the ghost of subways past

Broadway Local, 1973. Photo from the US National Archives on Flickr.
New York, 1973. Photo from the US National Archives on Flickr.
New York, c. 1980, by Bruce Davidson
New York, c. 1980, by John F Conn
New York, c. 1980, by Bruce Davidson
The other day I took the J train, not something I ordinarily do, and I thought it was a clever, native-New Yorker maneuver on my part. I was at Canal Street and needed to get further downtown and over around the Seaport. The trains I was most familiar with galloped right past the bowels of lower Manhattan whereas this mysterious and foreign (to me) line would swing over to right to where I needed to be. Good.

I found the J in the direction I thought said "Downtown." New York being New York, this didn't mean further down to where I needed to be, it meant "on the way to Brooklyn." That dawned on me as we came to "Bowery", a station apparently not used by anyone who actually paid a fare to be down there. At Essex Street, utterly chagrined I'd taken the train going the wrong way (only tourists did that), I was able to catch the J going the other way. 

The train was oddly screechy, and unpleasant. The car was old with gray bench seating and harsh fluorescent lighting. I swear it seemed like I was stepping back into 1980. Everyone appeared to be hampered, mentally or physically. People with hoods pulled over their heads nodded off in corners. Although the ride was all of about 6 minutes, it was like a train ride back to a New York I'd forgotten.

Looking at these images above, I cant believe I was around for it. This was when New York was "Fun City": garbage strikes, Bernard Goetz and a burned-out South Bronx. (It was when my father would launch into rants about
living in "this Great Big Wonderful Town.") I would have been taken on the subway by my parents in the 70s and certainly I must have taken it myself by the early 80s? I don't have a strong negative memory of the graffiti, I kind of remember it neutrally. It was there in the same way the doors were orange and the benches gray. The Bruce Davidson couple at bottom is humorous but unsettling at the same time. The way she's clutching her bag is a distantly remembered feeling I internalized a long time ago. I look at images of New York like this and I think, how did we all not just think the world was ending? // More visions of the Golden Age of New York subway squalor at TwoFour Flinching. //

Someone at the Transit Museum said, "maybe it was one of our Holiday vintage trains?!" Um, no.

Every year at Christmastime and around July 4th several charming vintage subway trains in the collection of the Transit Museum get put into regular service. I would love to be waiting at 34th Street and have this roll up:

Poking around the internets I discovered that the J train has been rated on Yelp—as if one might give it 1 star and complain about service as you would to warn people off the latest beer garden. Here's what Victor C writes: "This train is terrible and dangerous. It's always freezing and filthy on the J. I've been mugged, punched and offered drugs many times on this train. Terrible train. Also, I have seen grown men completely naked on this train. I'd rather walk than take this train, really."

1 comment:

Seth said...

Wow this takes me back. I have been on trains like these. And I love Bruce Davidson's photography. Thanks!


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