|A New York Subway carriage in 1979
New York: Art of the Subway
Unbeknownst to many, the New York City transit subway system is one of the greatest public art museums in the world, with its stations and carriages featuring an amazing collection of visual art done primarily on ceramic tile but also on stained glass, metal, stone and poster that reflects connections with sites, neighbourhoods and people.
The subway system has been wonderfully transformed from when I worked as a student in the ‘Big Apple’ during the Age of Disco.
At that time the underground world, starved of public funding, was too often filthy, decaying and dangerous with the trains covered in spray-can graffiti some of which was indeed attractive ‘urban street art’ but most was aggressive, ugly and sometimes gang-related.
In 1985 an Arts and Design unit was established by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to aesthetically improve the network as part of a massive new capital investment programme undertaken to reverse years of decline.
The arts is now an integral part of the ongoing enhancements and rebuilding projects. There is live music and inscriptions of poetry on display (‘poetry in motion’) but it is the visual mural arts that takes precedence.
This includes the rehabilitation and preservation of original materials and artworks. For the founders of the subway system, which opened in 1904, cared passionately about making the stations attractive places for commuters as well as ensuring only the best of materials and craftmanship were used. They wanted the passengers’ journeys to be delightful travel experiences.
Today the transit system is a showcase for local and internationally renowned contemporary artists (see Yoko Ono’s murals at 72nd street subway station) and a memorial to the vision of the original architects and the skills of the early crafts artisans.
There is also an interesting hidden side to the subways. A few of the early stations and underground commuter routes have been closed off for decades leading to the original art being beautifully preserved in what can only be described as ‘time tunnels’. Guided tours by the New York Transit Museum are offered of the Old City Hall stop at Centre Street in lower Manhattan where its breath-taking domed ceilings covered in mosaic tiles, ornate chandeliers, and stunning glass skylights seem to be frozen in time.
P.S. I only returned to Ireland from New York City on March 4th. So I delayed my original intention to post up a series of articles on the ‘Big Apple’ online. I considered it inappropriate to do so due to the sickness and death arising out of COVID-19 that it has endured since my departure. My brave cousin Ed Eccles is working every day in New York during this critical time (more on Ed in my next posting) But now on reflection, I feel that I have a duty to remind us all of what a great cosmopolitan urban hub it is and how much it means to people everywhere across the global. It recovered from the devastation of September 11th 2001. It will do so again.