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10 Secrets of the New York Subway

Category General

|by Mike Dunphy |

Think you know the subway? Think again. We dug deep to unearth all sorts of juicy secrets and stories, from hidden stations to the surprising afterlife of subway cars

For most New Yorkers, the secrets of the subway lie more in knowing which train car to choose, times to avoid and seat to take. But with 469 stations making up the Metropolitan Transport Authority, and enough miles of track to run from here to Chicago, there’s probably no other city in the country, if not the world, with so much going on just under the surface. Subway riders who tilt their eyes upward from smart phones, tablets and books will find much to intrigue, including the fact that a large part of the New York subway — a full 40% — is actually above ground. Indeed, the Smith-Ninth Streets station in Gowanus goes 88 feet up, making it the highest in the city. If heights make you nervous, descend 180 feet below street level to the deepest station at 191st Street in Washington Heights. Here are ten more secrets to share in your next conversation about the New York Subway.

A postcard from 1910 of the now-hidden City Hall subway station (Credit: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)

A postcard from 1910 of the now-hidden City Hall subway station (Credit: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)

A hidden subway station lies beneath City Hall
After more than a hundred years of change and expansion, New York’s subway system is not only left with dozens of unused platforms, but entire stations. Beneath City Hall is the most astonishing, situated on a loop of track that was the southern terminus for the 4, 5, 6 line. Opened in 1904, the station was covered with Guastavino tile arches, skylights, colored glass and brass chandeliers. Once trains grew beyond five cars, however, it could no longer accommodate them. After closing on New Year’s Eve in 1945, the station was largely forgotten. Efforts to reopen it for public tours are ongoing, but currently only through the transit museum. It’s much easier to just stay on the 6 train as it makes the turn around there before heading north.

The MTA was not the first subway in New York
Efforts to escape the often nightmarish congestion of New York streets go back far longer than the 1904 opening of the subway. Declaring, “A tube, a car, a revolving fan! Little more is required!” inventor Alfred Beach opened a single-track, single-car line in 1870 that ran below Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street. It used the same technology as the pneumatic (air-driven) mail system, which Beach told officials he was digging the tunnel for (he lied). Over the next three years, Beach Pneumatic Transit transported 400,000 riders on 11,000 trips, until a major financial crash choked off all funding. Tunnelers rediscovered both the line, station and car in 1912, but all were destroyed in the construction of City Hall Station.

A Masstransiscope is located in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue station.
Riders heading into Manhattan on the Q and B trains from DeKalb Avenue station get a special show if they look out the window. Using the same concept as zoetrope, an early effort at creating motion pictures through a spinning series of drawings, artist and filmmaker Bill Brand installed a “Masstransiscope” in the now-abandoned Myrtle Avenue station in 1980. A psychedelic tour de force, the 21-second show consists of 228 brightly colored shapes that morph into each other, looking sometimes like spaghetti and meatballs dancing, or a rocket ship blasting off. Thanks to several renovations, the colors remain as bright as ever. Look carefully in the Times Square-42nd Street station and find another artistic splash of color in the mural by Roy Lichtenstein.

NYC’s early subway system was made up of three competing companies
New York subway riders know that not all trains and stations are created equal, with some narrower and prettier than others. Why? The reason is that until 1953, the city transportation system was run by three competing companies: Interborough Rapid Transit (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, S trains), Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (J/Z, L, M, N, Q, R trains) and the Independent Subway (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). Cars for the latter two were larger than the first, and still are, creating anything but a homogeneous system today, which the city put under a single authority — the MTA — in 1953.

Conductors must point to a black-and-white board before opening doors
Yes, it’s still impolite to point, but not for NYC subway conductors. In fact, it’s a requirement of the job. When each train comes to a stop at a station platform, conductors must extend the index to a zebra-striped board on the wall. This indicates the train has stopped in the right place and the doors can open safely. The boards have been around since World War I, but the finger point is relatively new, starting in 1996 — an inspiration from the subway system in Japan.

A fake townhouse in Brooklyn Heights hides a subway ventilator
The windows of the brownstone at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights aren’t blacked out in pursuit of privacy, or a move of spite from an angry old hermit. Instead, the handsome, three-level Greek Revival façade covers a large subway vent and emergency exit from the 4 and 5 line tunnels between Bowling Green and Borough Hall. As for what goes on behind the two metal doors, you’ll have to rely on hearsay or the occasional whirring and buzzing coming from inside, as the MTA won’t discuss what’s behind closed doors for security reasons.

FDR had his own secret tracks and train car
President Franklin Roosevelt went to great lengths to hide the crippling polio that kept him in a wheelchair, but perhaps none greater than at Grand Central, where a secret subway station was constructed for him. Upon arrival, the president’s train would stop at the platform, and the limo (also on board) would be driven off the train and into a specially designed elevator, able to lift 8,000 pounds — car and all inside — into the Waldorf Astoria above, where the car would back out in the Grand Ballroom. Both the train car and track remain, but the exact location remains a tight secret for security reasons.

Freeloaders used to engage in “token sucking”
How much would it take to put your lips on a subway turnstile? In the days before the Metro Card, it was only single subway token for some. Apparently, scammers would stuff coin slots with enough papers to prevent a token from dropping to trigger the turnstile, leaving a frustrated passenger, who would immediately head to the booth to complain. In the meantime, the stuffer would get down on his knees, put his lips over the slot, and suck the token back up. Efforts to discourage the practice included spraying the slot with mace or chili powder. Considering the number of hands touching the metal each day, choking on the token was probably less a concern than infection.

A 16-year-old once posed as a train conductor and drove for three hours
In 1993, 16-year-old Keron Thomas proved that driving a subway train is perhaps not as difficult as imagined. Signing in with a counterfeit ID at 207th Street, Thomas stepped onto an A train and ran it for the next three hours, traveling all the way to Lefferts Boulevard in Queens and back again, stopping 85 times without incident. He might have gotten away with it if not for triggering an emergency break after taking a curve too quickly. The ruse was discovered by police after he was taken in for a drug and alcohol test — the standard procedure for speeding. Threatened with four felonies and seven years in prison, he was eventually let off with three years’ probation and something of a folk hero’s status.

Subway cars have life after death, as coral reefs
What do you do with a retired subway car? Dump them in the ocean, apparently. As environmentally incorrect as it may sound, it’s actually quite the opposite. The cars make excellent coral reefs and are quickly filled with sea life, which latch on to the metal pipes, edges and ridges. This is particularly good for fish and crustaceans, which can hide from predators inside, as proved in Delaware, where a 600-car dump multiplied the local fish population 400 times.

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