For New Yorkers in the 1970s, descending into the subway felt like entering a circle of hell. But the system cleaned up its act, proving that underground metros don’t have to be decrepit, defaced and dysfunctional. Through municipal art and even graffiti, some subterranean urban transit networks genuinely lift riders’ spirits as they’re shuttled from station to station. This map takes a tour of these underground marvels, even as they lay new track.
Tünel, a two-station underground railway in Istanbul, Turkey, is usually honored as the second-oldest subway, after London’s Underground (established in 1863). But when it opened, in 1875, Tünel was actually the world’s fourth subway. Second and third places can be awarded to two pneumatic (air-driven) subways: the Crystal Palace railway, constructed in south London in 1864, and the Beach Pneumatic Transit, built in lower Manhattan in 1870 by American inventor Alfred E. Beach. Of course, these railways were only short-lived demonstration projects, but during its brief existence Beach’s railway carried hundreds of thousands of curiosity-seeking passengers along a single block (underneath Broadway, between Warren and Murray streets). Beach’s vision of a network of subterranean pneumatic tubes that would relieve congestion on Manhattan’s streets came to naught—in part because his plan competed with the elevated railway lines backed by New York City power broker Boss Tweed. New York would have to wait more than 30 years to get a real subway. Beach’s pneumatic subway has lived on in filmic legend: In 1989’s Ghostbusters II, Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) discovers a subterranean river of slime flowing through the (fictional) New York Pneumatic Transit.
A story appearing in the April 1, 2013, edition of The Washington Post unearthed one of D.C.’s hidden treasures: the long-abandoned Georgetown station of the Mole Way, a pneumatic subway that, according to the Post, had opened in 1870 and operated for 13 years—and that at its height had more stations than the present-day D.C. Metro. Though in ruins, the Georgetown station allegedly retained original tile work and ornate wooden benches, and inside a tunnel that was “halfway buried under a collapsed portion of the roof” sat a “bullet-shaped vehicle,” one of the Mole Way’s carriages. Canny readers (and those cognizant of the calendar) realized that the article, by Post columnist John Kelly, was an April Fools’ Day jape. But some were taken in, no doubt because the story, full of beautifully crafted detail, was somewhat plausible: Prototypes of pneumatic subways had been built during the 19th century, and abandoned stations are common in cities with underground railway systems. London has a few dozen; New York City has 16. The screenwriters of 1978’s Superman even supplied supervillain Lex Luthor (played by Gene Hackman) with an elegant hideout in an abandoned subway station below the streets of Metropolis.
Rats abound underground—and not just the four-legged variety, whose population in the New York City subway tunnels is estimated to number in the millions (and which likewise flourish in the Boston, London and Paris systems). No, subways are also favored by two-legged rats, such as pickpockets and knife-wielding lunatics, not to mention crazies who push random victims onto the tracks. When it comes to committing evil deeds, however, petty criminals and schizoid manslayers can’t compete with fictional subway denizens such as Dennis Ford (a.k.a. Ryder, played by John Travolta), who terrorizes NYC by taking a trainload of subway passengers hostage in Tony Scott’s Taking of Pelham 123 (a remake of the 1974 film). Giving Ryder a run for his money is Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor, the “diseased maniac” who plots the destruction of California from his cushy subway-station lair in 1978’s Superman. Yes, the subway’s a scary place, though heroes occasionally take up residence there too—as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles do in their second feature film (1991). Like Lex Luthor, the Turtles choose an abandoned station, Manhattan’s City Hall stop (shut down in real life in 1945), for their subterranean domicile.
When Joseph Sargent’s original Taking of Pelham One Two Three came out, in 1974, underground commuters being held hostage by a madman seemed like the next logical step in the degradation of New York City’s subway system. Muggings were rampant, and the condition of trains and platforms was increasingly disgusting. And beginning in the late 1960s, a full-on graffiti epidemic took hold, in which teenagers used markers or spray paint to tag cars, inside and out, with their nicknames and sometimes their street numbers (the “writer” TAKI 183 was especially prolific). In the late 1970s, subway graffiti evolved into something more spectacular, with whole cars getting “bombed,” i.e., decorated with vibrant, visually complex designs. A new art form had arrived, though one not necessarily embraced by the police or straphanging public. The province mostly of black and Latino youth, this intensely competitive art scene—documented in the 1983 film Style Wars—was at its height in 1978 when 19-year-old Pennsylvania native Keith Haring arrived in New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. He and SVA schoolmate Kenny Scharf joined in the fun, and their creative criminality helped elevate graffiti into the realm of fine art.
Subways have often figured in film, usually—as in The Taking of Pelham 123—as the locus of violent crime. In addition to the Pelham movies there are 1974’s Death Wish (NYC subway), Wim Wenders’s 1977 thriller The American Friend (Paris Métro), 1981’s American Werewolf in London (the Tube, of course) and 2003’s Kontroll (Budapest metro). And artists have sometimes depicted subway cars and platforms as venues for anxious anomie, as in American magic-realist painter George Tooker’s spooky, panic-inducing The Subway (1950). Seldom if ever has a subway system been presented as a terrain for self-discovery. But that’s just what Stand Clear of the Closing Doors does, by tracing an autistic 13-year-old Mexican American boy’s days-long peregrination through New York City’s vast transit underground. Described by critic Stephen Holden as an “intense and indelible…immersion in the real New York,” the film is loosely based on the true story of Francisco Hernandez, who was lost on the NYC subway for 11 days in 2009. As it happens, subways—and buses and trains generally—exert profound fascination over many children along the autism spectrum, leading the New York Transit Museum to develop outreach programs just for them.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s New York’s underground art scene actually existed underground—in the subway. As art critic Carlo McCormick states in the 2008 documentary The Universe of Keith Haring, the “city became a canvas.” Haring made his mark by making marks where he wasn’t supposed to. Inspired by established graffiti artists like Futura 2000 and Fab 5 Freddy (both of whom he befriended), Haring first won the attention of ordinary New Yorkers by transforming blank poster niches on subway platforms into blackboards, using thick white chalk to draw simple, charming cartoon figures—humans and animals with TV-set heads, barking dogs, flying saucers and his signature “Radiant Baby.” He was occasionally arrested, but it wasn’t long before he exhibited in galleries. Soon municipalities worldwide invited him to scrawl his clever doodles on their blank walls.
The Paris Métro figured in the birth of another avant-garde artistic movement seven decades earlier: that of imagist poetry, led by Ezra Pound. His poem “In a Station of the Metro” transforms the hustle and bustle of a modern subway station into a natural landscape worthy of haiku:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In his 14-word poem “In a Station of the Metro,” Ezra Pound turns dirty modernity into a vision of sublime beauty: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Not many riders of New York City’s subway feel overcome by its beauty—though, to be fair, the system is tidier than it used to be, and numerous stations have lately gained new tile work, nifty mosaics and assorted sculpture. Frankly, the Paris system—despite its art nouveau entry arches—is not much lovelier. London’s, neither. But some subway systems around the world are architecturally splendid. The Washington, D.C., metro has a gloomy Piranesi-like grandeur. Many of Stockholm’s metro stations have been decorated by artists—sometimes painting on the rough-hewn rock walls. Stockholm’s system even offers art walks for tourists. But of all the world’s underground transit systems, those of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in Russia and the former Soviet republics may be the grandest, featuring the sort of decor you’d find in an opera house. Moscow’s Kropotkinskaya station, for example, features a checkerboard floor of gray and red granite, recessed lighting and white marble columns inspired by Egypt’s Karnak temple complex.
There are 188 urban rapid transit systems worldwide, most of them incorporating some underground rail portions. Even Chicago’s “L”—whose name is short for “elevated”—has some subsurface tunnels. The majority of the world’s metros are relatively new, dating from the 1970s or later, but it’s surprising just how many were already in operation when the Moscow metro was inaugurated in 1935—among them, in Europe alone, the subways of London, Athens, Budapest (which opened the first fully electrified system in 1896), Glasgow, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Madrid and Barcelona. Moscow would have had a subway much earlier had not the czar’s plans been interrupted by World War I, the Russian Revolution and a civil war. When Soviet communists finally got around to building a subway for their capital, they fashioned an underground masterpiece intended to glorify the USSR and its leader, Joseph Stalin. Native architects and artists designed the system’s promenades and platforms, but the Soviets turned to the British for technological help, recruiting engineers who had worked on the London Underground. That stab at international cooperation didn’t last: Stalin became convinced the Brits were spies and had them arrested, subjected to show trials and deported.
The disturbing reality is that terrorist acts on subways and other commuter rail systems are not confined to theatrical thrillers such as The Taking of Pelham 123. Compared to real-life subway violence, John Travolta’s stagey turn as subway terrorist Ryder seems almost silly. A 2012 MIT study found that rapid-transit riders are twice as likely as airline passengers to die in a terrorism-related incident. The first large-scale attack on a metropolitan subway occurred in Tokyo on March 20, 1995—the work of Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, whose members released poisonous sarin gas on several lines, killing 13 passengers and seriously injuring thousands of others. The group had amassed stockpiles of sarin and other agents—including anthrax and Ebola microbes—capable of killing millions. The post-9/11 era has seen terrorist bombings of the Madrid commuter rail system (March 2004, killing 191), the London Underground (July 2005, killing 56, including the four suicide bombers) and the Moscow subway (March 2010, killing 38). It’s a bitter historical irony that riders of London’s Tube must now fear terrorist bombings, given that the stations served as shelters from enemy bombardment during World War I and, more famously, the Blitz in World War II.
Istanbul’s Tünel is unique in a couple of respects. Not only is it the world’s shortest underground railway, with about 1,800 feet of track, but this two-car train was built solely to transport people up and down a very steep hill. Its function really is that of an elevator, or funicular. Tünel opened in 1875 and for more than a century provided Istanbul’s only underground transport. (Originally powered by steam, Tünel wasn’t electrified until 1971.) But Tünel now connects with Istanbul’s more extensive metro system, whose first subway line opened in 2000 and which now includes another underground funicular, the F1. Istanbul’s is just one of many metro systems inaugurated in cities around the world since the 1970s—some of which outdistance older metros in length, number of stations and total passengers carried. For instance, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway (opened in 1974) now vies with the Tokyo subway in annual ridership and has more miles of track than either the New York City system or the London Underground. But NYC’s subway is adding a brand-new line, and the Tube now connects with the Docklands Light Railway. With all the undergrounds worldwide, riding the subway has become a near-universal urban experience.