significant portion of the commentary on the history of graffiti has taken pains to make a distinction between the art of the late 1970s and the tagging for tagging’s sake that grew in popularity in the early 1980s. It’s also been a tough balancing act, but city officials have rightly refused to sanction graffiti in any form now or over the past three or four decades. Today, graffiti on subway cars and sanitation trucks is more a sign of a bygone era than anything else, and spying a tagged car on the tracks is nearly newsworthy in a way a clean car was twenty-five years ago.

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Video: Dirty Old New York Subway

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Via Ned Merrill’s Obscure One-Sheet comes a 15-minute video of old movie clips from the subway that’s sure to captivate fans of New York City history and, of course, the subway system. Make a game of it and see how many movies (or subway stations) you can name as the images flicker by.

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The Nostalgia Train will ferry straphangers from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium tonight. (Photo via MTA)

As the Yankees gear up to take on the Orioles in the Bronx tonight for Game 3 of the American League Division Series, the MTA is rolling out its annual Nostalgia Train rides up to Yankee Stadium. A four-car special will depart Grand Central on the IRT express tracks and provide non-stop service up to 161st St.-Yankee Stadium. Tonight and tomorrow, the trains leave at 6:30 p.m., and on Friday, if the game is necessary, the ride departs from 42nd St. at 4 p.m.

“Taking mass transit to the game is the smart way to travel but the “Nostalgia Special” makes the ride smart and special,” Carmen Bianco, Senior Vice President of Subways for NYC Transit, said. “Yankee fans rode these cars to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and they are in operation once again for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.”

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Most straphangers likely have no idea what this green globe outside of the new Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center entrance really means. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

As I took a walk around the outside of the new Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center subway entrance on Monday afternoon, I chuckled to myself when I spotted a free-standing pole with a green globe on top of it. The subway globe strikes me as an iconic part of the subway system, albeit one that isn’t very old, and the globes themselves are supposed to broadcast a message to the public. These days, based on emails and Twitter comments I’ve received, no one really knows what they mean.

I’ve always associated the globes with the subway system and for good reason. Once upon a time, the globes were simply white with the word “subway” written through them. The color system in place today with red and green globes made their New York City debuts, so to speak, at around the same time I did. The MTA installed the globes in 1982, about a year before I arrived on the scene, and they were introduced as a safety measure.

One of Randy Kennedy’s classic Tunnel Vision columns from 2002 explores the history behind the globes, complete with a vintage Motel 6 reference:

The globes are always the first interaction that riders have with the system, sometimes a block or more before they even enter it. The globes are supposed to serve as a kind of beacon, announcing that the system is intelligible, that people are in charge down there, and that they have, in the comforting words of Tom Bodett, left a light on for you…

in the early 1980’s, mostly to try to prevent muggings, transit officials started a color-code system to warn riders away from entrances that were closed at night. The original idea was to follow the three-color stoplight scheme: green meant that a station had a token booth that never closed; yellow meant a part-time token booth (but in some places, with a token, you could still get in through a full-body turnstile); and red meant an entrance with no booth and no way to get in (though you might be able to get out, through one-way full-body turnstiles).

As the number of words in that description indicates, however, this system was much, much more complicated than go, slow down, stop. So the yellow lights were discontinued a decade ago to simplify things, transit officials said, meaning that the red lights would serve the yellow lights’ purpose, as well as the purpose that the red light used to serve. But then the MetroCard was introduced in 1994, meaning that many entrances that had been exit-only were equipped with full-body card-entrance turnstiles. And then, responding to concerns that the colored lights did not give off enough light, transit officials several years ago began installing what they call “half-moons” when station entrances were rebuilt. These are globes that have a colored top half and a milky white bottom.

I reached out to the MTA for their official take on the globes today, a decade after Kennedy re-introduced New York to this convoluted history, and even now, the meaning is malleable. A Transit spokesman told me that green globes indicate entry and exit 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a Metrocard, and that red globes indicate exit only. There are, he said, very few station entrances remaining with those red globes.

This subway globe in Times Square indicates an unstaffed entrance open only 18 hours a day. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

A simple survey of my daily commute, though, reveals a different meaning. The globe in the photo above sits atop the staircase that leads from the end of the Shuttle platform to the sidewalk outside the police station on 43rd St. and Broadway. This station has two iron maiden entrances, but it is unstaffed and open only from 6 a.m. to midnight. The red globe seems to indicate that no one is downstairs and the station closes — or at least that’s my interpretation.

Around the city, other red globes do indeed indicate exit-only areas, but some also seem to signal a part-time entrance. With fewer station agents, perhaps the MTA should reconsider the use of colors and associate red with a shuttered booth for those among us concerned with personal safety. For now, though, these colored lights seem almost vestigial, a reminder of a time when New Yorkers are far more worried about heading underground and encountering the wrong person or no one at all.

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Some short history tonight as I’m not feeling 100 percent: Penn Station, the original version, has been in the news lately as last week marked the 50th anniversary of the march to save the station. As David Dunlap detailed in The Times last week, the upper crust of Manhattan along with city historians marched, albeit futilely, against the plan to demolish Penn Station. While they failed in their efforts, many credit the Penn Station movement with saving Grand Central a few years later. New York would not wipe two historic train stations from its streets in as many years.

Today, we mourn the loss of Penn Station as an architectural calamity. After all, the current iteration is an eyesore underneath an arena. But the old version suffered from a capacity too small to meet the demand. Ultimately, something had to give, and out of its destruction arose the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, both a barrier to urban growth and a nod to the city’s history. Whether that’s a net positive is heavily debated today.

Meanwhile, bits of Penn Station, as Jim O’Grady discovered earlier this week, survive. Entryways, design elements and staircases survived the destruction, and one day, if the money shows up Moynihan Station could become the city’s next grand train depot, welcoming visitors in a more regal manner than today’s Penn Station does. The city sure does spend a lot of time living down the legacy and fighting for the future of train stations that often seem to prioritize aesthetics over functionality.

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As the dog days of summer dawn upon us, the subways are often viewed as the city’s oven, and newsstand operators store candies in the fridge. By and large, though, the subway cars are a cool reprieve from sweltering platforms. While newer rolling stock models have some AC quirks — it’s generally much cooler in the middle of the cars than it is at the ends underneath the air conditioner units — outside of the rare AC malfunction, the trains are kept temperate.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the subways, ceiling fans shuffling around stifling air were the norms. While platforms weren’t as heated by AC exhaust as they are today, traveling underground in the summer was never a pleasant experience. A few years ago, I looked at the history of A.C. in the subway, and today, I want to revisit that post. After a weekend of hot and humid days, the air conditioned train car is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

The R-17, shown here in operation as the Shuttle in 1982, was the first subway car outfitted with air condition. (Photo via Steve Zabel at

Over the weekend, as sticky weather and temperatures in the 90s descended upon the city, I enjoyed relatively good subway luck. I didn’t have to wait too long for most of my trains, but I found myself with a few minutes to kill at both 161st St. and West 4th St. on Saturday. The heat was oppressive, and while summer in the city is my favorite season, the subways are utterly unbearable.

The worst part of riding around New York City in the summer are the underground waits. With train cars spewing heat from industrial-strength air conditioners, the stations themselves see temperatures soar beyond tolerable levels. The stagnant air induces sweat at hours of the morning far too early for that kind of heat, and only the blessed air conditioning of the train cars makes a commute tolerable.

These days, we take our air conditioned subway cars for granted, but it wasn’t always like that. The MTA undertook its current air conditioning efforts in 1967, and the thought of a summer ride without AC lives on only in the memories of long-time New Yorkers. So as we sit on the cusp of summer and Transit turns on the AC, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine to a time when the New York City Transit Authority just couldn’t quite get air conditioning right.

Our journey begins in September of 1955, an odd time to test air conditioning as the heat is already dissipating by then. On a day that saw the outside temperature hit just 62 degrees, NYCTA ran a successful test of its first air conditioned subway car, an retrofitted R-15 car. As station temperatures hit 81 degrees and the mercury outside climbed to 87.5 in un-air conditioned cars, the test car saw temperatures fluctuate between 68 and 73 degrees. The authority proclaimed this one-day test a success, and plans to outfit the entire subway fleet at a cost of $700 per car were drawn up.

This optimism was short-lived. A year later, the NYCTA unveiled another test run of the air conditioned cars. Six R-17 cars equipped with loud speakers, air conditioned and in-route music provided, of course, by Muzak, made headlines as Transit officials again extolled the virtues of air conditioning. At the time, Transit planned to test these cars along various IRT routes but ran into early troubles.

The authority tried to test it on the Shuttle route, but the short trip did not provide for ample testing time. “The run between Times Square and Grand Central takes one minute,” wrote The Times, “apparently too brief a time to cool the hot subway air taken in during the stops of one and one-half to two minutes at the shuttle terminals.” Passengers complained as well of stale air and high humidity.

By 1962, the promise of air conditioning had failed to materialize, and the NYCTA declared the $300,000 experiment a failure. Even after the successful test runs, Transit found humidity levels well beyond acceptable. “As humidity built up and breathing became difficult,” The Times said in 1962, “passengers fled to the fan-ventilated cars…To add to passenger discomfort the cool air was dissipated when doors opened at stations, while the humidity remained unchanged.” While PATH announced air conditioning, NYCTA was left searching for solutions.

Five years later, the city struck air conditioning gold. After tinkering with the technology, Transit found a costly solution, and early test runs were again successful. This time, the humidity levels were kept in check, and railfans began to stalk the air conditioned cars, riding them along the F line from terminal to terminal to bask in the cool air. With a grant from the government and $15 million from the city, Transit finally promised to outfit its rolling stock with AC.

Even still, the going went slowly. By August of 1970, finding an air conditioned car was likened to finding a needle in a hay stack, and a 1973 proposal called for full air condition only by 1980. Throughout the 1980s, those struggles continued. At various points in the decade, air conditioning either didn’t work or was on the verge of breaking down. In 1983, while Transit officials alleged that 50 percent of cars were air conditioned, one rider found himself with AC during only 20 percent of his trips.

Today, with new rolling stock and a better maintenance program in place, the subways are blissfully air conditioned, a haven from the heat outside and in the station. I’m too young to remember those days of un-air conditioned trains, but I have vague recollections from the mid-to-late 1980s of stiflingly hot rides in graffiti-covered cars. Even if the new rolling stock can seem somewhat sterile at times, I’ll take that air conditioned as the mercury rises and summer settles in to stay for a few more months.

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Yesterday afternoon, in my post on foolish track-jumpers at 9th Avenue, I mentioned the abandoned lower level platform. Hidden at the bottom of some casually roped-off staircases, the lower level platform at 9th Avenue has sat unused for nearly forty years and is a testament to another age. This piece from the archives originally ran back in August of 2010, and I thought now would be a good time to revisit it. It’s way more fun to ponder the lost corners of the subway system than it is to risk life and limb for a pointless YouTube video so without further ado, some history on the Culver Shuttle, the train that once used that abandoned platform.

The 1964 subway map shows the Culver shuttle's connecting the 4th Avenue lines with the 6th Avenue lines well north of Coney Island.

Over on Subchat this morning, Newkirk Images posted a photo of the now-abandoned lower level of the 9th Ave. station in Brooklyn. Sitting in the center of the photo is a two-car train that has largely been lost to the history of the New York City subway system. That trainset is the Culver Shuttle.

The Culver Shuttle, as Joseph Brennan details at his Abandoned Stations site, had its origins in the late 19th Century steam-powered railroads that would take vacationing New Yorkers to the seaside resorts at Coney Island. With various elevated lines providing access throughout Brooklyn, the immediate history of the shuttle, says, Brennan is “fairly complex.” He writes:

Up to 1931, 5 Ave El trains provided all the service, and 9 Ave must have been busy with Culver passengers changing to the West End subway trains for a faster ride and access to many more places. The wooden el trains were slow and ran no farther than the end of the Brooklyn Bridge at Park Row, Manhattan.

When the Nassau St loop in lower Manhattan finally opened in 1931, the BMT began operating a mixture of subway and el services to the Culver line. Subway service ran Monday to Saturday, to Kings Highway in rush hours and summer Saturdays, and to Coney Island midday and other Saturdays. El service went to Coney Island rush hours, nights, summer Saturdays, and all Sundays, and otherwise ended at 9 Ave station. Is that clear? The BMT didn’t have enough subway cars for full service, so at rush hours and summers, the el had to pick up the service to the end of the line, so the subway trains could shortline. 9 Ave lower level saw its peak train service in these years, with both el and subway trains, and el trains reversing in the middle track during some hours…

The Transit Authority fulfilled a longstanding Board of Transportation plan in October 1954 when the IND subway was connected to the Culver line at Ditmas Ave station and took over all service to Culver stations beyond that point. BMT Culver service from a single track terminal at Ditmas Ave continued as before on weekdays, but nights and weekends it was a shuttle to 36 St. Ridership dropped, and in May 1959, it was made a shuttle full time, between Ditmas Ave and 9 Ave only.

As the subway system decayed throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Culver Shuttle keep chugging along. It ran the BMT standard subway cars up through the early 1970s, and Brennan notes how the way Transit didn’t maintain this little-used station echoed the collapse of the system as a well. “The dark, deteriorating lower level at 9 Ave, and the partly dismantled elevated line gave it a mood of decay,” he writes. “There was just one track, the center at 9 Ave and the west side on the el, and one train operated all the service. The end was obviously in sight, but it somehow hung on until 1975.”

That year — 1975 — saw the demise of the Culver Shuttle amidst the now-familiar refrain of budgetary problems. Only 1000 people a day used the shuttle, and most of those were making the round trip to and from work. The MTA estimated it would cost $1 million it didn’t have to rehabilitate the elevated structure, and the shuttle, which once ran into Manhattan via the 4th Ave. line and Nassau St. loop, would be shuttered instead, with residents offered a free bus transfer as a replacement service.

The abandoned 9th Ave. platform as seen in 2002. Photo via NYC Subway.

These days, not much remains to remind New Yorkers of the Culver Shuttle. A sealed staircase leads to an abandoned platform, and the platform itself is in terrible shape. The rails too are but a memory as they were demolished in 1984. The rights of way between 9th Ave. and Ditmas Ave. have generally long since been sold to private developers, and houses in Brooklyn now mark the tracks of the old Culver Shuttle. Today, only stub tracks remain, a remnant of this rich history of rail travel in Brooklyn.

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A Library of Congress print shows the Atlantic Ave. connection between the subway and elevated.

While browsing through over the weekend, I came across a few photos of the Atlantic Ave. headhouse. The one above, along with this postcard, show the headhouse as it was when the elevated trains still ran up and down Flatbush Ave. The building today is symbolic, but it once served a purpose.

As I leafed through the pages of photos, I saw the headhouse evolve over time. The elevated trains came down, and the subway systems were unified. The Atlantic Ave. headhouse became a relic amidst busy streets, unused and falling into a state of disrepair. A photo from 1997 shows the headhouse at its worst.

At some point, Arts for Transit took over the building, and today, it sits majestically and silently in the middle of the triangle formed by Flatbush, Fourth and Atlantic Aves. A 2008 photo shows the restored headhouse, and its Arts for Transit page discusses how the headhouse now serves as an artistic skylight for those folks waiting on the Brooklyn-bound local IRT tracks.

The photos made me ponder the changes in our system. Once we had elevateds; now we by and large do not. Where will we be in another 100 years? What infrastructure will still be used? What will be gone? What new things will take its place? The city’s transportation landscape must be ever-changing to keep up with demand, but sometimes, it seems stuck in time.

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The New York Post had one of the more infuriatingly tantalizing two-paragraph articles you’ll ever see about the subway today. The story is here, and this is the entire thing:

Every hipster’s favorite subway line — the perennially packed L train — was almost completely shuttered 25 years ago because barely anyone was using it, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota revealed yesterday.

Now that line — serving once- desolate but now trendy Williamsburg — is one of the fastest-growing in the system.

With a nary a hint of history, The Post drops a bombshell. The MTA may have considered eliminating the L during its nadir. Could it be true? Would the authority sever a cross-borough connection that now is packed morning, noon and night, seven days a week? Some brief Google searches didn’t turn up any history, and this story piqued my interest.

I initially reached out to the MTA for initial comment, and while they’re working on it, they didn’t seem optimistic that too much would turn up. I queried SubChat as well, and those responses were equally as vague. One SubChatter noted a rumor that the TA may have considered shutting down the G, and another noted that a proposal to shutter the L could have been a part of the so-called “planned shrinkage” movement from the late 1970s when the city was literally burning down.

But what of The Post’s claims themselves? One SubChatter disputed the notion that the L was “barely used” and recalled the era of the 1980s when the train was full during rush hour commutes. Perhaps the J/M trains were to be axed instead? Another though remembered a time in the 1960s when the BMT Canarsie line was not a popular route.

There is, it seems, some truth to the fact that the L was not a popular line for a while. Mike Frumin, who used historic ridership data to chart station popularity, noted in 2009 how L train traffic tanked for decades and only recently has enjoyed a relatively strong upswing. At its low point in the late 1970s, only 1.2 million annually — or around 3000 per day — used the Bedford Ave. stop. That figure spiked to nearly 7 million in 2010 with average weekday ridership up to 21,000.

All told, considering the financial and ridership problems that plagued the MTA as well as the social and political situations in New York City at the time, it makes sense that the authority could have considered shutting subway lines. That was, after all, the time of the infamous Ford to City: Drop Dead Daily News cover. Still, without the L train or the J/M/Z or even the G train, areas in Queens and Northern Brooklyn that are enjoying growth today would be entirely lost. Shutting full subway arteries isn’t something that should be considered as an option, no matter how bad a temporary financial situation lasts.

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Photo: Enrico Natali’s Subway

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When the Nostalgia Train ran last month, straphangers itching to experience or relive riding on trains from another era had the chance to do so. It wasn’t quite the same as being there though as the cars, as they’re usually kept on display, have a decidedly museum-y feel to them. Yet, the novelty never wears off.

For a different kind of glimpse back into the city’s history, we have Enrico Natali. In 1960, the photographer would surreptitiously capture scenes from the New York City subway. Today, we do the same with cell phone cameras and digital devices, but Natali used a Yashica. Starting this weekend, his photos will be on display in California, a far ride from New York, but luckily for the Internet, we can view them from the comfort of our own computers.

The Daily Mail has a bunch of shots and a small article about Natali, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography has a page of 28 Natali photos. My favorite is this capture of 51st Street. The missing tiles on the wall are evocative of stations that today are in need of repair. After 52 years, some things never change.

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