Thursday, May 28, 2009

Making the Project

The vast majority (>450 of the stops) were visited during a single two week period from July 16-27, 2007. I typically rode the train from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm, sweating it out on platforms from Van Cortlandt Park to Far Rockaway. The last few stops were done on random days thereafter where I could find a little time.

In general, I designed my days such that I could complete about 50 stops in a discrete geographical area of New York. I did not go to every stop in order, but instead bounced around in the most efficient manner. For actual logistics, I pretty much always just rode to a stop, exited the station, walked around, took some notes and photos, and then got back on the train to ride to the next stop.

Motivations: My original motivation was to photograph the inside and outside of every stop, but after a run-in with the police (you can read more about that here) I started photographing where I thought it seemed I wouldn't get arrested/harrassed and otherwise just took detailed notes on my observations. In general, this eliminated the inside of subway stations and still made me nervous enough to avoid taking photographs in many neighborhoods where it’s abnormal to see someone walking around with a camera.

Undertaking this project was not inspired by any great epiphany, political manifesto, or artistic sensibility. Basically, I really love the subway, I love learning about New York, I had two weeks off from grad school, I didn't have any money to travel, and it seemed like a cool idea. I haven't had time since then to get everything together (med school got in the way), so that explains the delay in getting this out there.

I will say that I am a strong believer that the subway is a great equalizer in New York. Not only is it usually the fastest way to get around, people from essentially all socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, ages, and places in their lives mix together day in, day out, without the physical barriers imposed by commuting via cars on a freeway. This city is the most diverse in the world and the subway is the great interconnector. I tried to take full advantage of this connectivity by getting a glimpse of the similarities and differences of how people live in these neighborhoods of varying character.

The NYC subway system is also the largest (by far) in the world in terms of number of stops, as well as the only underground system that’s open twenty-four hours a day. This is an awesome achievement, and while there is plenty of room for improvement (noise, dirt, rats, etc.), in terms of sheer utility I still think we have it better than anyone else on the planet.

Disclaimer 1: Every post represents my quick impression of a single point in time in the life of the area immediately surrounding a subway station. I absolutely realize that in almost every neighborhood things quickly change once I would walk two blocks this way or that. I wish I could have done that, but given my tight schedule it just wasn't possible. In addition, my quick impression easily could have been wholly inaccurate. Thus, I apologize in advance for anything I might write that you disagree with. So please feel free to leave any comments about cool things by your stop (or other ones you know) that I might have missed...I'm sure there are thousands, and I would love to know about them!

Disclaimer 2: There are only 464 posts here but 468 stops. When I did the project in 2007, the Cortlandt St. stops on both the 1 and R/W trains were closed for repairs so I didn't visit them. Plus, the Acqueduct Racetrak stop on the A is only open on race days, which didn't coincide with my schedule. So that gets me up to 467. In all likelihood, the MTA is counting some part of a station as a different stop that I just didn’t set up a separate post for. Let me know if you figure it out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Favorite Photos

Here are some of the photos I liked the best, representing the variety of scenes I saw while travelling around the city.

R-V Trains - 36 St. (Queens)

A Train - High St.-Brooklyn Bridge (Brooklyn)

B-D-F-V Trains - 47-50 Sts.-Rockefeller Center (Manhattan)

J-M-Z Trains - Canal St. (Manhattan)

S Train - Beach 106 St. (Queens)

2-3 Trains - Eastern Pkwy.-Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn)

7 Train - 69 St.-Fisk Ave. (Queens)

2-5 Trains - Freeman St. (Bronx)

6 Train - Buhre Ave. (Bronx)

1 Train - 207 St. (Manhattan; right before I got detained by the cops)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

About the Lawsuit

When I initially started the subway project, I had the idea to photograph both the inside and outside of every subway station in New York. Of course, I didn’t consider the fact that as a dark-skinned person this might lead to some problems in our post-9/11 world, even if casual photography in the train is totally legal and does not require a permit (see MTA Rules of Conduct 1050.9.c).

On the very first day of the project, I was five stops in, at the 207 St. stop on the 1 Train in Inwood. I had just finished taking photos off the northbound platform (the station is elevated) when I saw a cop watching me from the southbound side. Knowing I was doing nothing wrong, I didn’t pay it any mind. However, when I went down to street level to walk around a bit and take some more photos, he approached to interrogate me. He asked what I was doing, and I explained the project. He then requsted to see some ID, so I gave him two forms. He subsequently asked to see my photos, which I demonstrated to him on the back of my digital camera. However, he wasn’t satisfied, saying he needed to “take me to the station house to run my ID”. He then asked me turn around and placed me in handcuffs. I ended up in cuffs for around 25 minutes, standing on the corner of 207 St. and 10 Ave. during the middle of rush hour.

Finally, some more senior, plainclothes officers eventually arrived, questioned me, and released me. I was not ticketed or charged with any illegal activity. Unfortunately, they had no good advice on how could avoid similar run-ins subsequently in my project, so I decided to just try to avoid cops seeing my camera whenever possible.

After this incident I was concerned that something was amiss. While I had not been greatly harmed by the police intervention, I was also confident that had I not been dark-skinned there was no way I would have been detained by them. I contacted a lawyer friend who encouraged me to get in touch with the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU had been trying through legal means to get the NYPD to reform their heavy-handed policies regarding photographers and videographers in New York. Fortunately, the attorneys there were receptive to my case and were willing to pursue it. My case was filed in December 2007 in federal court (see the NYCLU description here) as part of a series of cases filed by the NYCLU against the NYPD regarding photography and videography.

The case received a good amount of press, both in New York (Gothamist, Daily News, Post, NY1), nationwide (Reuters), and abroad (Hindustan Times). While the NYPD eventually forced us to settle my case without any change in their policies, the NYCLU was ultimately successful in getting the NYPD to change their training procedures regarding photography and videography (see Gothamist story here). I am proud that my subway project was able to contribute to this furthering of our civil liberties. I hope that in the future, law-abiding, amateur photographers such as myself won’t have to be afraid when taking photos near the subway.


I would like to extend an extreme level of gratitude to Russell Chun, friend and Flash expert extraordinaire, for designing the interactive subway map as well as layout of the website. If it weren’t for him, you would probably never be looking at this site.

I would also like to thank my Ph.D. adviser at Columbia, Julio Fernandez, for giving me two weeks largely free of work to pursue this project. I also thank my very capable attorneys at the NYCLU, Chris Dunn, Ben Kleinman, and Tim Foster, for the hard work on my case against the NYPD and for finally getting them to change their policies regarding training officers about photographers. Finally, I must thank my (now) wife, Ann Thai, for putting up with all my antics in completing this project in 2007 and still marrying me two years later.

Arun Wiita

Arun has lived for the past seven years in New York City completed a combined MD-PhD program at Columbia University. He graduated in May 2009 and is preparing to move out to the west coast to begin a residency program in Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is sad to leave New York, the Greatest City in the World, as well as its mass transit system. It is worth noting the he is definitely not much of a photographer, but he does really love the subway and is obsessive enough to actually finish a project like this.

Friday, May 8, 2009

N/R/W Trains - 49 St. (Extra Days, stop #464)

Out:  At 49 St. and 7 Ave. the craziness of Times Square is nearing its northernmost extent.  There are still huge ads and neon lights, but looking north it really fades out past 50th St.  Most of the people on the street are either tourists or guys trying to get them to buy stuff (hats, sunglasses, tickets, etc.).  Right above the stop is the Hawaiian Tropic Zone as well as nearby chintzy souvenier stores along with the typical-type deli and coffee shop.  

To the south are large, new-ish looking office towers while to the north some of the buildings become markedly older-looking, possibly residential but likely still office space.  On the street, one of the entrances even has the glossy-brick facade.

In:  The layout here is two platform, four track with express bypass.  The walls are in glossy-red painted brick here, similar to some of the E stop at Lexington (if I remember correctly).  Besides that nothing too remarkable; there are no columns by the platform.  There are exits out to 47 and 49 Sts. on 7th Ave, with a small newsstand at the 49 St. end.

S Train - Grand Central (Extra Days, stop #463)

Out:  See photos and description for 4/5/6 Trains - 42 St.-Grand Central.

In:  The ride over from Times Sq. is, not surprisingly, very brief.  The station on this end looks much nicer, with renovated white tiling on the walls and mosaic "Grand Central" with artwork in red and blue.  The layout is 2 platform, 3 track here, again with a terminus and big "STOP" signs for the trains.  It looks like only one platform and two tracks are actively in use, though.  Past the train terminus there is a long tunnel that leads to Grand Central Station.  The one drawback here is that it is less conveniently located to make connections to other trains; one end of the platform exits at Madison Ave., indicating how far it is from the 4/5/6 trains in particular.

S Train - Times Square (Extra Days, stop #462)

Out:  See photos and description for 1/2/3 Trains - 42 St.-Times Sq.

In:  This end of the shuttle has  a different platform layout than any one I've seen.  There is  a three platform, three track layout but they are all staggered and end at the point where the shuttle track terminates.  The platforms themselves are on the same level of the expansive Times Sq. mezzanine level (i.e. no extra stairs), between the 1/2/3 and N/Q/R/W trains, directly opposite of the featured musical performer spot (today some guy on the guitar).  It seems that only two platforms and two tracks are in use; passengers wait expectantly to find out which platform they need to rush to in order to get on the train.  There is white tiling on the very far wall but mostly there is just black tunnel to be seen.  The columns near the platform are white with burgundy trim, some wrapped in advertising (it is Times Sq., after all).  Eventually the diminuitive 3-car train pulls into the station.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A/C/E Trains - 34 St.-Penn Station (Extra Days, stop #461)

Out:  Outside the station there is a strange mix of buildings.  At 33rd St., Penn Station, MSG, a large office building as well as an older one are all directly outside.  

Across 8th Ave. is the majestic main Post Office in Manhattan (which will supposedly one day become the new Penn Station).  

People of all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes are out here on the streets by the station.  There are plenty of office workers, tourists, and other folks around.  It's plenty busy on the sidewalk.  There are smallish restaurants, a parking garage, and Duane Reade on 33rd.  34th still has more midscale places like Riese, Friday's, a diner, Payless, and the "Cinderella Club".  All in all it looks a little skeezy, but definitely not hoody.

In:  The station here has the same strange layout as the 1/2/3 stop on the 7th Ave. side.  The layout is three platform, four track, with the middle platform  offering express access in both directions, and the outer platforms for local access.  There is a burgundy color scheme with mosaic station signs and small lettered numbers on black tiles.  The mezzanine here is below the tracks, with a connection directly into Penn Station; the crossunder here connects the express and local tracks.  The exit into Penn Station is under the south end of the platform.  In general the station is well-lit and in pretty good shape.  There are exits from the local platform out to 33rd St., 34th St., and 35th St.  Smaller mosaic signs at the exits direct you up to MSG or Penn Station.

A/B/C/D Trains - 59 St.-Columbus Circle (Extra Days, stop #460)

Out:  See description of 1 Train - 59 St.-Columbus Circle.

In: Three platform, four track layout.  The center platform is unused by passengers but is currently undergoing major renovation.  It's not clear what use it could be for except for alternate boarding for the express trains in either direction.  The walls are white tiled with "59" in subtle tilework outlines. The color scheme is generally blue tile stripe down a white wall with burgundy columns.  There is transfer up two different staircases to the uptown and downtown 1 trains as this train cuts diagonally over the 8th Ave. line.

B/C Trains - 72 St. (Extra Days, stop #459)

Out:  There is a famous old apartment building outside the stop here, the “Dakota”, which dominates the intersection with its majestic stature, wrought iron entrance, and gas-burning lamps (see photo).  

Otherwise the other tall impressive buildings, similar to the others along CPW.  

There are lots of tourists, and again the people are almost all white.  The park drive is closed here, but there is still plenty of traffic on CPW.  I see a plaque on “The Majestic” apartment building which claims that it was one of the first Art Deco apartment buildings, but it’s covered in scaffolding so it’s hard to tell.

In:  The station now resembles the stations from 86 St.-103 St.

B/C Trains - 81 St.-Museum of Natural History (Extra Days, stop #458)

Out:  The exit here is at the south side of 81st St., close to CPW.  The intersection is, not surprisingly, dominated by the museum here, even if the view is a bit blocked by trees.  

There are large high-rise apartment complexes along 81st St. in all of their pre-war splendor.  There is a particularly grand building on the corner of CPW undergoing renovations.  

At the crosstown route across the park here there is the “Hunter’s Gate”.  

The people outside are similar to 86th, with perhaps more tourists and kids, still definitely mostly white, but a few black and Hispanic here.  Also there are still no commercial spots here.

In:  The layout of the station is similar to previous stops, but there are a number of interesting features here.  The station entrance itself is unusually wide (essential the width of two typical staircases), as is the tree-lined sidewalk into which it emerges on 81st St.  On the staircases and on the mezzanine there are elaborate mosaic tile murals of birds, insects, and other scientific specimens.  The floor is decorated with other tiles and the station is clean and in good shape.  The walls of the upper platform are still covered in tile pictures of animals, and there are no advertisements on the walls.  The staircase to the lower level is decorated with a large tile picture simulating the layers of the earth; the core is located at the bottom of the stairs.  

The walls downstairs have relief metal inlays of fossils.  There are also some mosaic tile station signs with “81st St.-Museum of Natural History” on a blue tile background.  Definitely a great station! 

B/C Train - 86 St. (Extra Days, stop #457)

Out:  The area around the station here is similar to 96th, but everything looks even fancier.  The station is still right next to the park, and there is plenty of traffic at the crossover here.  

The buildings are even more ornate here, and almost everyone is now white except for nannies of various ethnicities carting around white babies.  There are no commercial establishments except for a large office full of doctors in private practice.  

There are a couple of smaller buildings with interesting architecture undergoing renovations (see photo), but again most of the buildings are large residential towers.  I walk from here down to 81st St.

In:  Similar to 96th, but here there are exits at 87th and 86th, and there is some visible graffiti on the wall of the express track.

B/C Trains - 96 St. (Extra Days, stop #456)

Out:  Again the exit here is on the west side of CPW, right next to the park.  Now on the border of the Upper West Side, there are a number of towering residential high rises.  

The only obvious commercial activity is a guy selling hot dogs from a cart.  There is plenty of traffic looking to enter and exit one of the park crossovers here.  96th itself here is a large street, with two lanes of traffic in each direction.  It is also lined by large high rises to the west, with a fewer smaller buildings interspersed.  

Some of the buildings look to be classic and pre-war, but others are clearly more modern.   There is also a large church on the corner here and a Tudor-style apartment building on 97th.  

The people on the street are pretty mixed between white, black, and Hispanic, plus there are a number of tourists now.  There is a playground at the corner here with many moms, nannies, and kids.  There are not too many people in work attire, and more in workout clothes.  Definitely getting into the wealth of the UWS here.

In:  Similar to 103 St.

B/C Trains - 103 St. (Extra Days, stop #455)

Out:  The station here is next to Central Park, as the next many stations will also be.  It’s very residential here.  On 103rd there are a number of brick tenements and some Puerto Rican flags flying.  On the block there are some older black and Puerto Rican men hanging out.  103rd itself is quite small here, with just one lane of traffic.  

On CPW there are more people out and some tourists speaking a Scandanavian language, along with many other white people/gentrifiers.  There are also many people who look like they are just leaving the park after a run or other exercise.  There is also some type of protest going on about a block away (see photo).  

In the park here there are some large boulders across from the stop, indicating the rockier terrain in this northern section. On CPW there are basically only fancy residential buildings with many arches, bay windows, and other accents on the façade.

In:  The station is a bit dirtier than 110 St.  The color scheme is similar to the previous stops, with blue metal columns and a blue mosaic tile name, but the layout has changed.  Now the station is bi-level, with the uptown tracks on the top level, just one flight below street level, along with the booth and turnstiles.  On each level there is one platform and two tracks, with the outer track being the express bypass.  The platform wall has white tiling while the far wall is just black backing with no tiling.

B/C Trains - 110 St.-Cathedral Pkwy. (Extra Days, stop #454)

Out:  The exit here is at the NW corner of Central Park.  

There is a lot of construction going on in the not-yet-completed traffic circle here.  

There are now many gentrifiers around, and their presence is gaining when compared to the number of black people on the streets.  I can see the trees of Central Park along with two big apartment towers here, the “Towers on the Park”.  

There are also a number of other brick-fronted tenements around.  There is a cleaners, a grocery, a café, and a gas station here, but in general it’s much more residential than commercial.

In:  The mezzanine here is small with a dimly lit platform.  There’s a mosaic tile mural with the title “Migrations”, that is tasteful if a bit abstract.  The platform color scheme and layout is similar to 116 St., but here the express tracks are running below grade.  There is also a mosaic tile mural on the platform depicting Frederick Douglass.

B/C Trains - 116 St. (Extra Days, stop #453)

Out:  The area near this stop features some good Harlem architecture, with a mix of brownstones and well-maintained brick apartment buildings with art deco accents.  

The area around the stop is mostly black, with a strong Senegalese presence, as well as a good number of gentrifiers.  

There is a Halal deli, some Senegalese stores, and women in headscarves.  The local mosque, the “Masjid Aqsa”, is near the 99¢ store.  I walked down to 110 St. from here.

In:  The station walls here are covered in dirty white tiles, and the stop is dimly lit.  There are blue metal columns by the platform edge.  The layout here is two opposing platforms with four tracks and express bypass.  There is a blue mosaic station name in the IND style.  The paint here is peeling pretty badly at certain places.  There is only one exit.

A/B/C/D Trains - 125 St. (Extra Days, stop #452)

Out:  The exit here is on a busy stretch of 125 St., at the corner of St. Nicholas Ave.  There are plenty of people out and about as well as traffic, even on a Sunday afternoon.  There are many small businesses and fast food places, as well as larger chains.  

While 125 is almost all commercial with many stores and large billboards, there are many large apartment buildings on St. Nicholas.  The people around are mostly black, not surprising here on the main street of Harlem.

In:  The layout here is two platform, four track with both express and local access.  There are brick tile floors on the platform and green metal columns in the middle of the platform.  There is green tile stripe down the side wall and no mosaic station name.  The station in general is dimly lit and the tiles on the walls are dirty.  The mezzanine is also floored in brick tiling and extends for the length of the platform and there are multiple exits.