“The Hive” of Subways

Whenever distant friends visit New York, and I’m called upon to give train directions, I take the opportunity to editorialize about private versus public services.

The subways in New York are so nonsensically laid out because they were once three competing companies. To transfer from the N Train to a 6 Train at Canal Street, for example, you have to walk up and down two separate stairways and down a dank corridor that smells like a sewage pipe. It’s because they weren’t designed to interface. They were designed to compete, and the city has done its best to make the lines interface with a sometimes baffling patchwork of connecting halls, stairs, and elevators.

You can still see signs that read “To I.R.T.” or “B.M.T. Trains” in the fixtures and tiles, but the old Interborough Rapid Transit and its competitors have long gone out of business, and just a handful of old-timers still call the lines by those names. Whenever someone under 50 refers to a 1-2-3 train on 7th Avenue as “the I.R.T.” I suspect that they’re putting on airs.

That’s our way of doing things. Start them as private ventures, and once they’re absolutely essential to lots of people’s well-being, run them knowing that if they’re mismanaged, then the government will have no choice but to take them over. (Sounds like our healthcare system.) Seventy years since the MTA took over the trains and unified it into one system, it is still just now getting around to making some improvements. One obvious one was the transfer from the BDF and M lines at Broadway-Lafayette to the uptown 6 Train, whose Bleecker Street Station is at the end of the block. (The transfer to the downtown 6 has been possible for years.)

Now that it’s finished the MTA commissioned an artist named Leo Villareal to install an LED display on the ceiling, which is most spectacular while you’re taking the escalator from the inbound D/F platform to the Bleecker Street Station.

One of its conspicuous elements is how fragile the lights look. During the 80s these lights wouldn’t have lasted a week. It gives the impression that the MTA system is a giant, electric hive, and we are the bees!


Of course – and New Yorkers will appreciate this – the first time I had an occasion to take the escalator and discovered “Hive (Bleecker Street)” – I got to the top and found…

…the uptown trains were not running that Sunday:

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