Tag Archives: New York

August 2002

In the course of my tour, I had to find my way around several cities, and (as a budget-conscious writer) that usually meant acquainting myself with the transit system. Toronto, New York and Chicago all have good systems, but each has its own idiosyncrasies and takes some understanding to navigate.

Toronto’s subway is one of the simplest in the world, having only two lines. Of course, it’s also the one I’m used to. My expectation is that other subway systems will make as much sense, be as easy to navigate as the TTC. But they aren’t.

While Toronto has one of the least complicated subways to navigate, New York’s MTA has to be one of the most complex. Over a dozen numbered and lettered trains take over half-a-dozen different coloured lines all over metropolitan New York. And perhaps the most difficult part of trying to understand this system is that you can’t necessarily transfer from one line to another where you think you can. Just because a train comes through a station, doesn’t necessarily mean it stops there and doesn’t mean there’s any way to transfer to it. Returning from Brooklyn on the brown line, I found I had to go a couple of stops south on the green line to transfer to a northbound green line train to get back to my hotel. I felt a little embarrassed, that I must be missing some obvious connection, until I noticed other people doing the same thing.

Chicago’s CTA has six coloured train lines that all intersect in the Loop (four elevated, two subway), but again, transfers between lines only occur at certain stations. As with the MTA, there’s the difficulty of different lines having stops with the same name. It never struck me as a potential problem in Manhattan, probably because the streets and avenues are generally numbered, so it’s easy to figure out where you are. In Chicago, where the streets are named, they don’t give you that clue. It wouldn’t be enough to know you had to get off at the Harlem stop; you’d also have to know the line. In Chicago, there’re three Harlem stops, two of them on the blue line, one almost four miles south of the other.

Adding to their already inherent complexities and character, it was kind of mysterious fun to discover that all three systems have abandoned stations and disused tunnels. Although I may have the spirit of an urban adventurer, I’m more of an armchair aficionado and admit to some hesitation about exploring any of these firsthand.

The MTA system has a vast network of abandoned subterranean transit tunnels, due in part to its age and the number of companies originally operating. The Abandoned Stations site lists ten stations, six levels and nine platforms which have been closed. This site is meticulously updated with current and historic text, photos, timetables and maps detailing each closed station or section.

Forty feet beneath the streets of Chicago lies a completely abandoned freight rail system; sixty-two miles of tunnels about six feet wide and seven feet high, equipped with two-foot gauge track. Originally dug to carry telephone and telegraph wires, the tunnels were expanded and operated from 1909-1959 transporting goods, food, coal and packages to and from stores, warehouses, offices, factories, railroads and post offices. The system ran 149 four-wheeled locomotives and had +3,000 pony cars – sort of an industrial version of something you’d find in a children’s amusement park. The Chicago Tunnel Company Railroad site gives a detailed history as well as historic photos.

Despite its relative youth, even the Toronto subway has two abandoned stations (Lower Bay and Lower Queen), as well as a few rarely used tunnels. Toronto-based urban adventurer Ninjalicious has a fascinating article on exploring TTC tunnels in Infiltration.

The MTA operates 8,231 rail and subway cars (along with 4,864 buses) and charges $1.50 (US) per ride, payable by MetroCard. In my limited experience, the system is very reliable, although one must take a Zen approach to the timetables. Although some lines still use older trains which have been re-painted countless times to cover graffiti, the well-used green line number 6 has the most modern trains I’ve ever ridden. They’re sleek silver bullets, with roomy open interiors, and recordings that announce train information at every station. LED signs at both the front and rear of the train repeat the information and maps above the seats have lights that indicate the next stop and direction of travel. It all makes it easier for the uninitiated to get where they’re going without mishap and I didn’t get lost once! (Those of you who know me well can now get off the floor.)

The MTA platforms reminded me of Roman baths, with clean white tile and porcelain crests emblazoned with the station name. However, the stations tend to have low ceilings, great depth (to accommodate four train lines) and a rather dark, cave-like atmosphere which on occasion made me a bit nervous.

The CTA has 1,100 rapid transit cars (and 1,900 buses) and operates the second largest transit system in the United States, charging $1.50 per ride using a Transit Card. The system is comprised mostly of elevated trains that run about level with the third storey of most of the buildings they snake through. Els certainly have some advantages over subways: there are no mice or rats to contend with (only pigeons), riders are never surprised by the weather and they can enjoy the architecture enroute. I also imagine passengers are occasionally surprised by a display through a carelessly opened bedroom blind.

The TTC operates 672 subway cars (along with 1,468 buses and 248 streetcars) and charges $2.25 (CDN) per ride (a little less if you buy tokens or tickets). It has an annoying tendency to break down when the pressure’s on and it’s most needed (rush hour, inclement weather). However, I’ve also taken a lot more rides on it so I’ve had more opportunity to see it at its worst. Generally speaking it works and works well and is still a lot cheaper and more environmentally friendly than owning a car.

©Catherine Jenkins 2003

July 2002

As promised, this month’s journal is an exploration of the polar opposites (figuratively, not geographically) of Picton and New York City. Why would I consider such an odd juxtaposition? Because those were the two places my reading tour took me in June (as well as home in Toronto, of course).

If you’re not familiar with Picton, it’s the largest settlement in Prince Edward County, an island community that rests against the north shore of Lake Ontario. The area was a stronghold of the United Empire Loyalists who started settling there in the late 1700s after a strong difference of opinion with the Americans.

The community’s pride in its heritage is apparent in its pristine old farmhouses, barns and fields. Downtown Picton is brief but lovely. As well as numerous B&Bs, there’s the Historic North American Hotel (founded circa 1835), with cream and antique red colouring and flower baskets hanging from its second-storey porch. Among Picton’s other buildings of note is the Regent Theatre, housed in a building also dating to the 1830s. After renovations, it reopened in 1922 as an Edwardian-style opera house with 900 seats. It still operates as a venue for both live theatre and movies, although the number of seats has (fortunately) been halved.

On my last day in the county, I took a quickie driving tour with my camera and journal. I started in Bloomfield (where I had the pleasure of staying with a former teacher of mine), drove east, took a detour to see the old army barracks (still sometimes used for film shoots), then took the road up to Lake on the Mountain (which is just odd), stopped at the Black River Cheese Factory (newly reopened from the fire last fall), made a failed attempt at finding the pebble beach at Little Bluff (and was very glad I’d paid for the extra chip and scratch insurance on the rental car), drove back through Picton (it really is very pretty), made a quick tour to the entrance of Sandbanks Provincial Park (but decided to wait until sometime when I have time to do it justice), came back through Bloomfield, continued on to Wellington for a brief stop (thanks for the cup of tea, Mac) and then headed north until I hit the old number 2 highway and came home.

On my trip through this pastoral landscape, I saw roadside signs for deer crossings, cattle crossings, and in one instance, a cat crossing (they’re very civilized here). And of course, the lilacs were in bloom and they were everywhere! Lilac bushes that must have been planted by early residents two-hundred years ago have spread, grown tall and (if such a thing is possible for a lilac) gone feral. They dwarf the walls of abandoned houses and the air is thick with their fragrance. I was given some blooms to bring home and I enjoyed their scent in the car all the way.

Less than a week later, I was on the (mostly empty) train heading to New York. The train runs down the Hudson River valley, crossing and uncrossing the river and running along its bank with the wild white and purple phlox. After sunset, after the long dark ride through the under-river tunnel, I emerged suddenly somehow in the city.

Although I’ve been to New York before, I’d never gone alone, with my own unadulterated agenda. First I took a walk up to 43rd to ogle at the glorious lustre of the Chrysler Building, continued along to see Grand Central Station (outside and in), the New York Public Library (closed on a Sunday; probably a good thing or I wouldn’t have seen anything else), through the lights and flash of Times Square, down Broadway to see the Flatiron Building at 23rd and then back to the hotel.

The following day I walked down Christopher Street, through the Village to West where I followed the coast of the Hudson south until I stumbled across Ground Zero. I hadn’t planned on visiting the site but 9/11 is such a part of New York consciousness, it’s hard to avoid. There’s only flat rubble-strewn ground there now but the impact of seeing it gave me that hoof to the stomach feeling. Makeshift memorials have sprung up in sometimes unexpected places all over lower Manhattan. Three subway stops remain closed and a surprisingly large number of blocks are still cordoned off nine months later. Even being right there, I found it difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this event; not much wonder New Yorkers are still struggling with it. I stopped for a rest by the Hudson and noticed I was the only one bothering to look up when the helicopters trailed by every few minutes, and wondered if I was the only one noticing, even now, the occasional waft of burnt in the air.

I continued walking south around the tip of the island into Battery Park. What was once the entry point for new immigrants, now seems a mass of statuary, hucksters and mimes. Hard to tell what Lady Liberty thinks of that. I started walking up along the East River and found the South Seaport and the Fulton Fish Market. The guide book said you could find it by following your nose and it was right! I then walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, enjoying the architecture and the view, walking back just as the sun was setting over Manhattan and the city was lighting up for the night.

The next day I treated myself to a browse through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I walked through the Modern and Annenberg Impressionist collections, an overwhelming assortment of Degas, Cézanne, Sisley, Caillebotte, Chagall, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Seurat, Picasso, Lautrec and a few others. I noticed not all the Van Gogh’s had been hung in the same room; if they were, they’d probably spontaneously ignite from the sheer intensity of energy and vibrancy of colour. They hadn’t mounted all the Monet’s in the same room either; his work glows in such a fluid way that viewers would be lulled into a complete state of calm and they’d never leave.

When I’d galleried myself out, I stepped into Central Park and walked some more, enjoying watching kids play, the statues, the bridges and the trees. It really is an oasis but Manhattan has a large population on a limited piece of land and that’s very apparent, even in Central Park. With strains of Simon & Garfunkel running through my head, I went to the zoo, now the NatureConservancy.

And there’s so much more. I stopped by the Center for Book Arts and The Poets House. Went to the Upper West Side for brunch and a look around, wandered the Village and Central Park some more. With Marianne Faithful hoarse in my ear, I took a walk around Times Square at night. This city just doesn’t stop. The New York Central Library and the Met alone would take two lifetimes to explore. Manhattan has done a lot of things right and it was a real joy to be there.

Ultimately, do I find any commonalities between Picton and New York? Yes. With most places I visit, I leave feeling satiated, like I’ve done them and I don’t need to return. Both Picton and New York are places I want to go back to, but for very different reasons: Picton for its quiet light and New York for its culture.

©Catherine Jenkins 2003