Zack Heru has been playing guitar in subway stations for 15 years.
For four days a week Heru, middle aged and bearded, makes his way to the tunnel leading to the L train from the 14th Street and 7th Avenue station and blasts away Beatles songs from 11 am to 5 pm.
Heru prefers the tunnel because he plays acoustic guitar and so this particular spot amplifies his music. Constantly smiling and cheerful, Zack occasionally plays the violin as well.
When Zack, now in his mid 50s, found that he was not satisfied working odd jobs like carpentry he decided to turn to music.
It runs in the family: Zack’s father was a jazz musician; he played the organ, keyboard and saxophone for a small group in the 1950s.
Despite not making much, Zack is constantly with a smile on his face and says he is very content. Next to him lies a pile of self recorded CDs and a book he has authored called The Black Cosmic Spiritual Mother (The Voice Within).
Not all who perform on the subway are as happy as Zack Heru. On the way to meet him I ran into John on the train.
John, a much younger man, was angrily rapping what I recognized to be Immortal Technique lyrics.
“They took everything we built and made it theirs. First by creating racism to justify slavery, building the capital for capitalism, and then when they gave us what they call liberty, everything we had was still owned by them,” John echoes the Peruvian born, Harlem based rapper and leftist activist.
After he is done, John addressed passengers directly.
“Excuse me everybody, my name is John. I am homeless. Yes I shower, yes I have clean clothes and I do laundry, but I do not have a place to stay. I could be robbing someone right now but I instead choose to do this. Any change you can spare will be greatly appreciated.”
After receiving about five dollars in change from three people, John makes his way to the next cart, where he will reenact his routine.
Subway performance is as old as the subway itself. Although Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made it illegal to perform on New York City’s streets and by extension the subway in the 1930s, musicians defied the decision for decades, bringing in audience and donations. But with that came trouble and many of them faced problems with the NYPD and specifically the transit police, an animosity someday survives until today.
Despite street performance being legalized again in the 1970s, it was only until the 1980s that performing in the subway was allowed. In 1987 the MTA created MUNY, the Music Under New York program that allows musicians to audition for he right to perform in regular recognized spots in subway stations.
Although performing on the subway is legal even without a MUNY pass, musicians without one still face incidents of harassment from policemen and station managers, ranging from being asked to leave and in some cases arrests. The reason, according to subway music advocates, is that most performers are not aware of their rights.
Public performances are protected under first amendment rights, even if the performer is soliciting donations, that much has been enshrined due to several court battles undertaken by subway musicians across the ages.
Furthermore, the only true legal restrictions on subway musicians are:
So anyone, even if they do not have a MUNY pass, can set up shop at a subway station and play their music, asking for donations if they wish to do so, as long as they do not violate these rules.
Zack Heru has been doing it for 15 years, and he intends to keep on playing.
New Yorkers know that crime in the city is down since the start of the twenty-first century. The Bloomberg administration took a lot of credit for continuing the good work that was started by Mayor Giuliani to achieve a 40 percent reduction in major felonies between 2000 and 2013.
But what about crime in the subway? Has good triumphed over evil beneath the city streets?
Here’s a trend line, showing the actual number of serious crimes committed throughout the city over the last thirteen years:
And here’s a trend line where the number of crimes has been rebased to 100 in 2000. This makes it easier to see the percentage change.
Now here’s the same city crime data, spilt into crimes that occurred in the subway, and all the rest.
You can see that overall, the story stays the same: Crime in the subway is about 60 percent of what it used to be, back in 2000.
But starting around 2005, crime in the subway started to fall at a faster rate than that above ground – only to more than catch up between 2009 and 2012. Major felonies in the subway increased in 2010, 2011, and 2012, with the biggest jump being 17 percent in 2012 (compared to just 4 percent for the rest of the city). So what happened?
To understand crime in the subway, you need to split it into types. Let’s start with the most serious crimes: Murder and rape.
The absolute number of murders and rapes in the subway in the 2000s has been small, ranging between one and five incidents per year in the case of murder, and zero and ten per year in the case of rape. These crimes have represented less than half a percent of the major felonies in the subway every year since 2000.
That means that looking at the trend lines for murder and rape won’t tell us much about what has been happening in the subway; they carry very little weight in the overall numbers.
It also means that small changes in the number of incidents translate to huge percentage changes, making the trend charts for rape and murder pretty meaningless. So in 2000, for example, there were two murders in the subway. In 2005, there were five – an increase of 250 percent.
The trend line for assault in the subway looks a little less volatile; the number of incidents in the subway each year has ranged from about 150 to about 350 during the 2000s. But assault has accounted for less than 9 percent of the major felonies in that period.
Things start to get more interesting when you look at robbery and grand larceny.
Robbery involves stealing something by using or threatening force – mugging, essentially. It has accounted for between about 25 and 35 percent major felonies in the subway in the last 13 years. As you can see in the chart below, it has been trending down since 2000, largely in line with changes in the frequency of robberies above ground.
What the cops call “grand larceny,” however, has trended in a way that has been quite different to above ground crime. Grand larceny involves stealing property worth more than $1,000, or taking property “from the person of another” – in other words, literally grabbing something out of another person’s hands, or picking their pocket.
Taking into account that it has represented between 56 and 67 percent of the major felony incidents in the subway since the turn of the century, we should dig into it a little more deeply.
You can see that the subway enjoyed a greater relative reduction in grand larceny than the rest of the city for the first 9 years of this century. In 2007, the Daily News reported that subway crime had fallen so much, a rider was about as likely to struck by lightening as to be the victim of a subway crime. And in early 2010, Mayor Bloomberg told WOR radio that given there were five million riders and only five criminal incidents each day, crime on the subway was “essentially zero.”
But after bottoming out in 2009, grand larceny started rising, and over a couple of years, significantly closed the gap with the rest of the city.
Grand larceny on city streets rose too. But it took off later, around 2012.
So what was happening in the subway from 2009 that produced this resurgence in grand larceny?
You might have guessed what we’ll look at next. Here’s a chart that shows a couple of measures of the adoption of digital devices in the United States in 2009, 2011 and 2013. It shows the percent of mobile subscribers 18 years or older that own a smartphone, and the percent of homes with a television that own a tablet.
As you can see, smartphone use more than tripled between 2009 and 2013. Tablet ownership increased roughly 500 percent just in one year. And the subway presents a uniquely hospitable environment for would-be smartphone and tablet thieves: Distracted, sometimes sleeping, victims; and a ready-made get-away strategy in the form of a closing subway door and, shortly thereafter, a moving subway car.
Of course, expensive mobile devices have been around since before 2009. Indeed, as early as 2006, the MTA was warning riders that handheld music devices like iPods were magnets for thieves.
And by December 2010, the NYPD was reporting that they were seeing a rise in subway crime that was due in part to teens stealing iPods, cellphones and other electronic devices, “mainly from each other.” Grand larcenies in the subway were up 9 percent for the year.
But by late 2011, gadget thieves were getting more professional. The police said that they were being forced to change their strategies as a result of new tactics being adopted – a shift from pickpocketing on platforms to “brazen goods grabs,” mostly of expensive electronic devices, on trains during peak hours. 70 percent of all subway grand larcenies now occurred on board trains, mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. By the end of the year, grand larceny in the subway was up 21 percent.
The NYPD started ticketing people who held train doors, because they saw people working in teams to allow the grabbing of a device, and escape from the train, just as it was about to leave. They also said that they had plans to increase the number of police officers posing as passengers underground.
But it was a struggle. Headcount at the NYPD Transit Bureau was down nearly 10 percent compared to 2010.
And in 2012, a new year brought new challenges. In March, the NYPD said that the proportion of grand larceny victims who were sleeping had risen from 17 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in the previous month. This was the rise of “lush work,” which saw thieves use razor blades to cut a victim’s pockets and remove property. There was a 23 percent increase in felonies in the first quarter; and by May, the New York Post reported that subway crime was at its highest level in seven years, “absolutely driven by the increased attention to electronics,” according to the NYPD Chief of Transit. Nearly half of all subway crime involved the theft of electronics.
In July, the NYPD announced that it had commenced an “underground marshals” strategy, putting a uniformed officer on every overnight train in the Bronx and two lines in Queens, after they saw a spike in early morning robberies. And 108 new transit cops joined the ranks after their graduation from the police academy.
Still, at the end of 2012, grand larceny in the subway was up 10 per cent.
But by the end of 2013, police were crediting 248 decoy operations, in which undercover officers would pose as unsuspecting straphangers and present opportunities for thieves to grab electronic devices, with a 22 percent reduction in robberies, and grand larcenies that were relatively flat (up just 3 percent) for the year.
It pays to keep all this in perspective: Even at the height of the electronics heists in 2012, the number of crimes in the subway averaged 7.5 per day. That compares to 12 crimes per day in 2000, and 40 crimes per day in 1990.
Image: Ken / Flickr
Today, beauty contests are relegated to televised events or the local pageant circuit. But did you know from 1941 to 1976 the New York City subway system hosted the Miss Subways Contest? While competitions over beauty are often associated with misogyny and the objectification of women, in the words of writer Melanie Bush, Miss Subways was surprisingly “covertly feminist.”
The campaign started as way to draw attention to advertisements in the dimly lit subway cars of the 1940s. Finalists were originally selected by modeling agent John Roberts Powers. The winner’s photo, and a two to three-sentence pithy biography, were plastered onto the overhead ad sections of subway cars, where they stayed for one to nine months. (The Miss Subways tenure changed over the course of the contest.)
Winning sometimes garnered fame and attention. Mona Freeman, who was selected at 14, went on sign a movie contract with Howard Hughes and acted in 23 films. Ruth Ericsson, a Swedish native, was spotted by Powers while she was working as a manicurist at the Waldorf-Astoria New York hotel. After her picture was featured in the trains, Ericsson received 258 marriage proposals and was even sent a lemon meringue pie by an enamored baker. The contest even served as the inspiration behind the 1944 Broadway musical “On the Town.”
The true legacy of Miss Subways, however, was the diversity of the selected winners. Finalists represented a range of ethnicities from Irish to Latina to Jewish. The first black winner, Brooklyn College student Thelma Porter, was selected in 1948. It was 36 years later that Miss America crowned Vanessa L. Williams, making her the first African American queen in that pageant’s history. With Porter’s win, Miss Subway technically became the first integrated beauty contest in the country. Additionally, the first Asian Miss Subway was Helen Lee, a Columbia College student majoring in Chinese, who appeared in November 1949. (The first Asian woman to win Miss America was crowned in 2001).
Former Village Voice writer Melanie Bush recalled looking at the Miss Subways posters as a kid growing up in New York City in the 1970s. Bush, a short, Jewish girl who wore glasses, knew she didn’t fit the model of the girl next door.
“I could never grow up into that ideal of disinterested equanimity all Miss America’s should embody,” Bush wrote in a 2004 New York Times piece. “But so what? I could become Miss Subways.”
In 1957, modeling agent Powers said he wanted “no glamour gal types or hand painted masterpieces.” Many of the women selected to represent the city’s transit system were ambitious and strived to have careers. Helen Borgia already earned a law degree by the time she was named Miss Subways in October 1941. Almost a year later, Marguerite McAuliffe’s aim was to “be a doctor as good as her dad.” In March 1944, Eileen Henry, a college sophomore, wanted to be a radio director and could be found at almost every basketball game at Madison Square Garden.
Not every Miss Subways, however, shared the same ambitions. In June 1942, Dorothea Mate said, “being a housewife is the greatest career in the world.” Irene Scheidt’s big goal was a trip to Bermuda in June 1950.
As Bush points out, though, the Miss Subways contest was founded in the midst of WWII, and as the war progressed women started to take over 3 million paying jobs outside of the home. More women had to commute via the subway, and some were even driving the subway cars.
As time progressed, though, the Miss Subways contest started to feel antiquated to New Yorkers in light of the second wave of feminism. Women’s organizations asked the contest organizer Bernard Spaulding to change the name to Ms. Subways in the 1970s, echoing Ms. magazine which was launched in 1971. Others secretly plastered up posters featuring Mr. Subways in the train cars.
By then, Powers had retired from the contest and the winners were now selected by New York City riders who would send in postcards with their picks. Spaulding, however, still conducted interviews with potential candidates. He wanted to learn not only about their personalities and ambitions, but also if their picture matched their in-person appearance. He would rate their face and shape with a, b, c, d, or f grades.
“Why perpetuate such an outmoded ritual?” asked writer Ann Bayer in a 1976 New York Magazine article on the newest crop of Miss Subways finalists.
The decline of Miss Subways mirrored a decline in New York City as well. The subways were covered in graffiti by the 1970s. Bayer described a winner’s poster: “obscenities balloon from her smiling lips, fangs jut from her gums, whiskers sprout from her chin, sex organs dangle from her ears, swastikas nestle like bent bobby pins in her hair.” One winner was mugged on the train and others reportedly refused to ride the subway at night. By 1976, the contest was retired.
As the centennial of the New York City metro system approached in 2004, there was newfound interest in Miss Subways. The MTA and the New York Post hosted a one-off contest and crowned actress Caroline Sanchez-Bernat as the queen of the underground. As part of her winnings, Sanchez-Bernat was given free bus and train transpiration for the whole year.
Photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer became captivated by the diversity of the old beauty contest. For several years, they searched for previous winners and photographed and interviewed 40 former Miss Subways. They showed their work in a 2012 exhibition at the New York Transit Museum, titled “Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-76.” Their book was released in 2013.
Photo by MTA.
Is it cheaper to ride the New York subway for a day than the Hong Kong MTR? How does that compare to metros in Delhi, or Paris or Moscow?
We wanted to know how subway prices compared around the world for the people who actually live and work in those cities. Subway Maven analyzed data from 24 cities in five continents to figure out how many hours at minimum wage a subway rider would have to work to pay for a day’s pass on their city’s subway.
You can explore the results by clicking on the dots representing each city in the map below.
We then converted those hours into minutes and compared the 24 cities, which you can see by scrolling through the bars in the chart below.
As you can see from this chart, the range of time that minimum wage workers would have to work to afford to ride the subway for a day spans a huge range, from 28 minutes in Beijing to 256 in Barcelona.The average time was 117 minutes.
There’s no clear pattern according to geography or type of city. London and New York, for example, are both international hubs with established subway systems. Yet New Yorkers would have to work for only about an hour a quarter, while in London it would take three hours.
Cairo, Lyon, Copenhagen and Hong Kong are among the best deals with the lowest number of hours you would have to work. Meanwhile Delhi, Bangkok, and St Petersburg are comparatively expensive.
Finally, we were curious as to how the expense of riding the subway has changed over time. An analysis of subway fare and minimum wage data from New York City since 1962 can be seen in the graph below:
This shows that minimum wage in New York has not kept up with the cost of riding the subway since 1962 when it took only 31 minutes of work to pay for a day on the subway. The increase in minimum wage last year did slightly help offset this trend, with the minutes dropping from 83 to 75.
Notes on the data analysis:
Data was collected from official metro websites for a day pass on each city’s subway. Where a daily fare was not offered, we used the sum of four subway rides. We arrived at this figure based on the fact that the cost of day passes in a sample of cities that had them on average equaled the cost of about four one-trip tickets. Where subway fare varied depending on distance travelled, we took the price for the average possible distance.
The minimum wage data was taken from a variety of sources including OECD data. It is not fully standardized. For example, some countries have minimum wage based on a month or day’s work instead of by hour. In those cases we used employment figures recognized by international bodies such as the OECD to work out how much this equated to per hour. In Denmark there is no legal minimum wage so we used the effective minimum wage negotiated by unions.
Historical data on NYC subway fares via AP.
Ever wonder how trains move on the subway? The answer lies in a combination of lights and colors. More precisely, subway train movements and stops correspond to a group of highly coordinated and precise signals not much unlike traffic lights.
The system has its origins in the opening of the original Interborough Rapid Transit in 1904 and surprisingly has not changed much since. The signals are placed on the side of the tracks, which in turn are divided into track sections that electrically detect moving trains.
Each track section is hundreds of feet long and senses the presence of a train when its wheels short circuits the section. If enough sections sense subway carts then a red signal is issued and so other trains know not to come that way, ensuring a clear path.
If there aren’t enough full track sections or if they are completely empty then the yellow and green signals go off, informing incoming trains that it is safe to pass this way.
The New York City subway has an automated level of 2, meaning it still counts on human drivers unlike driverless train systems which are usually grades 3 or 4, but still has some level of automation.
Just in case subway drivers do not obey the signals or anything else goes wrong, theres is also failsafe mechanism in the form of automatic train stops, also known as trippers. These are yellow T shaped foot-long metal rods on the side of the tracks that slips into the wheel frame of a passing train, cutting off power from its motor and applying the breaks.
Trippers come into effect automatically if a train ignores a red signal and will usually throw off the balance of standing passengers so they are not ideal, but they ensure trains are stopped when they need to be and avoid potential major accidents.
The way trippers know to activate is another set of signals called time signals. Unlike the color signals these use timers to determine the speed of an approaching train and use that to decide whether or not to let it pass. If the decision is no, the trippers are activated.
There are many other types of subway signals such as home and holdout signals, as well as interlocking, all of which you can learn about here in this complete guide to subway signals.
(Image: The All-Nite Images / Flickr)
New York City commuters know all subway lines are not created equal. The green line (4,5,6) gets shiny new cars with a digital clock that also displays the upcoming station, but the lowly lit and somewhat dingy cars of the A C E line have been in operation since the 1960s.
This line is scheduled for a makeover in 2017 with the arrival of a new fleet of subway cars, but what will happen to the old ones already in operation? Well, those veteran cars could end up at the bottom of the ocean.
Since 2000, the MTA has retired 2,580 cars in the Atlantic Ocean as part of their Artificial Reef Project. The trains are first steam cleaned and then striped of everything from the doors to the lights, as well as motor oil, coolant and grease. (The materials, like seats and signs, taken from the retired cars are then sold through the MTA’s Asset Recovery unit). They are then loaded up onto barges and buried into the ocean off the coasts from Delaware to Georgia. Marine organisms like sponges and corals created new homes on the surfaces of the trains, which in turn attracted small fish. Jeffrey Tinsman, who oversaw the Delaware portion of the project, called the trains “luxury condominiums for fish.”
The project was met with mixed reviews. While Delaware sung its praises, New Jersey found that newer retired models, made of stainless steel instead of steel, were deteriorating. The MTA says they ultimately completed the project in 2010, but no word yet on if they will bring it back as the it saved the MTA upwards of $12 million in disposal costs.
But before the program wrapped, former Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism alums put together this video on the program.
Photo by Scndr, courtesy of Wiki Commons.
You may have seen a 6 train rumble by when you were waiting on the platform for a D. But we bet you’ve never seen it stop there.
And we know you’ve never seen a J stop at a 1 station. It wouldn’t be physically possible.
The naming logic of New York City subway lines has everything to do with the history of the system.
Until the 1940s, it consisted of three parts operated by competing transit agencies.
There was the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company, a private entity that was responsible for the city’s very first subway line that opened in 1904. It built and operated lines under a contract with the city.
Later came the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Corporation, which was also privately owned.
Then there was the Independent (IND) City Owned Rapid Transit Railroad, the last major expansion of the city subway system, which opened in 1932. The city operated this system itself, after an attempt to find a private operator was unsuccessful.
Today, the lines of the old BMT and IND systems are lettered, and the lines of the old IRT system are numbered.
That’s why you will never see a lettered train at a numbered platform: It simply wouldn’t fit.
You might see a numbered train pass a lettered platform: The cars from the IRT division are taken to maintenance shops in Coney Island using BMT/IND tracks. But it will never stop for passengers, because the gap between the platform and the car would be dangerously wide.
(Image: Elvert Barnes / Flickr)
Subway Maven understands the instinct to reach for your cell phone the moment after snagging a seat on the subway. But bury that nose in FOMO-inducing updates by some kid you haven’t seen since sixth grade, and you could miss more than a pleasant exchange with your fellow commuter. For over a hundred years, subway ceramic artists have been trying to tell you something through their designs. If only you would look up and listen.
How to get a Manhattan street named after you Maybe you knew that George C. Heins and Christopher LaFarge were responsible for the design of the very first subway stations, for six years from in 1901. Perhaps you were aware that their Beaux-Arts influence extends to the egg-and-dart patterns running along the stations’ ceiling. And possibly you appreciated that their pictorial bas-relief motifs, like depictions of a sailing ship at South Ferry, helped the city’s large illiterate and non-English speaking population navigate the system. But we would wager that their large depictions of beavers to decorate the Astor Place station had you flummoxed. Sleepless nights no more: It’s a nod to the fact that John Jacob Astor made his fortune in the fur trade.
When to get off the train You know those evenings when, mindful of the scarcity of a stiff drink in the subway, you’ve overindulged before embarking on your ride? You start to get a little sleepy, and you’re at risk of missing your transfer. But the designers of stations built as part of the Independent, the last major expansion of the subway system, have you covered. Just bear in mind these simple rules as you take, say, the 6th Avenue line: All the station walls have a stripe of tiles in one of five color families. If you are heading away from downtown (either uptown or away from Brooklyn), a change in the color of tiles means you have reached an express station. If you are heading towards downtown, a change in color means you have just missed an express station. If the stripe is three tiles wide, you are at an express station; two tiles and you’re at a local. The colors will always follow the same order (purple, blue, green, yellow, red), unless you’re on the 8th Avenue/Fulton Street/Rockaway Line, where the order is red, blue, purple, green. But all bets are off if you’re on the Crosstown line, which has no express stations, so just uses three shades of green, with light green indicating transfer stations. Got it?
Where you can leer at a bit of leg In a modern mosaic installation at the Broadway line’s 23rd Street station, hats float on the walls of the subway. Each headpiece alludes to a famous New Yorker who could once be seen in the vicinity of 23rd Street and 5th Avenue. But the suspension of the hats mid-air also hints at a local legend that once gave this intersection the reputation as a good place to sight something else. The winds in this part of town have long been believed to be particularly ferocious, whipped up by the Flatiron Building, at least back when it was taller than any of its neighbors. According to nycsubway.org, this reputation attracted to the area young men eager for a glimpse of stockinged leg.
(Image: Wally Gobetz / Flickr)
People say New York is a walking city, but Manhattanites’ sheepish secret is that the saturation of subway stops makes it rare to have to walk very far. But there’s a glaring exception. God have mercy on any poor soul required to travel between East Harlem and Washington Heights or get from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side at short notice.
So why is it so hard to get from East to West in Manhattan?
When the Internet failed to answer this question (the cross-town immobility is so entrenched in the hearts of New Yorkers that even Google doesn’t question it), we turned to Professor Clifton Hood, author of the excellent subway history 722 Miles.
The answer: Follow the money.
Professor Hood told us to start by considering the handful of lines that do run across town in Manhattan, namely the 7 and the L.
“They’re going somewhere else – to Queens and to Brooklyn, respectively – and their crosstown service is mainly a matter of delivering passengers from those two boroughs to destinations in the heart of Manhattan business districts.”
Basically, to build a subway line is really, really expensive (just the first phase of the new Second Avenue subway line is costing $4.45 billion, for example).
The inordinate expense, according to Professor Hood, has, “been true no matter who’s doing the building – private companies, the city, or a public authority. Just about every subway line (other than the G) enters Manhattan business districts because such routes promise heavy traffic.”
That traffic can then offset the huge expense of building the line. But Professor Hood said he sympathized with people trying to get from the West to the East side.
“I lived at 84th and Broadway when I lived in Manhattan and I would have loved to be able to take a subway across to the UES, but even though it would have been a public service it wouldn’t have made financial sense.”
He added Central Park didn’t help either. “It’s kind of a blank spot on the subway map. You could imagine a crosstown subway starting on W 96th or W 72nd that would continue on to northern Queens, but lines emanating from midtown already went there.”
But, as Professor Hood’s book describes, the geographic and social landscape of New York is intertwined with the route the subway takes. Professor Hood considered a couple of potential implications of the limited East-to-West connection in Manhattan.
“First, that this absence preserved the residential character of the two areas. There’s no reason for the midtown business area to end at 59th St, since it had been moving up Manhattan for much of the 19th and earlier 20th century. Second, that it kept the UES the UES and the UWS the UWS – it kept these two areas from bleeding together and becoming even more similar than they already are.”
You can ponder that the next time you’re forced to take a snail-paced bus across Manhattan.