Saturday, November 29, 2008

Far from forgetable: the F train.

(Illustration from the New York Times, 2004)

The F train, as far as I'm concerned, is a train of mystery. It goes where no other trains go, dodging and darting and twisting in a huge expanse from deep within Queens, through Manhattan, and on into Brooklyn all the way to Coney Island - but not by the same paths as other Brooklyn trains. It has forged its own path, and maybe because of this it is a train that draws reactions. No one is lukewarm about this line; it is Love or it is Hate. People write about it, make art about it, take video of it. Of all the trains that do go to Coney Island, a guerrilla art group chose this one for its livingroom style attack. It is also an eventful train; just this past June a woman gave birth on it - a woman named Francine, no less. And merely a month previous to that life-giving episode, a man was hit by an oncoming F train at Delancy - and lived.

The F has always been a train of wild times... here, Miss Amanda Brown (of Thibadoux / Chapel Hill infamy) has a quick bite before taking a ride. This pic was actually taken long before my official F train ride, but it was just too perfect a shot not to include here.

In the genre of beautiful women, the F happens to be the favorite line of the stunning and brilliant Miss Sarah Riley, film maker of Che La Ke fame, and as such she finally joined me for a ride.

The F seemed to be doing its damnedest to evade us - we'd been trying to make the journey for weeks and were thwarted by such events as work schedules and sinus infections. Hell, just to get on it we had to ride the E well into Queens - to Union Turnpike - thus retracing in large portions my previous subway journey. At least they were the express portions. Or, well, they would have been, if there hadn't been a "malfunction" with the emergency brake - slowest ride on the E ever. But despite all odds and forces conspiring against us, that mid October day Ms. Riley and I did eventually make it into the depths of Jamaica, where our journey truly began.

When we looked at the subway map with the ubiquitous "you are here" arrow circle, Sarah laughed to herself saying, "Fresh Meadows? I doubt it." It was kind of hilarious. That one's always full of surprises.

We emerged from a fairly unremarkable station to find ourselves on the border between two very distinct neighborhood types. To one side of a major road, which I now believe to be 179th Street, we found QUEENS. The kind of row houses and old lady gardens that one envisions when you hearing the name, thanks to Woody Allen movies and Peter Parker's humble upbringings. I kinda love it. To the other, we found Jamaica Estates, a large development of all-too-manicured houses, perfect sidewalks, and expensive cars. We did, however, find this intriguing mailbox. The most perfect paint spill ever? Perhaps. An interesting side note that came to my attention after the fact: Jamaica Estates is where the McDowell family lives in the movie Coming To America. In case you haven't seen it, that movie is effing hilarious.

Returning to the subway, we came upon a likely commissioned graffiti-style mural - and them is some tough vegetables!

Now, this may surprise you, but for some reason there just aren't very many art installations in the subway stations of northeast queens. Shocking, I know. And since I'd already been through most of it with the E - almost all of it, in fact, since in an absolutely brilliant logistical move all the trains out there use the same wide vein of track - there wasn't really anywhere else to stop until we got to Roosevelt Island. We did pass through the 21st Street / Queensbridge station, a station at which I have gotten out a few times, and also the locale of a very unfortunate event which was to take place only a few days after our ride.

At any rate, about the island. I've talked a good bit about its history in previous posts, so I will only focus now on that day's experience. Sarah and I got out and explored the station, oh so deep under ground, before emerging into the bright blue day and hopping onto the red bus that circles the island's perimeter at a mere 50 cents per ride. For reasons that we did not fully understand, we noticed scores of Hasidic Jewish families seeing the sights around the island; it somehow seemed appropriate to see people in somewhat antiquated dress in a place with such history.

We took the bus up to The Octagon, a truly bizarre establishment. I've done some internet research, and it's rather pricey to get a condo in this converted building - a studio goes for a bit more than what we pay for our one bedroom. There are two extra-special weird things about this particular condo building: 1) they consider themselves to be 'in Manhattan', despite the fact that they're on a different island, because yes technically Roosevelt island is part of the Manhattan borough, and 2) the namesake of The Octagon, the beautiful octagonal building that serves as cornerstone for the L-shaped development and its main entrance, was originally the main entrance hall to one of the most notorious LUNATIC ASYLUMS in the whole country. (Funny enough, as much as they like to tout that the octagonal beauty is "historic" on the condo website, they don't so much talk about what that history might be.) That's right folks, spend an arm and a leg to live on top of the site of the place that Charles Dickens, Nellie Bly, and countless others have written about as a place of suffering and horror. Uh... no thanks?

But, of course, we couldn't resist taking a look inside now could we? We walked in, and the front desk guys were eying us immediately. I imagine they get not a huge number of spectators, but enough that they know what's happening when it happens. They instantly saw Sarah's video camera and informed us that no photography was allowed. No problem, guys. The architects really did do a wonderful job of restoring the structure; the building itself is indeed quite beautiful, with a spiral staircase winding around the perimeter of the atrium. The wings that held cells for patients are long gone; at one point the thing burned to the ground (likely with most of the inmates inside), and it was rebuilt after that, but at any rate all that remains of the original structure is the octagon.

At first the space felt like most newly constructed spaces feel - sort of vacant and dead. But then, all of a sudden, a wave came over me - of panic, of fear, of Very Bad Things. I looked around, and the lobby was still as calm and unremarkable as could be. But this energy was surging through me with a force that made me feel as if I might fall down. I collected Sarah and got the hell out.

We crossed the street to a little area with benches and a sundial, and it took me several minutes of sitting and breathing to collect myself. Now, I am not one to go in for a lot of heebee jeebee mumbo jumbo. But I have this thing with places. I suppose the best way to explain it is that I believe in energy; that a place can be infused with the energies of its occupants if those energies are strong enough, good or bad, and that the traces can last long past their actual presence. I know it sounds a little goofy, and maybe I just watched The Shining too many times when I was a kid. But I've felt many things in many places, and never in my life have I felt anything like that. And I lived in New Orleans for chrissake. Granted, I went in knowing the history of the place, but it certainly isn't what I was thinking of at the time. I was thinking about how pretty it was, and the nice weather, and how yuppies like to live in expensive places with tennis courts. And it just hit me out of nowhere, like a sickness. Whatever it was that happened in there, it is not an experience I have any desire to repeat.

After I'd got myself together a bit, I explained what had happened to Sarah. She's the kind of girl who understands these things and didn't think it was terribly crazy - remarkable, perhaps, but not crazy. When my strength was regained I went to take a look at the sundial that was at the center of our little area of respite. Being placed as it was, directly across the street from the old insane asylum, I found the sentiment rather ironic. (In case you can't read it, it says "count none but sunny hours")

Once we were thoroughly over our Octagon experience, we walked up to the very tippy top of the island, at which there is a spooky little lighthouse built by inmates of the Blackwell Island Prison with stone that was quarried there... yeah, that place is just nuts.

I, of course, had wanted to visit the southern end of the island, at which lies the ruins of the abandoned smallpox hospital. Yeah, seriously. But, for some effing reason, the city has seen fit to fence off the whole bottom fifth of the island and post guards at the gates that allow access. I've made it this far without a police record, and if I'm gonna start one now goddamnit it's going to be for breaking into an abandoned station. Anyway, here is a picture of the hospital that I managed to take from Manhattan's east side. The ruins are collapsing, and there are factions that want them preserved as a historical landmark. There are also idiots (on the internet) who think that the smallpox virus will still be alive and active in the rubble. Um, sure.

We stayed on the island for a long, long time. It's really quite beautiful; I'd consider living there if it wasn't prohibitively expensive, crawling with feral cats, and possibly the most haunted piece of land on the planet. But as it headed toward late afternoon, we realized that we were still pretty far north and had a long way down to Coney. So, back to the subway we went.

This is just not a line with many installations, and the stations that do have them largely also have other train lines stopping at them, which means that I can show the cool stuff to you at a future time. The very next station we passed after resuming our journey was the Lexington Ave / 63rd Street station, which is only vaguely interesting in that when the Second Avenue Subway finally opens up - at this point supposedly in 2015 - that station will be a junction. It seems that there is already a platform for the new train line built and sitting behind a red brick wall; all that must be done to connect the two is to remove it. I hope it's not load bearing. They thought of that, right?

We actually didn't get out of the train again until the end of the line, but as is so often the case in Brooklyn this train came on up out of the ground and gave us some things to look at through the windows. Near the Smith and 9th Street station, which incidentally is both the station with the highest elevation in the entire subway system as well as the terminus of the G train, the most notable feature is the Kentile Floors sign. Kentile is a name quite familiar to me for... uh... professional reasons. Let's just say that, for several decades, they specialized in manufacturing asbestos floor tiles. Ahem. Anyway, it's quite a cool sign, and a nice feature in the skyline.

Paradoxically, just two stops after reaching the zenith of the entire track system, you're back under ground. You are also, I must note, interred only one stop before it, at Carroll Street. This strikes me as very odd, and I really do need to do some investigating as to why they'd turn the subway into a roller coaster for that moment. I'd like to assume there are structural reasons, but you just never can tell.

We rode through the strange and mysterious depths of Brooklyn without incident, but fully in the knowledge that this train did not trace the steps of any other - not the B or Q or N, which all also end up at the massive Coney Island convergence. At Neptune Avenue, there are stained glass installations in the "wind shields" of the platform; I did not, however, manage to photograph them. At the next to last station, West 8th St / NY Aquarium, the exoskeleton of the station itself is a work of art, a glass and steel sculpture resembling a marlin or sea beast - very cool, very massive, very hard to frame properly. And finally, we arrived at the end of the line, the big Coney Island station at which so many trains are anchored.

Naturally we got out to walk on the boardwalk. By that time the sun had begun to set on the autumn day, casting a golden patina over the fading relic. Coney is a place like no other, and yet it is now facing irrevocable change. As of the end of this summer season, the majority of the amusement parks were to be closed down, leaving only those like the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone that have achieved landmark status. Why? Well, to build condos of course. Why else would something special and irreplaceable be destroyed forever?

We walked west, into the wind, into the sunset, Sarah filming bits of beauty in every direction. Perhaps, like New Orleans, this is a place that will retain its spirit regardless of what fate befalls it; maybe its true self will shine through whatever polish the developers choose to slather on. We can only hope. After all, it has seen many changes already and is long past its glory days. After all, with every visit I have wished that I could have seen it in the days of Steeplechase.

After a long and weary day of travel, we two considered dinner in the city but thought better of it and returned instead to our houses - Sarah to her abode in Brooklyn, and I to my Astoria pre-war nest. But the day remained with me, the rhythm of the train continuing its lull like the rocking of a boat will do after a day's travel on the water. Yes, everyone either loves or hates the F train. For me, as far as having to depend on that line, well, I would never want to try. But for an adventure, or a joy ride, or just a unique subway experience, I'll vote love. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that I loved someone, or something, unpredictable.

**See all of the photos we managed to snap hight here.

And for your further viewing pleasure, video snipetts compiled by the lovely VJ Sarah...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Is it because they're at the end of the alphabet?

So, the economy is bad. Obviously that means we should make life more difficult for people who depend on public transportation - you know, the rich and elite.

According to the MTA's new budget plans, released Thursday, we may soon be seeing both an increase in fares across the board and an overall decrease in service. The service cuts will reduce the frequency of trains during non-rush hours, and will also completely ax the W and Z lines.

Raise fares AND cut service? Simultaneously? Really?

Am I the only NYC subway rider who remembers two Christmases ago, when the MTA boasted huge surpluses, and handed out discounted fares for a whole month like they were candy canes? I thought it was stupid then, and now my suspicions have been confirmed.

Speaking of suspicious confirmed, also being cut permanently is G service north of Court Square. Mmm hmm. Tonight I'm riding the new extent of the G line, almost by accident - it's the most convenient way for me to get from my office in midtown to my appointment near Carroll Gardens. I wonder how long it will be before the G is gone altogether? Before they tell us, what, just take the J through Manhattan? Or take one of our wonderful busses? Not the M though, because it will no longer be running into Brooklyn.

Good ol' Bloomberg wants us to tighten our belts and stick this thing out together - good ol' Bloomberg, whose net worth is estimated at $20 billion. Have we mentioned that the MTA's deficit, the one that is purportedly the motive for these cuts and fare hikes, is a mere $1.2 billion? Does anyone else find that frustrating?

Oh, MTA. Why, why must you forsake us all?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A successful mini-ride on the 6.

Today I finally, finally, finally made my ride around the southern terminal loop to confirm my suspicions about the old City Hall station. Indeed, what I had conjectured is true. Unfortunately, you can't see much, but whatever. It's still awesome. When I made my ride I was in the front of the train, but of course in the R142A's with double panes of tinted glass you can't really see through the front. I want to try it again in the back, and in the daylight because apparently the skylights are no longer boarded up. I'm getting mixed stories on that one.

On the way down, I was also able to spot the fabled 18th Street Station - man, is that some serious graffiti.

Anyway, at the moment I'm allowing my creative worlds to collide, and my 6 train ride got incorporated into the novel I'm writing for NaNoWriMo. The passage goes something like this.
Once her friend was fed she had to leave; there was nothing else to be done, no reason to be foisted upon the girl, and anyway it was difficult to watch her like that. The day kept getting colder and windier though, and as Kansas had had quite enough of being cold she decided it was a good train riding day. She rode the N train the wrong way, up to Ditmars, and then waited for it to turn back in the other direction toward Manhattan. Perhaps, she thought, she'd ride all the way to Coney. She'd forgotten though that they'd be doing construction on the tunnel all month, and at Queensboro Plaza she was forced out onto the outdoor platform to wait for the 7 into the city. She rode it to Grand central, where she caught the 6 train headed south. She'd long had a bone to pick with the 6, and it was time that it be addressed.

A few stops passed uneventfully: 33rd Street with its oddly looped seat poles, 28th Street, 23rd Street utterly boring. After 23rd Street though, her pace began to quicken, and she moved to the windows at a set of right hand doors. As they left the station, she cupped her hands around her eyes so as to see better out the window past the glaring reflections from the lights inside the train; for a few moments she was only staring at the rapidly moving walls. It was dizzying. And then suddenly, the wall opened up before her into a wide platform, with intermittent poles. It was an oddly shaped space full of geometric angles, and every square inch had been covered in graffiti since the station had been abandoned. No longer a rumor, she had seen it with her own two eyes: the 18th Street Station. She wondered what had happened to the entrances above. Had they been bricked shut, paved over? She would have to investigate, see if there were traces to be found, clues to the former existence of the passageway.

This train held further mysteries, so before the doors opened at Union Square she took a seat, knowing full well the flood that would be arriving momentarily. They passed Astor Place, with its odd beaver reliefs as tribute to the Astor family who made their fortune in pelts. They passed Bleecker, name of origin unknown, but it might have been her favorite street in the entire town; she had walked it end to end more times than she could count. That station connected with the Broadway Lafayette station of the F and V lines, with its odd metal cones perforated with glass circlets, which flashed lights at indeterminate intervals. Next Spring Street, the epicenter of the SoHo shopping district – Kate's Paperie and Spring Street Natural and Pylones a stone's throw. Then Canal Street, the ubiquitous street name phenomenon in every port city, here the gateway to the ever expanding Chinatown. And finally Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall... or at least, what they were calling the City Hall station these days.

The original City Hall station, opened in 1904 complete with chandelier lighting and amid much fanfare, had been closed for decades. Because of its location directly beneath City Hall, it was designed as the “jewel in the crown” of the whole Interboro Rapid Transit system. People stopped going to the station, though, because of the much larger Brooklyn Bridge station only a block north which had express service... How quickly they forget. And so, the station was retired in 1945, the skylights boarded up, the entrances sealed, the the chandeliers allowed to crust over. It had only been open for 41 years, so in fact had been abandoned far longer than it was ever used.

But. The 6 trains, upon finishing their southbound route at Brooklyn Bridge / City Hall, needed a way to get to the uptown bound platform four tracks over. The way they did it was to loop through the old station. Or at least, this was her conjecture. She'd looked up old track maps and it all made sense, all fit together. She wanted to find out.

When her train pulled into the station, she sat tight, listening. Sometimes the trains got pulled out of commission at this point, sent straight back north to Pehallam Bay. That would be bad. Or maybe not; it would be an adventure, but the MTA officers likely would not be terribly pleased upon discovering her. The announcement was made though: “This is the last southbound stop on this train; the next stop on this train will be Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall on the uptown platform.” Perfect.

The train sat for a few minutes with the doors open, and then it sat for a few minutes with the doors closed. And then it began to move. She could feel that they were traveling through the wide arc of the old paths. She waited patiently by the doors, on the righthand side of the car, watching, watching. And then there it was. It was indeed a short platform, very short and not very wide. City Hall was spelled out in tiling like in so many of the old stations. In the middle of the platform there were stairs leading up to a mezzanine level; she believed this was where most of the resplendent features of the station lay. She wished, though, that she could see the ceiling, vaulted and arced with leaded skylight detailing...

It was over all too quickly. Her train passed the platform in a matter of seconds, and then waited at the end of the loop for several moments in deafening silence for clearance to enter the uptown 6 platform at Brooklyn Bridge. Overhead, a 4 or 5 train roared by every few minutes. As they finally emerged from the tunnel, she thought, this city is amazing.

Emerging into the great circle that held the Ugliest Fountain, she found the world dark despite the early hour and colder than ever. Tonight she would not be able to sleep in her studio, with the bone-chilling winds making her old jaloused window rattle loose in its wall of glass brick, and she still without a proper blanket. She wondered what had become of Mr. Norris's things after he had passed. And then a vision in her memory made her stop dead in her tracks: at the very end of the Old City Hall Platform, there had been something. Someone. Standing, stoic. The goat, sturdy as always, patiently chewing cud.

I'm throwing in this youtube video I found, because it shows exactly what I was able to see on tonight's ride of City Hall. Whoever shot this is a lil bit goofy, but that's alright.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Subway riders vote for president too: EVERYONE VOTES ON TUESDAY.

* * * PLEASE REPOST! * * *

It seems that someone or someones have been circulating flyers, at least in Virginia and New York and possibly elsewhere, that say something pretty ridiculous. The flyers have an official looking state seal on them, and claim that due to the high expected voter turnout republicans will vote on Tuesday and Democrats will vote on Wednesday.

THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE. That may seem obvious, but who knows. All kinds of crazy shit happens with elections these days, and there are plenty of kids voting for the first time in this election. So let's get it out there real clear: It is not true in any state or district. It is a fallacy; personally I think it should be a felony. Regardless, please just tell everyone you know. Spread it around the office. Tell the fam. Everyone, and that means EVERYONE, republicans and democrats and greens and independents alike, VOTE ON TUESDAY. Again, EVERYONE VOTES ON TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 4TH.

Besides that, contrary to what flyers in Philadelphia might state, voters with outstanding parking tickets or previous convictions will NOT be arrested for turning up at the poles.

It's not as if the president is elected by popular vote anyway, but that's a debate for another day and beside the point anyway.

To the criminals that are trying to throw the election by such absurd methods, I have only this to say: Yes, tomorrow a black democratic man may be elected as president. COPE.

And p.s. - No, I wouldn't approve of these tactics if they were aimed in the other direction. It is wrong, period.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Two oddities.

One: On the way home last night on the N, I saw an MTA poster. This, in and of itself, is not unusual in the least. What it said, though, was quite surprising: that beginning in 2015, the Second Avenue Subway would be relieving overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines. I read it a few times to make sure I was reading it right. I knew there were new contracts out, but I had no idea that they'd be so ambitious as to give a date to the general public. And about the date? At this point, what's seven more years?

Two: Tonight on the way home, I happened to spy a 7 train as we were pulling out of Queensboro Plaza. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? An advertisement. On the outside of the train. Right there on the side of the car. Apparently at this point it's simply not enough to put them above subway entrances, along hallways and tunnels in stations, on platforms, on the ceilings of some stations, and inside of the train cars everywhere that there's not a window or a door. No, obviously, that isn't quite enough surface area. Hell, it's practically restriction of trade.

Personally, I prefer the graffiti.

Monday, October 13, 2008

G train attempt: post script.

Well, I tried it. And after 40 minutes and the passing of 13 trains, I was forced to conclude that the G train was not going to appear. I started to feel like this guy. Something else I noticed: the V train was running. Usually on federal holidays the trains run on a Sunday schedule, but I suppose that isn't possible if the V train was running... yeah, things on the subway, they's weird.

Over and out.

I'm gonna try it.

The G train, oh the G train. Conceived in brilliance - a train that will travel between Brooklyn and Queens without wandering through Manhattan on the way! Genius. Extremely obvious genius, since Brooklyn and Queens share a landmass and are really quite close together as the bird flies, and Manhattan is a separate island, but still - there is literally no other train that will make this amazing feat of a journey.

Sadly, neither will the G train. Not really. Not anymore.

OK, so even at the worst of times it does still *technically* go from Brooklyn to Queens. But it so barely skims Queens that it really barely even counts, stopping at Court Square in the bottom of Long Island City and then turning right around. Total crap says I, and says many of us, in fact - there's even a coalition determined to right this and other G train wrongs.

So why did this happen? How does a train's route become thus truncated? The simple fact is that trains are re-routed all the time; they switch termini (like the B and D did once upon a time, as did the N and R), they go through this tunnel instead of that one. The network of trains is a living organism, constantly reorganizing itself, theoretically with the purpose of best serving its riding population.

Things started getting rough for the G train in 1997 - "due to construction" - oldest story in the MTA bedside reader. Service landed itself a northern termination at Court Square on evenings, nights, and weekends then because of construction in the infamous 63rd street line. In 2001 when the Connection opened, the G train went back to regular service and everyone was happy forever and ever! Oh, wait, no. Actually, the V train was introduced, and suddenly there was no room for the G train on the Queens tracks. The E, the F, and the R already ran those same tracks; it was the G or the V, and the V won... because the V goes into Manhattan.

This is apparently when they came up with the brilliant plan of running the G its full distance at backwards times, on evenings, nights, and weekends - but with truncated trains. They took cars from each train so that there would be more trains overall coming more frequently... and nevermind that each one would be more crowded, and that they wouldn't reach the platform ends.

In 2007/2008, things have gotten really bad: they're stating that there will be no service to 71st Avenue in Forest Hills "until further notice". People, I believe that this is the end. I've ridden the G north of Court Square once or twice, but I truly don't know if it's ever going to happen again. I have to try though, and I'm going to try today.

You see, today is a federal holiday, in honor of some crazy Italian guy who was funded by an even crazier queen of Spain to sail a ship the wrong way to get to India - which he quite believed he had done. He then proceeded to victoriously "discover" a land where there were already tens of thousands of people living... who the English later showed up and promptly killed by any means possible up to and including sneezing on them. American History is awesome.

Anyway, point being that by some logic completely beyond us, sometimes on federal holidays things revert back to normal. All "construction" and other nonsense is suspended and things happen as they should. Trains run on a 'Sunday Schedule', and on Sundays the G should be stopping at the Broadway / Steinway stop, which happens to be a convenient 15 minute walk from my house. So, I'm gonna go there. And wait a while. And see if one comes by. If it does, well! I got myself a train ride. And if it doesn't, then there are grim realities that I must face.

Wish me luck! Here I go.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Welfare Island: a budding obsession.

Today, I had every intention of riding the F train. As such last night I was doing research on the line, and of course part of that research was on Roosevelt Island. I became so enthralled in its history, in fact, that I stayed up until 4am, didn't wake up until 1:15 this afternoon, and didn't have enough time left in the day to ride the train. So it goes.

Roosevelt Island seems to be destined to be part of my New York experience. I live in Astoria; have lived here since just two and a half months after coming to the city. And if I walk due west to the river along my street, I'm looking straight at the lighthouse (built by prison inmates from island-quarried stone in 1872 - *shiver*) that's on the northern tip of the island. The bus that stops on the main drag two blocks from my apartment is the Q102 - the bus that, incidentally, goes to and loops around Roosevelt Island. When I walk into the city over the Queensboro (59th Street) bridge, I walk right over the center of the island, where elevators used to bring people up to a trolley... but I'll get to that. There's just no way for me to avoid this little chunk of land that splits the East River in two for forty straight blocks.

On the island, previously known by many other names including Welfare Island due to its utterly bizarre history, the F train is sort of a big deal. Why? Because it is the only subway that stops there, and in fact it only stops in one place as it jets beneath the East River from midtown to Long Island City. The stop was to have opened in 1976, but didn't actually become functional until 1989 - 13 years late(r).

These days, there are other ways to get on and off the island of course: one bridge into Queens, and the ever so famous and neat-o East River Tram! The tram is tons of fun for sightseeing, but I certainly wouldn't want to depend on it for getting home after a long day at work. Or a short day at work. Or a short stroll in the park on a lovely afternoon. Basically I wouldn't want to depend on it at all. It doesn't come very frequently, and whenever it does come it's full up with jerks like me who are using it for sightseeing.

The tramway was built, actually, because construction on the F train stop was so obviously behind. (The station is apparently very deep - the second deepest station in the system, actually - and there seems to have been a lot of trouble getting this tunnel built at all.) Roosevelt's was the first commuter tram in the country, and was the only one until 2006 when dumb old Portland built one.

Before the Queens bridge (that is, the bridge that goes from the island directly into Long Island City) was built in the 50's, there were these crazy elevators that would carry people and cars up to the Queensboro Bridge where it passed overhead, near the middle of the island. For pedestrians, there was a trolley (!) that ran from midtown to that spot on the bridge and over to Queens, back and forth all day long. Cars and trucks would drive out of the elevator and into the traffic on the bridge. Can you imagine? Well you don't have to, because Eleanor Schetlin talks all about it in this here interview.

Now, about the non-transportation-related history of this little strip of land. Before it was Roosevelt it was Welfare, and before that Blackwell, before that Manning, and before the damn white people came and killed all the Indians it was Minnahononck. From the Not For Tourists website: 1828 the city bought the island and built a prison on it. To this prison was added a much-maligned asylum (muckraked both by Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly, who spent ten days undercover as a “patient”) and a small-pox hospital, and in 1921 the island was renamed yet again—Welfare Island. By this point the insane had been relocated to Ward’s Island slightly upstream. In 1935 Riker’s Island prison opened, and the last of Welfare Island’s criminal’s were transported there. This left a population of the merely sick, which grew in number as
two more hospitals, both chronic care and nursing facilities, were built in 1939 and 1952.

I guess that gives some clue as to what the island is about. But as for being there... it's just weird. Despite its history, it is now overrun with extremely expensive condos. I once wondered why the island never popped up in the apartment searches that I conduct every now and then, and I quickly found out: nothing on the island (that isn't owned by the city housing authority, that is) rents for under about $2200 a month. But it still has invalid hospitals on it, and they seem to cater especially to those patients who are missing limbs - veterans and such. So it's this completely unnerving combination of yuppies pretending to live on the upper east side (the island is, technically, part of Manhattan) but who are mainly on the west side of the island, project dwellers on the east side, and paraplegics scattered throughout. Very odd.

To the north is the infamous lunatic asylum. I've seen it, and anyway these days they're turning the building into apartments. Condos, actually. Um, hauntings, anyone? I don't care how pretty the Octagon is; I don't think I can live anywhere that was once described by Charles freakin' Dickens like so. And if that isn't bad enough, the Octagon itself is built of stone from the island that was quarried by inmates at the penitentiary. There's like twenty-seven different levels of bad karma in that place. Apparently when they began renovations, the ruin was overrun with feral cats - what did they do with all the hundreds of cats, for the love of god? For it to be any worse it would have to be on top of an old Indian burial ground - but oh, wait, it's probably that too.

It's odd - for a person that's basically agnostic and fairly despises all new-agey type mumbo jumbo, I tend to be very in tune with the psychic energy of places. It's why I hate new cities (dead as a doornail), and why some old apartments and buildings just wig me out. Merely walking past that site chilled me and I hardly knew the history of it; I could never live there. I dunno. Maybe it's a chi thing. Oddly enough though, people that can afford "Upper East Side" condos (as they're advertised) are rarely in tune with psychic vibrations, so maybe it will work out.

I've visited here once, almost a year ago now, and walked around the top two thirds of the island... not realizing that the RUINS OF THE ABANDONED SMALLPOX HOSPITAL (yeah, you heard me) are on the southern tip of the island. So, naturally, when I stop through on the F train I fully plan to head south. Also south is the site of the former penitentiary, where anarchist Emma Goldman served a seven month term in 1893. Mae West also seems to have served a ten day sentence on the island, though I suspect it was at the workhouse rather than the actual penitentiary - the penitentiary not being a ten day kind of place. The Goldwater Hospital now stands at the penitentiary site, though if Robert Moses had got his way it would have been a(nother) park. Man, New York history is weird. Near the smallpox hospital, known as the Renwick Ruins as named for the architect, there is also the ruin of what one source claims is the first bacteriological and pathological research laboratory in the country - the Strecker Laboratory. Apparently the NYC Transit is now building a powerstation within the ruin, with the tradeoff of restoring the facade.

There has been a memorial to FDR planned for the southern tip of the island for the past 34-35 years; there's a billboard down there about it now, actually. Some seem to be strongly pro, others strongly anti. Alls I know is that it's supposed to abut the smallpox hospital, so if it encourages them to make that a place to visit, I'm pro. If they even hint at tearing it down - which I don't think they can do since it's registered as a historic landmark - well, I'll kill 'em. Or at least, I'll sign petitions.

These days, the island has a new face, and if you hadn't done your homework, didn't venture too far south, didn't look to closely at the people or places you passed, and weren't paying attention to the flow of chi, you'd have no idea of its sordid history. It really is quite pretty, if all very new and planned and overly groomed. There's a Starbucks. It's confusing. I don't know though... if you pay attention to detail (like, say, all the people without arms), it's not hard to know that it's an unusual place. But not every one does.

One fun thing that we found on our visit last year: Otterness sculptures! In the water, no less. Very strange, very pleasing. A little bit scary.

For now, I'll leave off with this thought: I wonder what kind of security force they put out by the Smallpox hospital on Halloween night?

Monday, September 22, 2008

It's Electric! The E Train.

Ok. I know what you're thinking. It's been over a month! Where the hell are the subway shenanigans? But rest assured, the project is not abandoned. The E train has been ridden, and I'm here to tell you all about it.

Sadly, the E train was ridden approximately four billion years ago and it's taken me a while to get down to the blog writing. So once again, I will let my photographs be my guide.

I set out with the foolish notion that I'd take the W train down to Cordalant Street, making it just a short few-block jaunt to the World Trade Center terminus of the E where I planned to begin my E-training. Now, you'd think the name of my actual destination station would have tipped me off, but I'm a little dense. Take the W I did, but it rolled right on through Cordalant without stopping. Good thing too, because if it had stopped it would have let passengers out into a construction site. See, that particular station is basically underneath the site of the former twin towers, so it was hit pretty heavily during the collapse. And being not that big a deal as far as commuting traffic is concerned, it's taking them a minute to bring it back up to speed. Rolling through it is weird / cool / spooky. Anyway, I had to go to the next station and walk back up. No biggie, just a few blocks.

Upon arriving finally at my station, the first thing I noticed is that it's littered with the same watchful eye mosaics that we saw on the C train. And this makes sense, actually, since the WTC station connects with the Chambers Street station where we first witnessed said eyeballs.

One thing you should know about the E is that it's pretty much always crowded. If you live here, you already know it. If you don't live here but plan to visit, remember this: take another train if at all possible. Trust me when I say that it'll be better for you and your fellow commuters both. During off hours, it looks like this, and during "peak times" sometimes you can't even squeeze your way on.

Above all, the E is a working man's train. And after a long shift, that working man is f-ing tired.

There's not a lot of art along the E line. It's neglected that way. But there's always the Otterness installations at the 14th and 8th stop. Maybe you're tired of me showing you these creations, but if this little guy doesn't make you happy then your heart is as dead as stone in your cold, black chest. Just sayin'.

At Lexington Avenue/53rd Street, there is art... of a sort. It's colorful, and extensive, and... well, pretty damn ugly. But it's certainly more interesting than your average dingy white station tiling. And the kiddies do seem to like it. This family just killed me.

Also at this station are the super steep crazy tunnel escalators that make me feel like I'm probably definitely going to die. This station is rather close to where I used to work in midtown, and sometimes I'd come here to hop under the river to my studio. Nothing like spending 8 or so hours in a soulless, windowless office and then cruising down one of these babies.

After popping under the East River and making a couple of cursory stops at 23rd/Ely and Queens Plaza (my hood, yo), the E switches very definitely into Express mode. Above, the crush at Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue - a major hub.

I had some unfinished business at the Kew Gardens/Union Turnpike stop, and upon exiting there came upon a pleasant surprise. When I served jury duty in that neck of the woods, I'd always gotten out on the other end of the train and therefore through an entrance/exit unconnected to this one. So I didn't know about the Cloud installation. I'm not sure if this is officially sanctioned MTA art; I think it makes me a little happier if it isn't.

This here is the courthouse where the infamous Sean Bell hearings were held, and incidentally also where I was called to serve jury duty. Well, at least I tried to serve. Ironically enough, I was called about two weeks after I finally quit my job at the law firm. Anyway, I hung out for three days, but they didn't want me. It doesn't matter though; I'm good for six years. Woot. At any rate, my little jaunt out to Kew tipped me off on this bad boy, the real reason for dismounting the E and taking a walk down the turnpike:

Yep, instead of dumping this old redbird car into the Atlantic as they seem to be doing with so many others, they turned it into a mini museum... which is never open, as far as I can tell. But I'm still happy it's there. And as to whether we should be dumping huge chunks of metal off the coast... well, that's another discussion entirely, during which my Environmental Geography claws just may have to come out.

Soon enough I reached the end of the line, Jamaica Center. What with starting in Manhattan and then running express in Queens, it really is a short trip. Upon exiting the platform, one of the first things I saw was this:

My thoughts ran like so: 1) Maybe this isn't such a nice place to live? 2) And there's why I ride the trains during the day.

But then, upon exiting the station, the first thing I saw was this:

And then this:

And then this:

(A historical mansion from colonial days, now run as a museum, in case you're wondering.) So it's hard to tell about a neighborhood. As best as I could discern in the twenty minutes that I spent there, it's a lot of working class people with their families and their kids, who are sometimes plagued by those who have gone hopeless and turned to darker activities. So it goes, I guess. Put enough people in one place and you'll usually find the same kind of underbelly.

I rode on home on the E - it does, after all, roll through Long Island City, just three blocks from my studio, and really what better way to culminate the day? It was still nowhere near rush hour. The train? Well, I couldn't get a seat.

**All photos from the E train ride can be viewed on the Subway Project Flickr page in the E Train set - I tend to be straightforward like that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Distinctly Designed to Divert Disaster - the D train.

Yes ladies and gents, it's four trains down now. And the D train was something decidedly different, a deviation from my disorganized doldrums. The divergence laid mainly in my approach to the expedition: this trip lacked a certain, I don't know, hysteria? that had characterized the first three. It encompassed many firsts for this project: I went alone. I took my time. I shot fewer but more pointed photographs, which were then infinitely easier to organize. (At this moment, as I embark upon my post writing this Sunday morning, they're sitting in a nice neat folder in the order in which I want to use them. Can you believe it? I know, right?) The train was tri-borough, stretching from the Bronx through Manhattan and into Brooklyn. These are all good things. Let's see how it turns out, shall we?

So it was that last Monday morning I headed out on my mission, once again by way of the M60. That bus is a brilliant little parlor trick for Astorians, and it's really too bad I discovered it the day after I finished moving from Harlem to Astoria. Ah, such is life. I needed to avoid rush hour not only because it's hell (hell of course being other people), but because the D train does some deceptive dashing during the rush, skipping huge swaths of stations and so forth. I can't be havin' that. Slow lots-of-stops trains for me, mister.

After arriving at 125th though, it's no mere hop to 205th street in the Bronx. It's a trek. That's alright though; there was entertainment. Between 163rd and 174th my car was treated to the self-proclaimed next winner of American Idol belting his rendition of "I shot the Sheriff". (Yes. Seriously. That's what he sang.) He asked us for 'constructive criticism'. Should I have mentioned to him that he's tone deaf? Immediately following him there was a guy selling candy. (On my way back south I saw the same kid again, at which time he identified himself as "the candy man".) I bought some candy hoping that if I did he'd say yes when I asked to take his picture. He said no. Because selling things on the train is illegal, probably.

Upon arrival at 205th, I seemed to be under intense scrutiny. While it's still legal to take pictures in the subway (despite best bureaucratic efforts), The MTA doesn't like it much. So when I climbed off the train and started snapping pics of the control booth, the emergency exit signs, the train, the switchboxes, and everything else in the station, I did not automatically become the most popular girl at the prom. The stares were so intent, in fact, that I gave up fairly quickly and went upstairs to see if there was a bathroom.

There was. Using it felt a little taking-my-life-in-my-hands-ish, but that turned out to be a complete misconception. It's actually quite a nice neighborhood up there in Norwood. Lots of houses, churches, and little playgrounds. Neighbors out and about, walking, talking, playing with their kids. Mailman addressing people by name. That kind of thing. I quite liked it. I would have spent more time exploring had there not been eminent threat of enormous thunderstorm...
There was this little old dude on the corner, and I just loved him. I want him to be my grandpa, or he reminded me of my grandpa (obvious impossibilities notwithstanding). It's probly the hat. I hope he has grandkids. I hope they love him.

My first stop art installation wise was Tremont Avenue. The piece is called "Uptown New York", and I had pictured some sort of amalgamation of trite overplayed 20's puttin'-on-the-ritz stuff. I couldn't have been more wrong - the mosaic is amazing. Really, really cool, both in the way the artist used the textures of different kinds of glass and in the overall design. The image shows only the righthand side third, the dimensions of the station making it rater difficult to get a (good) full width shot. I definitely suggest stopping by next time you're in the Bronx - it's at the south entrance. Oddly, while this station seems to have a mezzanine level running the full length of the station, it's entirely closed off. From the two entrance ends there's no visible sign of construction or anything; the only way to know the mezzanine connection is there is that on each platform downstairs, in the middle, there's a stairwell leading to nowhere. There are lights on. I don't get it. Google tells me nothing, nothing!

Next stop: 161st Street, Yankee Stadium. Apparently they're tearing the old stadium down soon, so that they can build another one; I hear rumors that they're using some public funds to do it, too. Always a good way to make friends, tearing down well loved landmarks. At any rate, the art there is... something. It's structural and functional. It certainly makes the station interesting. It's sort of destruction-esque though, at least on the mezzanine; like, here's what the stations will all look like, after THE HUGE EARTHQUAKE. Odd. If you've ever been through you know what I mean. But anyway, at least it gives people something to sit on.

Truth be told, I did not make a lot of stops on this journey. I've already basically traveled this line once (on the B train), and being without assistance I was afraid I would run out of time or something. But as we all know, you don't have to get out of the train to have amazing subway experiences.

Somewhere around 125th street my train was joined by a perfectly respectable looking man. Mind you, now, that this is one of the west side trains that makes what I've come to think of as "the big jump" - from 125th to 59th, straight. Our new friend began addressing the train. His concerns were trifold: first, the minimum wage. It's too low. Alright man, I'm with you. You can't possibly live on minimum wage, and anyone who's ever tried knows it. Second, nuclear power. (Um, what?) Third, gas prices. (Ok kids, we just may have a crackpot on our hands.) By this point he's kind of babbling. See, apparently ConEd has a Nuclear Plant smack in the middle of Manhattan. And it's degrading. And you know what happens when it degrades? We all gonna die! But nevermind that we're all gonna die for just a minute. Somehow despite the fact that we're dead, by 202o, our kids are gonna be homeless. And we're gonna be homeless. This, of course, is going to be because of that minimum wage issue - and gas prices. He started asking for signatures, and I was sorely tempted, but I think I'm on enough governmental lists as it is.

I didn't get out again until Broadway/Lafayette St, way down in the Bowery. It's an interesting station, surprisingly large, and it has an art installation. The art is comprised of two distinct phases; one is simple periwinkle tiling in a sort of Pan-American-Indian kind of design. This part isn't interesting. The other, though, is these metal cones with translucent bits around the I beams in the mezzanine. They're rather ugly, or at least not all that attractive - until that one magical moment when you happen to catch them lighting up. Then they become really cool, and stay really cool even thought they're almost never lit up. I can't figure out the flashing schedule at all. It's just one of those things.

I emerged from the station to get some lunch; it's a neighborhood I know well. Houston has always been my least favorite street in Manhattan, partly because it's really hard to cross on foot and largely because some part of it, and a large part at
that, has been under construction for as long as I can remember. Granted, my real experiences with New York only stretch for about six years now, but still. If a street sucks every time you pass it for six years, then a street sucks. (For you out-of-towners, this street isn't pronounced like the city in Texas. It's pronounced as if the u was a w. Some dude's name, apparently. Incidentally, SoHo = South of Houston.) On D train day, I found this concrete box, and I think this is as picturesque as Houston ever gets.

When I went back to the station I found this guy, working for a living. Hey, what's the difference between a flutist and a flautist? About fifty bucks an hour! (OK, that one works a lot better when you're saying it out loud...). That goofy old hippie dude was playing his heart out, and being completely ignored. I think busking on the subway could toughen up any performer. They should incorporate it into the curriculum at the performing arts schools here. Ooh, or better yet, at schools in other cities. "And for your last semester, you'll be stationed in New York City, doing interpretive dance at Columbus Circle... Don't worry, we here at the University of Chicago will cover the fines... no, we can't bail you out of jail..." They'd never be scared of an audition again.

I basically didn't get out in Brooklyn. I've been to Atlantic-Pacific, and I seem to have a deep rooted hatred of that place. It's probably unfounded. (It's time for Name That Quote! "The Atlantic is greater! "No, the Pacific is greater!" "No...") The D skips the 1st and then the 3rd through 6th stops into the borough during the day. Shortly after jetting past these, we were outside. I love that. We did go over the Manhattan bridge, but learning from my last bridge experience I didn't try too hard to get good pics. Maybe one of these days I'll get lucky and my train will have to stop on the bridge for a minute or two in a spot that offers some nice views... until then I'll have lots of great blurry pictures of support beams.

From 18th Avenue you can see a huge suspension bridge, which I'm making an educated guess to be the Verrazano-Narrows bridge from Bay Ridge to Staten Island. It looks like the pictures on the internet, so I'm thinking it's a safe bet. There are actually much better views than the one I've captured here; I couldn't get the pic fast enough before the train doors closed.

The day began rainy, and then became quite beautiful and sunny. The rainy day feel stuck, though, and many people on the long train ride were sleepy by the time we neared Coney Island.

Ahhh, Coney. I love that place. How can you not? I've waxed on enough on my blogs about its magic, and about the tragedy impending down there; if you don't know please visit the Coney Island USA for details and lend whatever support you can. Because damnit, this country would not be the same with condos in the middle of what should be Astroland.

Despite the positive turn in weather, I didn't really venture into the happyland. I was exhausted, and it was late. But I did manage to get some photos. And because it's so visual down there, and I'm such a visual person, this will now become a photo blog...

This little guy was the first thing I saw upon exiting the train. Maybe they know that people will be tired from their long day on the beach? Or... that people drink on the beach? Hmm. Hard to say.

There are many interesting and, yes, beautiful silkscreened images on the glass brick walls of the Coney Island station. They show the freakshow days of yore, the wonder wheel, et cetera. And then there's this guy, and he makes absolutely no sense, and he's by far my favorite.ISN'T HE FREAKING AWESOME?

There's a police outpost built right into the train station, and that's probably a good idea for a whole lot of reasons. It's quite cute actually, with the little posts with glowing globes outside and all. Aww, look at the cute little police station. I'm sure that's exactly what they had in mind when they built it.

I love this view.

As a vegan, I think I'm officially required to loathe Nathan's. It may be written into law. And in fact the annual hot dog eating contest never fails to turn my stomach. But... look at it! I'm sorry, but that place is freaking awesome! Of course I want their menu to be (vastly) different, but it's an institution. It can't be denied.

Upon re-entering the the D train for my journey home, I discovered a possibly homeless and definitely crazy man in the last car. He was yelling for someone to go away, and accused that entity of being from Idaho. It is of course possible that he was yelling at me. He could have been yelling at someone (or something) not visible to me. Or he could have been yelling at this here seagull. If so, the seagull wasn't perturbed in the least; in fact he was thrilled with the bounty obtained when crazyman missed his target at throwing his Chinese leftovers into the garbage can on the platform.

And then of course, home again home again. I could have cheated and got on the N train, a straight shot shot back to my place. But it always feels more valid to take my designated train at least back into the city, so I did. And if I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten to see a couple of teenagers playing tonsil hockey from Coney all the way to Atlantic/Pacific. I've often thought of what a boon the subway would have been in the High School years, when getting some time to yourselves is damn near impossible. So for proving my point, thanks kids. And thanks, D train.

**All of the images captured on my D train adventure can be viewed here.