Riding on the Metro: A Visit to the Transit Museum

Last Sunday, I paid a visit to the New York Transit Museum, which is in an unused Brooklyn subway station. I first met friends  for lunch at the Atlantic Chip Shop and enjoyed a walk around Brooklyn Heights. That neighborhood is gorgeous, and there were people strolling through the drizzling rain with palms from Sunday services in their hands.

It is full of mass transit artifacts and history, from the first lines to the disappearing above ground trains to the buses. I got to learn a little bit more about the elevated train that used to be on Fifth Avenue, a block from my apartment, which was closed in 1940.

There were historical progressions of token machines and turnstiles, each a little less charming that the last in an effort to keep people from getting in for free. There was an interesting display of coins and objects that people had used to get in instead of buying tokens. Most of these were foreign coins, which reminded me of the Steal This Book advice I read a long time ago that actually listed the different coins that would work at the time. It seems like it would be more difficult to track down, say, a 5 cent Peruvian coin instead of just paying the 30 cents. Now we just have metro cards with garish colors that set off high pitched beeps when swiped. I can never figure out why they couldn’t at least make all the beeps the same tone, to keep the noise of so many people swiping in less dissonant.

The best part of the museum was the old subway platform, which had out-of-commission trains parked on both sides.

There was even an accessible control room, where we could see the different trains moving on the nearby lines as lights on a board.

Walking through the old cars was extraordinary. They were complete with vintage ads and maps. Here Eszter and Elizabeth examine the map to the past.

The trains I ride everyday are definitely an improvement on those that had exposed ceiling fans (danger of decapitation) or color schemes like an old mental asylum or Soviet submarine.

Others, however, with their wood benches and dangling straps were much more charming, although I’m sure riding in one would have been like riding an old wooden rollercoaster.

The old ads were still in the trains (or reprinted for them). I really like this ad for the zoo, where a kid seems to be fishing for a giant seal.

I also liked this vintage ad for WNYC, my beloved NPR source here in New York. Growing up, NPR was on in our house pretty much on from morning to night, and although I don’t have a radio now, I listen to WNYC every morning through iTunes.

This ad, however, was a little disturbing and I don’t know if it’s what I would want to stare at while commuting for 40 minutes. I guess I definitely wouldn’t let my kid play in the streets after a ride with it.

I read that the trains in the museum are changed out every four months, and I would love to go back and see more of the MTA’s past. They were actually circulating some of the vintage trains and buses in Manhattan during the holidays, but I was never able to find them.

I wonder how many trains are stored, and where they are. Maybe they are out at the edge of the tracks and they get driven through the stations to the museum. I like to imagine that coming home some night at 3 am has the chance of seeing a wooden train rumbling through the center track like a phantom.

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