A first ride on the Second Avenue Subway
New train for a new year: the city’s highly anticipated transit line opens at last
By Madeleine Thompson
The crowd waiting to board an uptown Q train at the 57th Street/Seventh Avenue Station was in an unusually festive mood. Musicians played jaunty tunes, camera crews set up to shoot and people smiled as friends and family members took their pictures in front of the train. As the clock struck noon, the train’s doors slid open and everyone cheered, proud and excited to be the first ones to ride it. ”Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice intoned over the loudspeaker, “this is a 96th Street/Second Avenue bound Q train.”
Nearly 100 years and more than $4 billion after it was initially proposed, the Second Avenue Subway opened to the public at noon on New Year’s Day. The three new stations at East 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets will hopefully bring some relief to the jam-packed 4/5/6 line, which has been bearing the brunt of the heaviest total subway ridership the city has seen since 1948.
Sarah Quin, who lives on the Upper East Side at First Avenue, called her morning commute on the 4/5/6 “a disaster.” Despite her worry that rents in the area will skyrocket, Quin said she hopes the benefits of the new line outweigh the costs. “I’m worried for people who have been here a long time, and for small business along Second Avenue,” she said. “But I’m super pumped about actually having subway service.” Quin had come to ride the first uptown Q train with two friends who were equally excited. “I felt like the most important part of my transition into adulthood was knowing how to use the subway system,” said Finn Vigeland, a friend of Quin’s and self-described transit nerd. “I love trains, so to actually see this happen is thrilling.”
As the train traveled from one station to the next, riders pressed their faces to the windows hoping to discern differences between these dark tunnels and the ones they knew so well. Several people remarked at how clean the new tunnels were. However, the trip was not without glitches. The automated voice announced at 72nd Street that the next stop would be 72nd Street instead of 86th Street. A young boy who had just boarded with his dad could be overheard saying, “They had one job!”
The train was also briefly held at the 63rd Street/Lexington Avenue station, to which another rider said, “Typical MTA.” Families with young children were one of the biggest categories of visitors on Sunday, and it was clear they had been preparing for this moment. Some kids carried train-related picture books or were wearing clothing with subway iconography. One girl brought her miniature MTA bus toy along.
Apart from the generally gleeful mood, the ride itself was like any other. It was the stations themselves that people had come to see. Artist Chuck Close’s tiled portraits of up-close faces were a big hit at 86th Street, especially because they reflect the city’s diversity. So, too, did Vik Muniz’s mosaic portraits at 72nd Street. A gay couple holding hands, a woman in a sari with a cellphone, a police officer with a dripping popsicle and a man with a saxophone are just a few of the characters Muniz featured. Some are real New Yorkers, like jazz musician George Braith, who is depicted holding his instrument. Braith himself showed up on Sunday to pose next to his portrait, and was soon mobbed by delighted passersby with camera phones. One man asked Braith why he was chosen to be immortalized in tile. Braith replied: “Listen to my music and you’ll see.”
Artist Sarah Sze, who has had her work displayed on the High Line, also created a large mosaic titled “Blueprint for a Landscape” at 96th Street. The blue and white tiles depict objects such as trees, birds and paper whirling around in a vortex that sweeps throughout the station.
Aside from the art, the stations are decorated mostly in black and white, with stairs, escalators and elevators of shiny chrome. They are large and well-lit, and feel significantly less like damp caves than many of the older stations. The second floor of each station features large cut-out sections, allowing commuters to look down on the platform activity below. Grey beams reading “E Pluribus Unum” and “Excelsior,” the New York state motto, stretch across the openings. Men’s and women’s bathrooms located in each station received mixed reactions from visitors who were excited about them but concerned that they would become dirty and unsafe.
On Sunday, no signs of the New Year’s Eve party that had taken place the night before were visible. Governor Andrew Cuomo and MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast, who announced on Monday that he will be retiring after 25 years, threw a celebratory bash on Dec. 31st for the many people who helped bring to the new line to life. Together, they took the inaugural ride through the tunnels. Mayor Bill de Blasio was there as well, but did not give a speech. The mayor’s tense relationship with the governor is widely known, and the months of back-and-forth on funding, planning and executing the construction of the Second Avenue subway only added fuel to the fire. The MTA is ultimately under gubernatorial control, though New York City is by far the most impacted by its decisions. East Side politicians Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Council Member Ben Kallos also rang in the New Year underground, and Maloney even returned on Sunday to hand out free Metrocards to the first group of visitors at the 86th Street station.
Wearing neon vests, MTA employees lined the platforms to shepherd riders on and off the trains. Still more handed out pamphlets with a detailed map of the new stations that put the momentous occasion somewhat in perspective. The addition of three stations constitutes the biggest expansion in many years, but it does not come close to accomplishing the original vision for a Second Avenue line. In 1929, nine years after the idea was first pitched by former city official Daniel L. Turner, the transportation board recommended that the new line stretch from Houston Street to 125th Street. Given that it took almost 100 years to construct just three stations, and given the dire financial state of infrastructure projects across the country, a completed Second Avenue line spanning Manhattan’s east side seems less than likely. The next phase, should there be one, would extend the route to 125th Street in East Harlem. Many may never see that happen, so New Yorkers aren’t taking the recent progress for granted.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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