It’s doubtful that any Untapped readers need to be reminded about the importance of historic preservation and the unique layers of history hidden throughout New York, but if anyone needs a refresher she should spend some time with Joe Svehlak, a New York tour guide extrodinaire, and leader of the Municipal Art Society’s “Downtown Connections” tour on Sunday. Joe, a spry 72, has spent over 15 years at MAS, and before that he grew up in downtown New York and was a bike messenger there for many years. He answered every question we put to him, and did so with palpable enthusiasm for the history of New York City. The group met at St. Paul’s Chapel, across the street from the construction site of the Fulton Center.
Survival and change was the theme, as we examined a building that survived the fire of 1776 and the attacks on September 11th, and then looked across the street to the MTA capital project meant to unite multiple subway lines and provide a center for transportation around downtown New York.
How many minutes must elapse before you re-swipe your unlimited Metrocard at the same station? What is the highest subway station in the world, at 87 feet above ground? If you know the answers to these types of questions, you may have missed your true calling last Thursday night.The New York Transit Museum hosted its first Trivia night, and it was, to this observer’s eyes, a rousing success. Emcees Chris Kelley and Stuart Post diverted a packed hall of over 200 people, forming 42 competing teams. T
Over the summer, the Straphangers Campaign released its annual report of subway trains, ranking them on criteria such as “cleanliness,” “service regularity,” and “breakdown rate.” For the fourth year in a row, the C train was voted the “worst.” Of course, now we’re intrigued. We set out to find out what could be hiding in plain sight above the C train, from when it breaks off from the tangle of trains at Clinton-Washington Aves station, to when it rejoins other lines again at Broadway Junction.
For the past few weeks I’ve felt very exposed on the subway. As a member of the nascent New York Public TransLit Commuter Book Club, I dutifully read the selected volume on the subway, as a sort of signal of participation to anyone else in the club. No takers. It didn’t help my paranoia that the further I got into Andy Greenberg’s excellent This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information, the more aware I was of issues of privacy, information leaking, and anonymity.
Togather, the event’s organizer, is a sort of online meeting place for authors and readers, and serves as a way to populate and enliven literary events such as book tours. Anjelica Triola, Senior Marketing and Communications Manager at Togather, explained to me how with a field of over 300 authors, Togather is especially interested in introducing writers to their local audiences, and thus readers to the author that may be living down the street. The Public TransLit Book Club was inspired by a Seattle bus-riding version, with the added twist of bringing the readers and authors together for discussion.
On Wednesday, around 30 book-toting members pushed our way through a very lively networking event of the Young Education Professionals, down the stairs into the appropriately dim basement of Lolita Bar on the Lower East Side to hear from Greenberg.
Greenberg, who writes for Forbes and acknowledged the humor in covering “hackers for a billionaires’ magazine,” has spent years investigating the world of WikiLeaks and cryptography, delving ever deeper into the accompanying technical, ethical, and political implications. This Machine Kills Secrets begins with the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon papers, while tracing the convergences and divergences of that story with the one of Bradley Manning. The book then takes us back to the dawn of the internet, and shows how the impulse for anonymity, and the opposing one to expose it, have been present since then in the form of groups like the Cypherpunks, before moving back to WikiLeaks and the current state of anonymity efforts.
There are book reviews available of This Machine Kills Secrets; I barely understand some of the more technical concepts myself, and am hardly qualified to even mention Mix Networks or the differences between PGP and Tor identity-encryption. But I can give you an idea of how fascinating the talk was: about one-third of the way through, a drunk YEP attendee started down the stairs, got a glimpse of all of us, then ran back up and loudly complained, presumably to whomever had sent him down the stairs, “They’re all sitting down there mesmerized by some speaker!” We were.
The $30.40 I paid for the Public Translit Book Club bought me the book in hardcover, two drinks at Lolita, and a face-to-face with the author and other interested New Yorkers. In other words, it felt like a steal. And although no one approached me on the subway, it was exciting to imagine that there were other commuters out their holding up their book spines with anticipation instead of hiding the torrid love scenes of 50 Shades of Grey on their Kindle. I’ll be attending the next New York Public TransLit Commuter Book Club, and, hey, maybe you’ll know me by my subway reading.
Connect with the author at @kaygegay
Not everyone checks the transportation conversation on Twitter as obsessively as I do, but even a casual visitor over the past week would notice that the G train was on the mind of transit-interested New Yorkers, and probably most of the people living in North Brooklyn. While the G was down from Hurricane Sandy, the MTA refused to give predictions of when the IND Crosstown service would be back online, with conspiracy theorists claiming that reconstruction on the G would simply be delayed until we stop asking about it and the service becomes defunct.
I wouldn’t count on that happening. I know it’s a low-density line, and I understand that connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan was a main concern for the MTA (as a Windsor Terrace resident, I can attest that getting out of the borough was a nightmare for days). But as a typical “new” Brooklynite, I can also attest that the G is absolutely vital to my interests. It connects the hipster backbone of Long Island City, Williamsburg, and Park Slope. It cuts the commute time to Western Queens in half. It is the only subway winding its way through the heart of Bed-Stuy.
The MTA will not simply leave the IND Crosstown to rust, but as the only non-shuttle that doesn’t enter Manhattan I think the poor G often gets short shrift. So, while it was down for the count, I decided to appreciate the G, to “untap” it and show you the gems just above ground along the line.
GoogleMaps told me that my journey from the first G-only stop, Fulton St., to the northernmost Brooklyn station, Greenpoint, would be 4.4 miles and take 1 hour and 27 minutes. Since I’ve found that GoogleMaps usually thinks my walking speed is a brisk jog, I planned for a longer trip. [Final time: 2 hours and 37 minutes]
On Wednesday morning, G train service was brought back online, albeit slowly, and I’m more thankful for it than ever. At least now, as I wend my way northward, I’ll be able to imagine the route overhead.
Follow the author at @kaygegay
New York Transit Museum has opened Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-76, an exhibition on the history of this unusual pageant that advertised itself in the subway system for 35 years. At the opening, photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer were on hand to discuss the genesis and evolution of their project, along with four former Miss Subways.
The contest, run by New York Subway Advertising, was a way to improve sales by directing bored commuters’ eyes to photographs of smiling, attractive women strategically placed next to tobacco and chewing gum advertisements. Originally constructed as an application process, in 1963 the selection was opened up to popular vote with finalists and then winners displayed on posters in the subway cars.
Gardner discovered this lost little bit of New York history many years ago, and did the bulk of the research, tracking down former Miss Subways and photographing them. Zimmer interviewed the women, and extracts of her conversations are featured on wall labels next to Gardner’s contemporary photographs of the women in their current lives.
The juxtaposition of these women’s original ideas of their lives and their current existence traces a fascinating story of the evolution of women’s rights over the past 60 years. Gardner said that she wanted to emphasize “what represents the women now,” focusing on “this point in their lives” instead of their twenty-something self from the advertisements. She created portraits of them on her Hasselblad camera, in photographs that emphasize intimacy and locality: some women are shown in their homes or apartment buildings, others at their neighborhood transportation stations.
The exhibition is careful to portray the contest as well as it can, while not shirking from some of the underlying implications. It is notable, and commendable, that although the vast majority of Miss Subways were white, African-American Thelma Porter and Asian-American Helen Lee were both winners in the 1940s–a period not known for its progressive race relations. A more problematic aspect is the copy in the biographies themselves.
Although the NYTM exhibition notes that eventually more attention was paid to the women’s aspirations and career goals, that “more attention” is only apparent compared to most of the placards in the show, which read like G-rated personal ads. Contestants like music and pets; they volunteer and audition; they love family and want one of their own. Some of my favorite lines include “Withal, marriage and family are Neddy’s main life-design” and “plugging for B.A. but would settle for M.R.S.”
That last line was featured on the placard of Enid Berkowitz (now Schwarzbaum), Miss Subways in July 1946, and based on the delightful time I spent with her I gathered that it wasn’t her idea! Gardner’s portrait of Enid shows her surrounded by her own art, including a painting called The Golden Age of Chivalry which features Albrecht Durer’s Adam from 1507 proffering his apple to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini lady from 1434.
The irony implicit in this depiction of male-female relations was also evident in conversation with Enid, who was impatient to talk about things other than her moment of subway glory over 60 years ago. “It was lovely, it was fun, it was history,” she said. “It wasn’t an accomplishment, I was lucky to have good-looking parents. My work, my art””that’s an accomplishment.”
When I asked Enid if she was surprised when she heard from Gardner and Zimmer she replied that she was, because the name under which she had been Miss Subways had disappeared 63 years ago, when she married. We talked avidly about her family, art history, and feminism, and the 86-year-old evinced passion and charisma that was missing from her description in 1946.
The spry and elegant Enid, a living embodiment of the NYTM’s exhibition, was a powerful reminder that behind the silly copy of the subway placards were real women, who were molded temporarily to fit an advertising agenda, but had their own complicated relationships and roles that no one in the 1940s could have seen coming. And that is the most important part of Meet Miss Subways as a signpost exhibition””look how far we’ve come; look how far we have to go.
Get in touch with the author @kaygegay