All photos via Jennimaria Palomaki for Viewing NYC
To visit the New York Transit Museum is, in many ways, to trace the history of the significant events, cultural forces, and technological advances that defined the City in the 20th and 21st centuries. The museum is underground, occupying an old subway station in Downtown Brooklyn, and is entered, appropriately enough, through the subway entrance at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street.
Visitors begin their tour with an interactive exhibit that details the dangers of digging the tunnels that would become the subterranean tracks of the subway system. The stories of laborers, waterboys, drillers, carpenters, and sandhogs who worked and sometimes died underground are told through photographs and artifacts. The exhibit is compelling both for the vivid depiction of the perilous working environment—made possible, yet even more perilous, by the machinery of the time—that workers endured and for the cultural context it provides with description of the ethnic and racial tensions that often kept them from unionizing. Only after going through this exhibit do visitors emerge onto the upper platform of the old station, as if to impress them with the fact that where they now see gleaming tile and concrete was once just dirt and rock that someone had to transform.
The upper platform features an exhibit detailing how MTA employees responded to disasters that wounded the city down to the muscle and bone of its transportation system, from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy. Along the opposite wall visitors can walk through and read about the evolution of the turn style, propelled as much by technological advancements as by the continual need to thwart fare dodgers. The facilities on the upper platform include a cafeteria space with a faux street scene and private event space, as well as a smaller exhibit about the 2nd Avenue Subway. And though these immersive experiences help visitors appreciate the complexity of New York City's transit system and the dedication of the people who built it and maintain it, the lower platform, which is still a functional subway stop, is reason enough to merit a visit.
It is there that the museum displays its rotating fleet of subway cars, spanning from the elevated wooden cars with wicker padding seats from the early 1900s to the chrome model we still ride today. The advertisements in the cars, as much as their interiors, help transport visitors to the City's past, with images, celebrities, and attitudes plucked right out the collective American memory. It's a testament to the importance of the subway system that so much of the life and culture of a city that extends into the sky can be found underground.
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