Tales of Transit
The New York Transit Museum presents the story of the city’s mass transportation system and its impact on the lives of the people.
The New York Transit Museum was founded in 1976, with the mission of telling and preserving the story of how public transportation transformed New York. This fascinating story is animated by the museum itself, which offers an immersive and transformative experience to its visitors.
Life, as New Yorkers know it, simply wouldn’t be possible without the city’s transportation system. “If you live in the New York region, you live the way you do because of proximity to mass transit,” says Museum Director Concetta Bencivenga.
In a city with many world-famous museums, the transit museum stands apart. “The New York Transit Museum offers a museum experience with relatively universal appeal in a time when life seems hyper-segmented,” says Bencivenga. “We’re a great initial museum experience.”
The transit museum is housed underground, in a decommissioned 1936 subway station in Downtown Brooklyn. Its gallery of rotating exhibits and retail store are located in Grand Central Terminal. The museum is home to a rotating selection of 20 vintage subway and elevated cars dating back to 1907. Visitors can board the vintage cars, sit at the wheel of a city bus and step through a time tunnel of turnstiles. The exhibits highlight the cultural, social and technological history—and future—of mass transit. And, they present stories of extraordinary engineering feats, the workers who labored in the tunnels over 100 years ago and the communities that were transformed through mass transportation. The museum also organizes events that offer visitors the chance to learn about the different aspects of public transportation.
The museum draws its funding from a range of sources. It is a public-private partnership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Friends of the New York Transit Museum. It further gets foundational support as well as philanthropic support from individuals.
“Kids absolutely love us,” says Bencivenga. “Our historic collection of vintage subway cars on the museum’s platform afford little ones with an incredible chance to interact with history through transportation.” The museum hosts over 30,000 school children every year, and about the same number of children and families participate in the family programs and activities throughout the year. “All of this instills in young people a feeling that we are truly a community museum that becomes part of the family,” she adds.
Along with the chance to walk through vintage trains, and view and interact with artifacts, comes the knowledge about how the city grew with and around its transit system.
“There have been incredible advances in mass transit technology,” notes Bencivenga. “But the thing I find fascinating is that while the technology has evolved, it’s human behavior that has created the biggest changes and challenges.”
This evolution continues even today.
“With generations re-embracing cities and more urban lifestyles,” says Bencivenga, “more people are committing to mass transit and are using it in different ways. Thankfully, there are planners and transportation experts working through the impact of what all this means for mass transit.”
This connection between people and urban planning, between vast networks and individual citizens of the city, is embodied in the Poetry in Motion program, which displays poems inside subway cars for riders to read and reflect on during their trip.
“In 2018, we celebrated 25 years of Poetry in Motion,” says Bencivenga, adding that the program is a “great collaboration between MTA Arts & Design and the Poetry Society of America, which has brought more than 200 poems to subway and bus riders in New York.”
There is an exhibit of a selection of these poems, which features works by many celebrated figures, including Walt Whitman, John Ashbery and Maya Angelou. “I am a bit partial to the Billy Collins poem ‘Subway,’ ” says Bencivenga, “because it really ties together the past and present of the subway, and by extension, the city.”
Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.