Friday, January 29, 2010

Past The Tipping Point

This post is from seven months ago, and I just never got around to finishing it. Warts and all, here it is.


Today: the New York Transit Museum. It's New York City, transportation-related things, and nostalgia--all melded into one; a convergence of themes that threatens to turn me into a quivering pudding of rapture. (Once again, I'm without very good pictures. I've been here before, and didn't remember it being something I ought to be photographing.)

Located in the abandoned Court St. station at Schermerhorn St. and Boerum Place in Brooklyn, the Transit Museum is entered (appropriately) by an inconspicuous stairwell, marked only by a couple lighted subway station balls and a banner on the side of the building that sits on top of the station. The museum uses the whole station, taking up two levels--both underground. There is a large area of displays and a book / gift shop and little cafeteria below street level, and the tracks are on the level below this. The layout of the station is that of the familiar subway stop: two tracks with a platform in the middle, and the whole length of the station is filled with display cars on both tracks. The collection includes subway cars from most eras, plus odds and ends (an electric train motor, a display signal room, a maintenance locomotive, etc.).

The displays are quite thorough, talking in some detail about what was involved in digging the tunnels. Much of the New York subway runs just below the city streets, which is typical of many cities. This kind of construction is called "cut-and-cover," and involves removing the street surface and excavating down a couple stories, putting in the tracks, and covering everything back over. This seems like it should be fairly straightforward compared, say, to London, where the tunnels are deep below the surface. But the displays make clear that there is no straightforward way of tunneling beneath a functioning metropolis. With cut-and-cover, buildings had to be shored up at the surface and underpinned below ground, and all the utilities had first to be located and then either moved or temporarily suspended for later re-burial. The pictures are mind-boggling. Much of the actual digging took place with shovels and pickaxes. And that's without getting into the challenges--for a long time insurmountable--of putting the tunnels beneath the soft riverbeds. (A great history of the whole project, plus fabulous photos showing the seeming-chaos and impossibility of the task, is available at the Gutenberg Project here.)

(An aside I'm sure I mentioned in my posts from London a couple summers ago: because London was a medieval city, none of the streets ran in a straight line. When they built the first subway lines, this absence of a street grid made cut-and-cover difficult, not least because the resulting train line would have snaked around horribly. But they nonetheless tried this method for their first line in the early-1860s, and found the disruption to the bustling of the city so intrusive that Parliament forbid any further cut-and-cover operations for subway construction. Once deeper tunneling was thus dictated, it was found that softer clay--much easier for tunneling than rock--was located just a bit further down, and voilá!; London's deep tunnel system. I still remember being shocked as I descended the Westminster tube station: I bet we descended 10 or more stories below ground level. I felt like a miner. Albeit one who rides an escalator to work.)

Everything about the NY subway and its construction just intrigues the shit out of me: that it's transportation-related (I have a fetish, I guess); the railroad essence of it; the fact that it's underground; the fact that it's the most extensive such system in the world, serving a huge and dense population. And the icing on the nostalgia cake is that the museum exists in a bona fide station which has been abandoned (yet remains connected to the functioning subway system; warnings in the museum caution us that the third power rail beneath the display cars is active in the station. There's even a working train board--an actual artifact from the operational period of the station, not a facsimile display--that shows, with colored lights, the locations and movements of other subway trains in the area).

There are lots of elements of the subway system, tunnels and stations, which were once part of the active system and which are now no longer used (I remember years ago riding up front on a train and seeing out the front window many tracks peel off and disappear into the darkness). Several displays in the museum feature the City Hall station, mostly because it was one of the most opulent and beautifully-decorated of all the subway stations. The station still exists below City Hall--and trains still run on the tracks--but, the displays say matter-of-factly, it is "no longer used." I just have a pronounced soft spot for this subject matter.

As I looked into this a bit further, I of course found a bunch of web resources on the subject--particularly, Forgotten NY and (In fact, the amount of information is so overwhelming that I can't seem to finish writing this post; I've been trying to write the same two pages now for a week, but I keep getting sucked into the information vortex.) Naturally, what produces in me a nostalgic ache spurs other people to action, and my favorite site here is from a fella named Joseph Brennan from Columbia University. He has a much more serious fetish about the NY subway than I do, and a considerably more-developed work ethic as well. In addition to his myriad other sites (his interests cut a REALLY broad swath), he has a site dedicated entirely to the abandoned stations of the New York City subway system. Not content to just list them, he includes an operational history of each station, plus diagrams of its location and from the original construction, plus, where available, present-day views. Absolutely fan-freakin'-tastic!

(He also has a long-term work-in-progress diagram of the NYC subway system on his site, a map which ties into a book I recently bought about subway diagrams of the world. More on this in a later post, but even the story of Mr. Brennan's diagram is interesting.)

This isn't a museum for everybody--my wife was profoundly grateful that she had something else going on and didn't have to accompany me--but it's a must-see for anyone with a yen for this stuff.


Dzesika said...

There's a whole disused-London-Underground-station subculture, too, and I remember being very sad I didn't find out about it until after the Tube bombings, so there wasn't any way to ever see any of the dead stations, ever. Still, Google it. Fascinating.

I forget - did you get to go to the London Transport Museum or was it still shut for renovation?

wunelle said...

I did make my way over to Covent Garden to the museum, but alas it was closed. I talked to a bloke there who had answers to my tube-related questions, and I bought a book on history of the Underground. But my turn at the museum will have to wait for my next visit!

BrianAlt said...


You know where I work, right?

wunelle said...

Yes, though not in what capacity.

Still, this does seem a post that wouldn't resonate particularly with you! On the other hand, we've both made our livings for years in transportation-related matters; so perhaps we share the same fetish...

BrianAlt said...

Doesn't resonate, per se. But it's about where I work. Was just surprising to see. (I work in IT.)