A lesser-known holiday tradition for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is to put vintage subway cars–usually on display at the New York Transit Museum–back in service, but for a limited time only. The “Shoppers Special” operates annually on Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, departing several times a day from the 2nd Ave. station and making local stops along the 6th Ave F/M line to Queens Plaza.
This special 8-car train consists of R1/9 “City Cars” that ferried passengers throughout the city from 1930 to 1970, along unrecognizable lines like the AA, BB, CC, EE, and H. As the MTA puts it, “The jazz composer Billy Strayhorn would have taken a City Car to Sugar Hill when Duke Ellington told him to ‘Take the A Train.’”
This special subway ride will transport you in more ways than one: the train cars are decorated with era-appropriate ads, as documented here by Business Insider. And the cars themselves are a nostalgia trip, with “rattan seats, ceiling fans, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash style windows, and roll signs” (MTA). Swinging metal hanging “straps” help brace standing riders: the swinging lets you sway more with the motion of the train than the parallel grab bars in their modern counterparts. The light bulbs overhead consistently flicker off–for one thrilling moment–between stations. The antiquated emergency brakes, relatively low ceiling fans, and insistently closing doors all mark a charming but less foolproof era.
To ensure subway riders don’t play a game of chicken with the subway doors–as current cars allow and present-day commuters routinely test–MTA operators are stationed in every car of the Shoppers Special. The ceiling fans and air vents provide excellent ventilation and a whoosh feeling of truly traveling that is missing from the current enclosed subway cars. That may be in part because the doors between cars are left open on the Shoppers Special, to encourage riders to cross over and continue their journey between eras.
While most of the train cars are from the 1930s and 1940s, one car looks noticeably different: because it was designed to look noticeably different. Car No. 1575 looks more contemporary because it was a prototype, meant to replace the older cars that compose the rest of the throwback train. It’s still a noticeable departure from the current subway car, however.
Commissioned for the Independent Subway System (IND) and operating for over 40 years, the R1/9 cars that comprise ⅞ of the Shoppers Special are the basis for the current subway car R160 model, and even the upcoming R211 cars. The durability of the R1/9 model cars is evident in their long run, and in the smooth ride enjoyed by modern straphangers: a mixed bag comprised of surprised New Yorkers, New Yorkers in the know (some even dressed for the occasion in period wear), tourists, and many delighted children.
The popularity of this yearly tradition demonstrates the public’s avid interest in an older New York, documented by projects like the Tenement Museum. The New York Transit Museum gives a good glimpse of what commuting might have looked like in the early or mid-20th century. This photo tour by Business Insider serves as a quick introduction. Articles by Smithsonian and Untapped Cities describe additional hidden wonders and subway secrets:
- abandoned subway stations/platforms/levels
- the underwater graves of subway cars
- a long-running subway beauty pageant
- a pneumatic subway car that stretched one city block
- armored Money Trains that carried subway fare money to a secret room in Brooklyn for counting
- a fake Brooklyn townhouse that functions as a ventilation shaft and emergency subway exit
- the Signal Learning Center at 14th Street station
- a small, subway-accessible NYPL branch
- the entrance to the historic Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square station
- the Masstransiscope art installation at the abandoned Myrtle Ave subway station
- a bedecked private subway car–every commuter’s fever dream
Interest in such an integral New York institution will never abate. So the next time you’re riding the subway, consider that your car may host a nostalgia ride 50 years from now…
The Empire State Building is an iconic pulse of the New York City skyline, standing apart from the cluster of skyscrapers in the Financial District. It serves as a helpful directional signpost for residents and tourists, who simply have to look up to tell if they are walking uptown or downtown. And for decades the building’s tower lights have broadcasted significant events through color schemes projected against a stark, starless sky. How can a simple patch of land–originally a farm, then the site of the Waldorf Astoria, then the base of the tallest skyscraper in the world, for a time–become one of the most recognizable mastheads of New York City?
Even while under construction, the Empire State Building was a favorite subject of the visual medium. Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine was hired to document the historic project in 1930. Famous for his socially progressive portfolio, which helped lead to child labor reform, Hine documented an interesting angle of his assignment. He brought the skeletal building to life on film through the crew of 3400 construction workers–mainly immigrants from Newfoundland and Scandinavia, as well as Irish-Americans and Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. To match the fearless competence of these men “‘”strolling on the thin edge of nothingness,’” as described by C. G. Poore in the New York Times, Hine had to take extreme measures. His remarkable, floating photographs–now available online in the NYPL digital collection–do not reveal the lengths the photographer went to in order to capture the laborers’ daring feats. “In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.”
Less than two years after it was opened by President Hoover in 1931, the Empire State Building was immortalized in the 1933 classic movie King Kong. Juxtaposing the animal kingdom with an urban jungle, the mammoth gorilla meets his end perched atop the Empire State Building, swatting planes from the sky and clutching his delicate human prize. Although the original and remakes use footage shot on soundstages and rely heavily on special effects, King Kong helped to embed the Empire State Building in people’s minds as a permanent fixture in the New York City skyline.
Even after the World Trade Centers surpassed its height in the early 1970s, the Empire State Building went on to have a long, storied film career. Synonymous with the Big Apple, the structure has become representative of American prosperity and ambition.
It has featured in the destruction wrought by dystopian films, like Independence Day (1996) and Oblivion (2013), as a symbol of human achievement pitted against the destructive forces of alien invaders and Mother Nature. It has appeared in superhero films, like The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Superman II (1980), as a hallmark of New York pride and perseverance. It has been depicted in movies like Elf (2003) and Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) as a signal for New York newcomers. It has figured into romcoms like An Affair to Remember (1957), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and–perhaps most famously–Sleepless in Seattle (1993), as a crucial rendezvous, a measure of long-distance relationships, and a metaphor for larger-than-life love. And since 9/11, the Empire State Building has become even more critical to the New York cityscape–as a sign of American endurance.
The Statue of Liberty is one of the most iconic landmarks in New York City, not to mention all of America and the world. A gift from France and welcoming beacon to immigrants, Lady Liberty has a storied history. It stands to reason that there should be a museum to honor her legacy and the many citizens she’s ushered into the United States.
This will be exactly the case on Ellis Island come 2019. A $70 million dollar museum is being built in devotion to the 130-year-old statue’s compelling past, present, and history. A groundbreaking ceremony on October 6, 2016 unveiled gorgeous renderings of the Statue of Liberty Museum, which will be designed by NYC-based architecture firm FXFOWLE.
The museum is a collaboration between the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and the National Park Service. Entry will be included in the $18 ferry ticket price; this way, all visitors to Ellis Island will have access to what’s shaping up to be a stunning exhibit.
According to Business Insider, the 26,000 square foot museum will have four segments. First is the entrance way, featuring a mural comprised of 50-star sculptures made from iron bars donated by Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower. These bars supported the statue for 100 years, and will now serve as a gorgeous and patriotic embellishment for the new museum.
Further inside, a theater space will introduce visitors to the museum and the Statue of Liberty’s history. Past the theater, an area called the Engagement Gallery will take the experience further with interactive exhibits that detail the intricacies of the statue’s construction.
Lastly, a beautiful exit space will let visitors add their own photos and signatures to an interactive wall, allowing them a place in the Statue of Liberty’s living legacy. The entire museum will be constructed out of the same material as the statue—Stony Creek granite, bronze, and plaster—while a beautiful grass-covered roof keeps the space lush and green.
As New York City evolves, it’s always exciting to see our most treasured historic relics honored by new development projects. Many of us can trace our ancestry to Ellis Island, so its significance in American history cannot be overstated. In its early stages, the new museum appears to do our country, city, and ancestors proud. As this project comes to life, it will no doubt become another chapter in the Statue of Liberty’s incredible story, making the destination all the more memorable for tourists and New Yorkers alike.
When it comes to New York City real estate, most residents wish they had more space: to open up a wall and discover a whole extra room would be nothing short of a dream come true. But in a city with 27,000 people per square mile — the highest population density of any major US city — what you see is what you get, and usually what you pay for too.
But the idea of hidden rooms and passageways, even in New York City, is more than just the subject of millennial imaginations. A recent New York Times article tackled just that: hidden spaces, both new and old.
The older hidden spaces, surveyed by the Times, served practical purposes. In one Brooklyn church, for example, a stairway leads to a secret basement the size of a city block, once part of the Underground Railroad. Inside the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s a hidden Cold War bunker. Though you might enjoy the idea of secret passages for the novelty, many people have relied on them historically to stay safe.
That’s not to say secret rooms can only be bunkers. One couple in Brooklyn, for example, discovered a crawl space large enough to transform into a quirky playroom for their young daughter. Others pay contractors like Creative Home Engineering as much as $25,000 to build secret rooms into their homes for aesthetic or personal reasons.
In her three-bedroom apartment on 15th Street and Fifth Avenue, finance worker Sara Nainzadeh had a secret entrance built, opening up to a private office by a tug on a Shel Silverstein book. Asides from storing her safe, the room acts as a retreat from the world.
A couple in TriBeCa, the Watsons, have a secret room built entirely for books: a secret library that doubles as a guest room. Their Duplex on Warren Street is selling for $19.5 million.
Still, others have them implemented as a sort of long-term investment in an uncertain future. With the growing state of technological and government surveillance, many think a private escape is more than worthwhile. If there were needs in the past for such safe spaces, who is to say, 30 years down the line, they won’t be useful again?
Hopefully most of us will never need secret rooms for life or death reasons. But if such spaces do come back in style, why not run with it? A little intrigue in real estate is never a bad thing.
After a contentious presidential election in which immigration policy was, and remains, a crucial issue, Americans might consider their roots as a country of immigrants. As illustrated by this colorful animation, the United States has welcomed and (gradually) integrated a rainbow of people. Ellis Island began processing European immigrants as early as 1855, though the post did not fall under federal jurisdiction until 1892. Immigration slowed in the early 20th century due to the upheaval of the first world war, as well as new laws regulating and restricting immigration—an early taste of globalization. Until 1954, Ellis Island served as the portal for so many to this new world of opportunity. And their first stop was New York City.
New York is recognized as one of the most dense and expensive cities in the world, so how did all these newcomers get their start? How did they find the room and resources to settle in a teeming metropolis? As admirably documented and even reconstructed by New York’s own Tenement Museum, early immigrants lived in incredibly crowded conditions and worked hard to make ends meet. Modern day New Yorkers might scoff: How much more crowded can it get? The answer is very. Back then, tenants far exceeded the maximum occupancy requirements enforced today, and the overcrowding resulted in slum-like conditions.
Immigrants tended to settle into tightly-packed ethnic enclaves. These silos easily became self-sufficient, if situationally segregated, as described in the recently released City of Dreams by Tyler Anbinder. The New York Times book review summarizes nicely: “The social benefits of the immigrant enclave were immense, especially at a time when governments didn’t provide much in the way of garbage collection — roving pigs were about the best slum dwellers could expect until later in the 19th century — much less social services. […] Immigrant civic groups sprang up to meet every sort of need from the medical to the recreational to the spiritual.”
So New York City’s neighborhoods and culture were greatly shaped by these immigrant populations, giving us the Little Italy and Chinatown we know today. And the city’s current immigration stance recognizes its roots. Since 2014 the city has more than doubled its budget for immigrant services, like legal representation, and aims to integrate documented and undocumented alike with programs like IDNYC.
The experience of today’s immigrants is very different from that of 19th century immigrants: globalization has smoothed over many transitional difficulties and barriers. For those who settle here—perhaps after a roundabout journey and certainly with some degree of struggle and sacrifice—buying property can be symbolically powerful: a sign that they have arrived, they belong, and they own a piece of the American Dream. Although travel and language are not the obstacles they once were, institutions can still stand in the way of this transaction. Credit histories, international accounts, the intricacies of loans and mortgages, and the nuances of a real estate translated across a language barrier considerably complicate the process. And any New Yorker will readily tell you that the city’s uber-attractive real estate market is unlike anywhere else, with complex rules, interviews, appointments, fees, and paperwork to boot. The applied simmer of competition—with supply greatly outweighing demand—turns this all into a fine stew. Not to mention the ever-rising value of New York real estate.
An interesting and relatively recent federal program (1990) rewards foreign investment in American real estate with green cards. This program has a certain irony, since owning real estate would have been a challenge for immigrants in the past, but now investing from abroad affords investors the opportunity to live in the states. The EB-5 federal visa program gives legal residency to investors (and their dependents) who infuse half a million to a million upfront in real estate development deals.
This program has become increasingly popular since the market crashed and housing bubble burst. Loans are now harder to come by, so developers looked outward. Many large real estate projects in New York—Hudson Yards, Pacific Park, International Gem Tower, and the New York wheel—use a model reliant on foreign investment, since investors will accept lower interest rates with the added visa incentive. So to invite people abroad to invest in US real estate before they even arrive, and often independent of their eventual domestic residence, is the new and preferred method of immigration, particularly for the Chinese. This article by The Real Deal magazine is an in-depth look at the impact of this new wave of Chinese immigrants on the existing tenants of Chinatown and other areas of New York City real estate investment.
For an idea of what New York City real estate looked like to immigrants in the late 1800s, check out King’s handbook of New York City by Moses King, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, and take a tour of the Tenement Museum. Though it won’t stop New Yorkers from complaining about square footage, it will certainly put things in perspective, including the national debate on immigration.
If you leave New York City for any length of time, you will return to find it familiar and yet endlessly adapted–ruthlessly updated. In the city that never sleeps, that is both timeless and modern, that changes constantly and yet stands eternal, history takes on a special dimension that doesn’t take up any extra square footage.
In an admirable effort, residents and organizations have documented the rich history behind the myth and legend of New York City. Here are eight experts you should follow to keep up with the evolution.
Imagine your apartment building–perfectly preserved and inoculated by time–has reopened by historians. 70 years later, it can now toured by curious visitors. In viewing your perfectly preserved or restored apartment, they try to understand what life was like at this point in history: what has changed and what has stayed the same in this ephemeral city.
Touring other people’s apartments fulfills deep-seated voyeuristic tendencies inherent to New Yorkers, to whom space is a precious commodity. Touring a fellow New Yorker’s apartment removed by the span of several dozen years and a handful of generations is now a unique educational treat, courtesy of the Tenement Museum.
On a mission to document the immigrant experience and New York City’s tenement communities, historian and social activist Ruth Abram and Tenement Museum co-founder Anita Jacobson stumbled across a time capsule at 97 Orchard Street. Just one building on a block of many housed nearly 7000 working class immigrants during its lifespan. Operating from 1863 to 1935, tenants were subsequently evicted and the higher floors shuttered, due to a building code upgrade that never happened.
Discovered in this condition in 1988 and re-opened in 1992, the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side is a fascinating and ever-expanding look into the history of the city, through the eyes of the people who fundamentally shaped it. It documents the struggle and magnifies the story of a movement in microcosm. Perhaps most fascinating for its focus on history through people and stories, the Tenement Museum is very much a living history.
The popular Bowery Boys have recorded over 200 podcasts celebrating over 400 years of New York city history.
This feed is a window into the vast knowledge of Levys’ Unique New York: “NY’s First Family of Tour Guides,” who can tailor your New York experience like no other.
This historian-curated feed is chock full of old photos and depictions of New York City, almost impossible to reconcile with the vividly technicolor, larger-than-life smorgasbord we see and hear today.
The Gotham Center, through the Graduate Center at CUNY, works to make New York City history available to the public for study and enrichment, pooling the resources of “professional historians, amateur buffs, museum curators, archivists, librarians, educators, filmmakers, and preservationists.” The Gotham Center was prompted by an award-winning book: Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Based on its success, author Mike Wallace established Gotham Center in 2000.
Founded in 1804, the New-York Historical Society showcases a historical collection and culturally-relevant exhibitions about this city’s rich history.
Founded in 1923 and formerly located in the official residence of the New York City Mayor–Gracie Mansion–the Museum of the City of New York features an eclectic and exceptional cross-section of New York City history.
New York Public Library’s Labs are focused on harnessing and optimizing the extensive resources at the library’s disposal for the internet’s edification. This effort has led to projects such as the New York City Space/Time Directory, Stereogranimator, and Building Inspector. Also check out the OldNYC app, which places old NYPL photos of New York on the map, literally.