On December 19th, Untapped correspondent and Columbia University urban planning student Alex Wallach went to check out the MTA Nostalgia Train ride. This article is a companion piece to the Untapped Paris coverage of the vintage metro ride in Paris.
Waiting on the downtown platform at the Bryant Park Station, I feared that it would never come. Twice today I had already been thwarted by this elusive train–both times only catching a glimpse before missing it. Train after train came, but still I waited. Then, without warning, the train pulled up to the platform before I could even turn around to snap a picture. Stepping aboard this hunter green vintage 1931 “R-1” subway car was taking a step back in time. Clearly, this train was worth the wait.
The MTA’s holiday “Nostalgia Train” is a collection of vintage subway cars that run on two Sundays each December between 10am and 5pm on the M line between Queens Plaza and 2nd Avenue. It’s just one of the Holiday Specials run by the MTA, which includes vintage buses running in all five boroughs, and decreased wait times on several lines.
The collection of different cars, which were in service from 1932 to 1977, had none of the air conditioning, hard plastic seats, or LED displays that we’re used to today. Instead, these green and blue cars boasted state-of-the-art features such as ceiling fans, padded wicker seats, and incandescent light bulbs that flickered on and off. Somewhat noisier and bumpier than your typical train ride, riding these trains is a whole different experience from seeing them in the transit museum. The slightly musty smell only added to the experience.
Almost as impressive as the subway cars were the vintage signs, maps and advertisements that lined the trains. A sign taped to the window read “Effective July 1, 1948, Fares on City-Owned Transit Lines will be 10 cents” Ads for war bonds, cigarettes, and black and white televisions helped create the illusion of being transported back in time. To complete the illusion, one car was taken over by a group of swing dancers, complete with a full swing band and period clothing. When the train stopped in Queens, the platform became an impromptu dance floor with dancers showcasing their moves before the crowd. I can only assume this type of spontaneous swing dancing occurred all the time in the 1930s.
For many of the riders, this was a novel experience. When the train pulled up to the station, you could just see the surprise in people’s faces–not an easy thing to do in New York. For others, the train was a way to revisit the past. One middle-aged man explained, “I just love these old trains. I remember riding them as a kid.” For me, the vintage train was a way to experience the New York I’ve only heard about in my parents’ stories. It turns out, my mom was right; subway cars really did have wicker seats when she grew up in the 1960s. Who knew? For a while, it was easy into escape to the romanticism of a different era. Then of course, there was the irate Jamaican woman who pushed through the crowded car and demanded that the swing dancers move out of her way–seemingly unaware that this was not her usual train. This is New York, after all.
Photographs by Alex Wallach