I voluntarily spent a long time in the subway last week. Yes, it was my choice. Yes, in the subway. Yes, that’s the car, the station, everything. Me. The subway. The MTA. For real.
Last weekend, my friend Anna and I decided to take a Secret History of the Subway System tour with the New York Adventure Club! If it sounds geeky, stop being so judgmental because it was actually SUPER fun and we learned a lot. (To preface, I didn’t take many pictures…)
We met downtown near the Chambers Street station (map, you’re welcome) with the 12 other people in our group and our very knowledgeable and clearly subway-pro tour guide whose name I can’t remember. He explained a lot about how the subway system came to be: once people were populating Manhattan, traffic with horses was terrible and it was clear a mass mode of transit was necessary. NYC got a real taste of the subway in the late 1800s/early 1900s. There were originally a bunch of different subway lines operating independently, each with their own interests. You can still see lots of remnants of that divide today, like by looking at the width of the 1, 2, 3 trains versus the N, Q, R (numbers are less wide — originally built by the IRT I believe — because they were trying to defray costs). Eventually, everything was owned by the MTA, which is how it stands today. Yippee…
We went down to the actual subway and ended up riding the 6 train which was extra special because we got on at the last stop and — wait for it — STAYED on the train (sneaky sneakyyyy). There’s a little secret that if you stay on past that stop, while the train turns around to travel in the opposite direction, you pass through the now-closed City Hall station. The station was last open to the public in 1945, and since then they’ve actually blocked off the street entrance and everything and the only way to visit the station is through incredibly exclusive guided tours via the Transit Museum (only available to members, naturally). Our tour guide told us that there were talks about making this into a restaurant (and they may have actually done that?) but it fell through. So sad because it’s SO beautiful! The station is really small and completely on a curve, and there are tons of mosaics and sun shines in through glass-stained windows. Here’s a cool article to read with a few photos — and this one’s similar. Crazy to think of how much time and detail went into the construction of subway stations!
We saw a bunch of other subway stations and our tour guide was explaining the art and sculptures in the stations that are seemingly invisible to the general eye. Can’t remember the details from the above photo (eek, sorry!!) but I remember a super weird beaver thing at the Astor Place stop that was so tangentially related to the name of the station it’s no wonder no one notices these random pieces of artwork!
We checked out the Times Square station too and while it’s not the classiest station, we learned some cool things. Like noticing this “Knickerbocker” door in a back corner. This actually led to an independent entrance to the Knickerbocker hotel, back in the day, so patrons would have direct access from the hotel to the subway. That’s pretty neat!
Our last stop was Grand Central — you’ve been right, there? I didn’t know it, but the station underwent a HUGE restoration and was re-revealed in 1998. Apparently the ceiling was nearly unrecognizable due to layers of soot and dirt mostly because, for decades, people were allowed to smoke indoors!! (So crazy but makes so much sense!) Anyway, after the station was restored, the company left a small rectangle uncleaned on the ceiling for people to remember how icky it used to be. It’s insane. You can sort of see it in the photos at the top of this article — and yes, it’s as dark in person as it is in the photos!
After the tour disbanded, with a head full of subway knowledge, Anna and I grabbed much-enjoyed coffee (naturally), and then I ventured off to the book mecca above… The Strand!! There’s something about wandering around a bookstore that I find so calming… the best way to end a night!