Inwoodists, Upper Manhattanites, and those from the boroughs are likely to spend significant amounts of their time (and, ultimately, lives) underground, especially if they work in midtown or downtown. While I would prefer to spend my precious daylight hours above ground enjoying the air and scenery--my favorite form of urban transportation is the streetcar--the subway is our best option at present for rapid commuting around the city:
- Elevated trains are lovely to ride as a passenger (light, views), but they mar the street landscape, block light to houses and businesses, and make a lot of noise.
- Buses are useful for local door-to-door service (example: 207 St. to 231 St.) and for transporting the elderly and disabled (given that so many subway stations are not elevator-equipped or wheelchair accessible), but they get mired in Manhattan above-ground traffic just like every other automobile. I remember taking the BxM1 express bus one morning to the East Side. It was a cushy bus that flew right along, almost making a convert of me--until it got to 125 St., which point it crawled along with the rest of the traffic to 42 St.
- Any subway alternatives--monorails, light rail, PRT--would require massive planning and infrastructure investments that are highly unlikely to emerge any time soon, if ever.
Considering that much of the Manhattan underground constitutes a vast civic space, can't our city show it some love, work a little beautification magic, and brighten our lives? Wouldn't it be an uplifting experience to walk into a reasonably clean station with some aesthetic and historic interest? Riding the 1 train, it's clear that the IRT designers paid attention to station aesthetics: beautiful mosaics can be found at several points on the line, including 191, 168, and 66 streets. On the 4/5/6 line, there's some delectable glazed ceramic at Astor Place, and City Hall is allegedly the crown jewel of the system, although, alas, it has been closed to the public since 1945 (the folks at Forgotten NY manage to get in there occasionally).
So, what could the city do to help us aesthetically deprived subway riders out?
- More aggressive station cleaning: who wants to watch rats forage among trash-laden tracks while sniffing eau de pissoir? And is there a reason why everything has to look so dirty? I thought tile was supposed to be easy to clean.
- Installation of durable artworks (mosaics, metal sculpture) by local artists in stations; this would have the side benefit of supporting and promoting local artists. Tom Otterness's Life Underground installation at 14 St. is one fine example.
- Renovation that respects a station's design history and intentions by preserving architectural details and other aesthetically significant features (such as mosaics and art tile), while installing visually pleasing and easy-to-clean materials where possible. (On a side note, making all stations accessible to the elderly and disabled is a must.)
- Renovation that adds interesting visual details to otherwise aesthetically challenged stations (175 St).
- With the surfeit of architectural and design talent floating around this city, why not hold design competitions that would encourage talent to submit plans for low-cost station beautification? It could even be a reality show--send in the Fab 5, some ambitious students from Parsons or Columbia, or whomever--to give your favorite decrepit station a makeover.
- "Clean up your station day" initiatives
- An "Adopt a Station" program that would encourage businesses and prominent individuals to fund station maintenance and beautification in exchange for in-station promotion such as a wall plaque, posted ads, etc. Heck, I could live with a McDonald's-branded station if it was tastefully done. An example is the Columbus Circle station, which has an entrance maintained by the Time Warner Center.
How do you think the city should go about beautifying its stations?