This is an exciting time for me, professionally, because, on Tuesday, February 1, my second collection of essays will be published in the US. The book is titled Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them, and one of the essays reads a little like a love letter to the New York City subway. I wrote about how, for $2.75, you can travel the length and breadth of this great city, emerging from the depths up to wholly different neighbourhoods within minutes.
I tend to romanticise public transport and the subway is this country’s largest public transportation system. I want to see it as a place where everyone, whatever our backgrounds or ethnicities or projected futures, is more or less equal to each other. I wrote that essay a couple of years ago when the subway was in quite a different place. Today, that rosy vision is difficult to hold onto, and I worry that the subway is doing less rumbling and more crumbling. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA, operates the subway and reported that after a 90% drop in ridership in the early days of the pandemic, weekday subway ridership in November of last year had reached about 56% of pre-pandemic levels, with 3.1m riders on an average day.
Then, along came the Omicron variant, frightening riders away again and sickening almost one in five MTA workers, causing some lines to shut down temporarily and delays in the rest. The New York Times reports: “In a financial plan released last month, the authority projected that even by 2025, the subway would have 223m fewer riders than it did in 2019, a drop of about 13%.”
There is also a feeling of being less safe than before, although the data on safety isn’t exactly clear.
Meanwhile, the shocking news of new attacks adds to the perception that riders are not as safe as we once were. Two New Yorkers were pushed in front of trains and killed, as well as a string of other incidents where mentally unwell people, often homeless and sheltering within the subway system, have hurt themselves or others. The new mayor, Eric Adams, is a former transit police officer and said that he believed that “actual crime and the perception of crime and the perception of disorder” all contributed to the public’s fears over the subway system’s safety.
It is natural some of the shine I gave the subway has been stripped away.
However, the subway system remains one of the city’s most impressive and democratic features. To try to recapture the feeling of both community and wonder I once had about this vast underground network of trains, I spent a recent Saturday down among other New Yorkers and tourists, taking the train and alighting at several stops for no reason other than to look around.
Well, specifically to look around at the art. There is subway art on the walls, the steps, the floor, and even the ceiling of the subway stations.
In my day-to-day rushing around, I often miss what’s all around me down on the subway platform, so this time I took a guided tour hosted by the Municipal Art Society. We started at Cortlandt St Station at the World Trade Center, destroyed in the 9/11 attack.
It’s so beautiful now; the walls are entirely covered, more than 4,350sq ft, with a white marble mosaic artwork made up of words from the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and the US Declaration of Independence.
It’s very tactile, leading me to run my hands over the wall without even thinking, a rare thing in a subway station! The artwork is by Ann Hamilton and is named ‘Chorus’.
What struck me is how graceful and peaceful it was in its call to remember our highest ideals, and how fitting that is for a space that experienced such loss and chaos in the violence of the 9/11 attack. The way the art reflects the place and the community is intentional, and it’s essential.
Sandra Bloodworth is director of MTA Arts & Design (A&D), the programme responsible for visual and performing arts throughout the transit system. Ms Bloodworth joined MTA A&D as a manager in 1988 and has served as the director for 24 years.
Earlier that decade, the ‘Percent for Art Law’ was enacted, requiring that 1% of the budget for eligible city-funded construction be dedicated to creating public artworks. Since, she has worked with hundreds of artists through A&D permanent art commissions, digital arts, graphi