Nothing illustrates the economic and moral bankruptcy of the country that calls itself a superpower better than the midtown Manhattan subway complex on Lexington avenue. I recently had the misfortune to find myself there after a light rain. Above the station, the area is filled with rather impressive corporate high rise structures and large window stores. The stores seem to be large corporate middlemen chains that satisfy American desire for goods that their economic/political system is unable to provide. They link foreign manufacturers with shoppers eager to try on things made in Italy, China, and even Malaysia. These large open chains are staffed with local peoples such as minorities living on the outskirts of New York and white college graduates unable to find employment in their field. But that’s a story for another day. I am mentioning the flashy above ground consumer bazaars to provide a contrast to what goes on underground. After all, midtown Manhattan is not only one of the supposedly most sophisticated areas of American civilization, but one of the wealthiest to live in.
I descend about 2 floors down and find myself on a platform where local trains stop. The air got noticeably stuffier and less pleasant. I see that the instead of columns going to the ceiling, there are just steel construction site beams that are recoated with paint occasionally. I am distracted however and find that I am on the wrong platform for the uptown headed train. I find an underpass and go through it. The underpass is narrow and filthy. There’s various dirty doors on each side. If somebody was shown a picture of such a passage, they would think they are looking at a hallway of a third world local holding prison. It definitely had an oppressive yellowish atmosphere of a structure run by authorities who don’t care if its underfunded (due to people using it not mattering). Considering it’s just a quick underpass I really didn’t give it much thought as I emerged on the other side.
Missing an uptown local train leaving the station, as a mob of people squeezed into it with great urgency, I decided to try my luck with the uptown express train. It turned out that the express platform is much deeper underground (compared to the usual American standard of cheap trench tunnel construction) and even has an escalator. Escalators are absent on most other stations throughout the city and even this seemingly deep tunnel only had one going up. However, there do seem to be elevators at some points for pregnant women, those with baby carriages, and the elderly. As I descended, the air got more oppressive and I began to feel this urge to almost go back up due to the increasing stuffiness and dankness around me. I saw people begin to ride the escalator from below. Great, another train missed. That gave me a great educational opportunity to observe what lay ahead of me in great detail.
As I exit on to the uptown express platform, the first thing that strikes my eye is how low the ceilings are. They are already low as a rule of thumb in NYC, but this deepest station takes the cake. As I look on what is just a few feet above me, I see brown rust and grime stretching in all directions and covering everything. Huge protruding paint flakes covered with layers of industrial dust are everywhere and are rather uniform. It doesn’t appear to be just one patch but every single bit of the ceiling. It then occurred to me that the garbage and dirt above me is not an isolated incident or result of some construction project. It appeared to have been the NORMAL daily state of the platform. Unlike the thick steel beams every few meters, authorities didn’t care enough or didn’t have the funds to pay somebody to rip off the flakes and throw some paint on the ceiling. Such state of disrepair perhaps can be expected in underground sewage systems, old Soviet factories, or unused World War 2 bunker hallways and such. It was incredible sight to see at a mass transit hub. My entire attention was transfixed on the dark flaky garbage colored ceiling. The sheer unpleasantness of it was mesmerizing since it was everywhere without contrast to “repaired” patches or something resembling a ceiling of an often used metropolitan complex.
My gaze slowly drifted down to the sheets of metal separating the two train tracks. The uneven rust and thick cover of industrial dust did not end. Visualize one of the large machines working at a landfill to scoop or bulldoze the garbage and dirt. The texture and color of both the ceiling and separator walls was same as the bulldozer’s unwashed blade. It had similar clumps of unidentifiable matter stuck on to it. If one takes into account the floor and track (to which I’ll get to in a moment), over 75% of the surface at a Manhattan midtown subway station was the same as one within a garbage compactor.
Numbly I turn my attention down and see water and garbage.
No I am not in Mumbai, Tbilisi, or Mexico City. This is an important city in United States and home to thousands of millionaires. There were literally pools of water and piles of garbage a couple yards away from me alongside the entire length of the visible train tracks. There was probably more water there than usual because of the rain but I have come across subway stations where water is always present regardless of conditions outside. I thought to myself that at least there’s no water dripping onto the platform itself. As I walked further where there was a cluster of waiting people, there was liquid dripping from some source in the ceiling onto the waiting area. The ghastly visual was complete with a large crushed cockroach by the stairwell opening and a rat that scurried amidst the garbage and water bottles by the tracks. Some of the water bottles in question had such a thick layer of industrial dirt on them and seemed to be so embedded into the ground, as to suggest possibility of weeks or even months of being there.
What brought a nauseating feeling was not the fact of being in a dungeon the interior of which is not even suited for an overcrowded prison in Pakistan or Iran. It was the fact that such a garbage filled filthy dungeon is totally accepted by millions of transit users in one of the richest cities of a supposed superpower. Millions of people spend thousands of hours of their life waiting down there and enjoying the scenery with all of their 5 senses. I had a strong urge to videotape and take photographs of these scenes just in case they get closed down tomorrow because of some public health decree. Of course they wont disappear since they’ve been getting slightly more filthy every year due to continual fiscal situation within NYC governance. And then an absurd realization came over me that if people were to stand with their gaping mouths while taking many pictures, they could theoretically get stopped by the authorities. I am not sure whether post-911 camera photography ban is still in place but the mere legalistic possibility added to the absurdity.
The people at the platform were not he happiest looking bunch. Their facial expressions were those of downright misery and hopelessness. There was some unfriendly anger scattered on the faces of the business suit wearing whites in their 30s but most in the waiting cluster had a resigned unhappy look. Importance of portable music is clearly on display here. It is amazing that residents of New York City ( city that the world thinks itself very familiar with from endless movies and overfly shots of the skyscrapers) could come to a point where they accept the squalor of their infrastructure. Their faces tell that they feel it, are subconsciously unnerved by it, but have trained to suppress it and become resigned. Some individuals, finding nothing pleasant to look at, fidgeted and paced while occasionally leaning to look for the train. There were no overhanging electronic screens like in London (which doesn’t have the best subway in the world mind you) to notify when the next train is coming or when any trains are coming at all. It seemed we’ve spent a long time down there but
it was just a few minutes.
It’s a wonder that the MTA transit strikes don’t happen more often considering the average salary of about 50 grand for those toiling for years in the garbage and rodent filled darkness. Perhaps the threats of fining a million dollar per day against the unions and other Giuliani era tactics work after all.
The train that arrived was the new silver model used on the green line. It was already caked with splotches of brown dirt and it seemed unthinkable that there could be an older model in its place. Of course most NYC trains are indeed the older dimmer lit models used more often to service connections to minority neighborhoods. Those trains don’t have the cutting edge technology of telling you what time it is or what the next stop is without the occasional barking from the wired audio. The people on the train weren’t much happier and greeted the newcomers with looks of downright hostility. The whole miserable experience was only ended with climbing out into the rainy street outside.
No words can describe the platform in question adequately. Please, whenever you happen to be in NYC, visit the 59th Street Lexington green line uptown express waiting area and see for yourself. It is the best illustration of the infrastructural rot found throughout the whole organism that is United States. Don’t mind the surface coating of middlemen stores stuffed with products produced by foreign factories, get underground since that’s the real America. If midtown Manhattan station has the lowest functional minimum of funding and maintenance (while serving millions of residents and serving as window to the world for millions of tourists), what hope for livability do cities like Detroit have? This and this photos (as well as one used by the article name) don’t show a station as bad as the one I described but gives a taste for the average quality found elsewhere in the New York mass public transport.