New York Transit Museum

I make no secret of my love of New York City’s public transportation system, which is why I recently had to visit the New York Transit Museum. Part of what makes the museum such a fun place to visit is its location – it’s in a retired subway station in downtown Brooklyn. Here’s the museum entrance. Doesn’t it look promising already?

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Once you go below ground, you pay for admission at a vintage station master’s booth before entering the first exhibit. Most of the museum’s exhibits are on the mezzanine level of the historic station. The first exhibit was a fascinating one: “Steel, Stone, and Backbone: Building New York’s Subways, 1900-1925.” I gained a new appreciation for the hard work and sacrifices that went into creating the New York City subway system, as well as the technological challenges and risk to human life. Every time I go through one of the tunnels under the East River now, I remember the exhibit’s explanation of the compressed air chambers used during the construction process.

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The exhibit also does a good job of exploring the diverse people who contributed to the subway system’s construction – men and women, immigrants and African Americans among them.

There is also a new exhibit called “Bringing Back the City,” which explores how the transit system has been affected by and responded to times of crisis. There are artifacts related to the September 11 attacks;  the 2003 power blackout in the Northeastern United States, which temporarily shut down the subway system and left riders stranded; Hurricane Irene is 2011; and Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Among the exhibit artifacts, I was struck by this flood bench example. I’ve seen flood benches at numerous locations near the subways, but never knew their purpose or origins. The benches, both practical and sculptural, let air travel into subway vents but prevent rainwater from flooding the subway system.

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There are many interactive exhibits for children (and interesting for adults as well). Here are examples of turnstiles (still working) from every period in the subway system’s history.

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Visitors can step into a station master’s booth, pretending to help subway riders.

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In the exhibit, “On the Streets: New York’s Trolleys and Buses,” visitors can sit in the driver’s seat and pretend to drive models of city buses.

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Once you finish the exhibits located on the mezzanine level, head down the stairs to the track level. Although the station is no longer active, the tracks are still there – and full of vintage train cars. (The MTA has a number of these vintage cars, which are sometimes used for special events. I wrote previously about the vintage train rides offered each December before Christmas.) If you’re a fan of vintage trains or simply someone who likes public transportation like me, you will enjoy seeing the train cars. Both car exteriors and interiors are very different from the subway cars in use today, and the vintage advertising is fun to read as well. The museum also offers a highlights tour on the weekends, which includes the subway cars. You will notice one of those gallery talks in progress in the photos below.

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What’s the best way to get to the New York Transit Museum? By subway, of course! Take the 2, 3, 4, or 5 trains to Borough Hall; the R to Court Street; the A, F, and R to Jay Street-MetroTech (and the C as well, during weekday rush hours only); or the A or G to Hoyt Street-Schermerhorn Street.

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