A History of the New York City Subway
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: Whoever dreamed up the idea of a subway knew what it means to live in a city. Study the faces of the subway riders, and you’ll see what I mean. All the faces, all the time, yet especially at the off-hours, when the cars are not crammed like cable wire, and people sit with a little space between them, and a lot of space between them and the city overhead.
Then, an introspective quiet asserts itself within the warlike rumbling. It is the look of the lonely who are aware of others, the alert stare of the self discovering both its privacy and its exposure underground. The key to subway is “sub”– a path in the underworld. Here, the ordinarily ambitious and the frazzled find a place and a life akin to sleep.
They are one among many, one and many, alone in a world in motion under a world in motion. So now, when the museum of the city of New York celebrates 100 years of the New York subway with 30 years of photographs that bring the underworld to the surface, in fact it celebrates the strange, exposed privacy of all urban life.
Bruce Davidson’s pictures give us privacy on a date, the privacy of fatigue, of anxiety, and simply of itself. Camilio Jose Vergara gives us a different eye on the same subject, though he adds the strange items of the whole system: The Els, the stations, the tracks, the cars, the discarded cars. Sam Hollenshead offers the visual story of a line retrieved: The beams, the tracks, the workers in the dark. It is the dark that commands everyone involved, that accounts for the fears associated with a subway ride, as well as the dreams.
When I was a kid, there wasn’t any fear, only adventure. Subways were for dreaming. And I would stand at the window of the lead car and dream myself into the arterial network of tunnels, and the red and green lights.
In the 1960s, subways got to be menacing places. The dark was more treacherous than creatively mysterious. Subways have been made a great deal safer since then. But the appeal, apart from basic transportation, still comes from the underworld of trains.
A subway is like a secret, a child’s game. You go in one hole; you come out another. And you move fast, much faster than a taxi or a walk, or a run. Years ago, a woman named Rosie Ruiz tried to steal a victory in the New York marathon by taking a subway to the finish line. Rosie was right. The subway was faster.
SPOKESPERSON: Pelham one, two, three’s between Astor Place and bleaker. Speed’s increasing.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The speed connects with a sense of danger. Movies such as the brilliantly terrifying “Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three,” recreate the terror of moving fast underground.
You cannot see where you’re going, and you’re moving like a bullet in a gun barrel. What good can come of this? And yet the overall feeling of the ride is stillness in action: Still life underground, the essence of the city, where one strives to track oneself among the millions.
Here is a picture to dwell on: Two women– one young and African American; one oldish and white– not looking at each other, but aware of each other and aware of themselves: The stylish eyeglasses, the brightly beaded hair. To complete the picture, place yourself in a seat across from the two of them.
Now we have three strangers riding in their individual worlds, yet acknowledging one another’s existence, and in a way, depending on it, all underground. Who are these women? Who are you?
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.