Two weekends ago I was in New York City for 33 hours, thanks to the ridiculous Expedia.ca deal that popped up. This was my second visit to NYC, as I spent about a week there during the fall last year. For this quickie trip, I wanted to get off the beaten path a little bit and see parts of the city that tourists might not normally venture into. I also wanted to spend some time in one of the city’s other boroughs besides Manhattan.
While looking up some information about the NYC subway system, I found a page on the Metropolitan Transit Agency’s site that mentioned their Transit Museum. The museum is located in Brooklyn, not far from the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. The museum features exhibits about the NYC subway system from its beginnings to the present day. I was intrigued since I find mass transit systems fascinating (probably because my beloved hometown doesn’t really have one beyond a basic bus system). There’s just something fun about stepping on a train and ending up somewhere new and interesting a few stops later. Plus, transit systems provide lots of interesting people-watching opportunities.
From the website, I wasn’t sure if there would be enough in the museum to keep my attention for more then 30 minutes. But since it was located near the A train I would take back to the JFK airport and I was planning a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, I wouldn’t have to go far out of my way to get there. Besides, at $6 for adult admission the price was right.
So after my brisk Brooklyn Bridge stroll I descended the steps into the museum. I almost walked by it at first- it’s located in an old subway station and the entrance looks like all the other subway stations around the area. Inside, the museum has an opening exhibit about what it took to build the subway system. From digging up streets to elaborate pressurization systems that sometimes gave workers the bends, it’s no easy task to build a subway through a busy city. The exhibit lets visitors peer through a hole to see the different layers of dirt and rock workers had to dig through. Visitors can also try lifting heavy wheelbarrows filled with rocks that workers had to haul away from work sites.
Other exhibits show how the payment system and turnstiles for the subway have changed over the years. From nickel fares that were paid at turnstiles monitored by humans to tokens that were often swapped out with counterfeits to the modern-day swipe cards with turnstiles designed to foil people who would try to jump over them, the changes to the payment system reflect the rise in fares and the improvements in technology that makes the system easier to use for both the passengers and the MTA. The museum has a collection of items like all the tokens and cards used through the years and a selection of “slugs”- counterfeit tokens- that people have used.
The museum also has an area devoted to the bus system that the MTA also runs. It has several models of buses that people can sit in and pretend to drive or ride in. The bus exhibit talked about the history of the bus system and included some interesting facts. My favorite fact was when the bus system’s payment system was integrated with the subway system’s, ridership soared since riders needed just one card to use both systems.
One section that I enjoyed was the subway art section. I enjoy seeing the colorful displays, like the tile art depicting revelers at a Times Square stop, or the playful metal figures on the floor of the 14th St./8th Ave. stop along the A line.
But the best part of the museum was downstairs. Since the museum occupies a decommissioned subway station, the
old tracks are still connected to the rest of the subway system. Which means that the museum could roll in trains used in decades past for visitors to step on and walk around in. The museum had over a dozen cars, each one showing the evolution from the earliest wooden designs to today’s metal cars. They’re like time capsules- right down to the advertising on the walls. Some of the ads were aimed at housewives who wanted whiter clothes or to men who might find Jane Fonda’s latest role in “Barbarella” interesting. Others were PSAs encouraging people to get chest x-rays or to vote for the next “Miss Subways”. But my favorite ad features a man on his front lawn dashing to get inside his house to answer the ringing phone. The text reads “When you call someone by telephone . . . Please give him plenty of time to answer.” It just seems so quaint. It was easy to imagine myself as a subway rider from some bygone era in those trains.
Besides the trains downstairs, there’s a control center that shows live where some of the trains on the A and C lines are moving and includes communications between those trains and dispatchers. The center also shows some of the safety measures the MTA employs to prevent accidents, such as emergency brakes on the tracks that will stop a train that goes through a red light.
The museum is a very kid-friendly one. I happened to be visiting when a birthday party for a 7-year-old was being held, complete with tablecloths and cups with the MTA subway map on them. The kids really loved the bus and train displays where you could pretend to be a driver and ringing the bell on the trains downstairs.
Overall, the museum is worth a visit if you have any interest in learning more about NYC’s transit system or are looking for a fun place to take the kids for a couple of hours. Or if you happen to be stuck in a blizzard as many folks were this past weekend and need something fun to do.
I was able to look at everything in the museum in about two and a half hours. The museum is located in Brooklyn at the intersection of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn St. near stops for the 2,3,4,5,M,R,A,C and F trains. If you’re walking or driving, it’s just a couple of blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. For more information about the museum, visit their page on the MTA site.