The Underground New Year's Party A Century In The Making
Deep beneath the Manhattan schist, a cavernous station became the New Year’s Eve birthday party for the Second Avenue Subway, the most expensive subway in the world.
Photo by Adrienne Humblet
The New York City subway is the lifeblood of the city, outgoing MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said the other night—that is, the sort of circulatory system that people tend to move through, drift through like blood cells (5,650,610 each weekday, to be precise), not a place they move to. On New Year's Eve, it was the opposite: six stories down was the figurative height of urban accomplishment, a gleaming destination unto itself. The crazy idea of launching the Second Avenue Subway at a New Year's Eve party inside a subway station—of launching the subway at all, on deadline—was Governor Cuomo's, said the governor, who was standing on a dais above a crowd of well-dressed revelers and not far from a black sign hanging on the wall that said, miraculously, in white Helvetica letters, "72 STREET. 24 HOUR BOOTH."
"I said to my family, I said, 'You know how about this for an idea? We have a New Year's Eve party in the new subway station.' And they gave me that look, like you know, 'There's crazy Dad again!' But, I said, 'This is unlike any subway station you've ever seen. You look at this mezzanine level, which subway stations normally don't have. It's open, it's airy. You look at the public art that is in all these stations, it is amazing." Here, the walls were decorated with amusing, live-size mosaic portraits of everyday New Yorkers by artist Vic Muniz, including one of a couple of bulky, bearded Brooklynites holding hands. Cuomo did not mention that, nor did he acknowledge another obvious amazement: the station was litter-free, with not a rat in sight.
After a police dog-equipped security check at the northwest corner of 72nd street and 2nd Avenue, invited guests glided in by a minute-long escalator ride down to the station's gleaming column-less mezzanine, looking nothing like any of the typical New York subway stations, but recalling instead a sleeker, more human version of a cavernous Washington Metro stop, except gilded and decked out for a party (the florescent lights temporarily replaced by pink and blue spotlights), like no subway station I've ever seen.
MetroCards were not being checked, and in fact the turnstiles hadn't even been fully installed yet. But nearly everything else seemed to be, a hundred years after the idea began rolling. And so this place represented another inversion of your typical subway experience: a shining example of government doing something not just big and cool and modern, but something that changes the city overnight.
Coveted invites went out to a who's who of transit bureaucrats, Albany and MTA officials and political dignitaries, including US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, state police and Secret Service officials (but not many from the NYPD), construction union heads, engineers, the governor and the mayor, former mayor David Dinkins (but neither Giuliani nor Bloomberg), artists like DJ Spooky and Sarah Sze (who made the art that decorates the 96th street station), the poet Billy Collins, Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, and various city titans, and select Upper East Siders—those who for years put up with broken promises and cracked open streets, always with a weary eye on the prize. "We're the lucky ones," someone said near the end of the night. This was "a party you could tell your grandchildren about."
But even without a New York cynicism (and there wasn't much of that at the party, except in a roped-off press pen), you could find reasons to grumble. The project cost around $4.5 billion—including a $700 million budget over-run—for its roughly 3-kilometer stretch, making it, at $1.7 billion per kilometer, the most expensive subway in history. (A somewhat comparable project, the still under-construction Crossrail metro in London, is $1 billion per kilometer for more than 20 kilometers.) And no one's sure when the digging will start on the next phase—one of three more—which is slated to cost $6 billion.
Those kind of numbers were not going to dampen the mood of Carolyn Maloney, the Democratic congresswoman under whose district part of the subway slinks. "It's already generated $2.5 billion in economic activity and we haven't even started running yet!" she said over the din of a jazzier version of "It's A Wonderful World." I couldn't verify her number, but the full economic effects of the new line, a recurring dream since the 1920s, will be hard to measure. It's a stub of a line, but by extending the Q train up to 96th Street and 2nd Avenue, the MTA has opened up a new worm hole in the city—connecting two unlikely correspondents, Coney Island and Yorkville and the dozens of neighborhoods in between—and taken pressure off the Lexington Ave. 4/5/6, which at rush hour have been called the country's busiest subway lines.
When it's all done, planners imagine that the whole Second Ave. line—eventually serviced by a new train, the T—as stopping at 16 stations, and could even extend to the Bronx and Brooklyn, but we'll likely be gone before most of those parties. Details remain elusive for phase 2, which is set to extend the line to Harlem and add stations at 106th, 116th, and 125th Streets. But late last month, the MTA got good news: the Federal Transit Administration gave the agency permission to begin project development, setting the stage for federal funding. "We're gonna make it happen," said the Congresswoman. "It's not gonna be a stub-way, it's gonna be a subway!"
The stubbiness, to say nothing of the time it took, makes it even harder to swallow the whopping cost, not that anyone in New York is that surprised. Similarly, no one seemed terribly surprised in Beijing (where I lived in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics) when the city government built four new subway lines in the space of six years. (The Chinese capital has just begun work on five more subway lines, which are set to open between 2019 and 2021, and opened a new metro line last week—as did seven other Chinese cities.) Laws, labor unions, and lobbyists make that virtually impossible in a city like New York, where ownership of land means something quite different than it does in Beijing.
Building in fits and starts is costly too. Work on the line was derailed multiple times—by the Great Depression, World War II, and the city's glum financial situation beginning in the 1970s. (At one point, residents proposed turning a section of tunnel into the world's longest bocce court or a wine cellar.) But every time you stop and start up again, you pay more. The more piecemeal you build, the more you pay. And when you have two separate contractors, one for design, the other for construction, you pay more than if you had one company doing the whole thing. (Chairman Prendergast has said the MTA will likely pursue a design-build approach for the next phase, and explore new and more efficient tunneling techniques; he's also argued that labor costs are higher in New York than in a city like London, where worker health-care costs are covered by the national government.)
The MTA argues that construction is also complicated by the need to keep the rest of the system operating around the clock, a feature that is otherwise only found in the undergrounds of London, Copenhagen, and Tokyo. The complexity and size of the network is also unparalleled: New York has nearly 200 more stations than London and more than a hundred more than Shanghai. Maintaining a vibrant but aging network takes precedence over expanding it, which partly explains why funding for the Second Avenue Subway has been elusive. But, Maloney said, more scrutiny over the MTA's spending would be helpful.
"Once you get the funding, it doesn't mean you're going to get the funding," she said. "Because what happened in the prior hundred years, we'd get the funding and it was moved elsewhere into other projects. So you need a very sharp oversight, and a very sharp pencil, to keep the money in the subway. Every time they tried to move it to save fare increases, to save jobs, to raise wages, to say wait a minute, there is no job without the subway—keep it in the subway!"
But how do you do that? Maloney paused, and her voice lowered. "You have people like me that issue reports every three months on where the money is." Maloney went on to say that that the long, on-and-off construction costs were exacerbated by inflation. If the whole thing had been built in one go when it was first concocted in the late 1920s—stretching all the way down to Houston Street, the destination of MTA's phase 3—it would have cost a mere $2.4 billion in 2016 dollars.
"So it's my job to get the federal money as quickly as possible so we can get the state money and get this second phase built," she said. "I love infrastructure. It's an investment in people, an investment in the future, an investment in good jobs, an investment in the economy." Just before returning to the party, she turned back. "Trump wants a trillion dollars for infrastructure—I'd vote for that!"
At around 11 o'clock, after some music and speeches, and a brief friendly-looking encounter between the mayor and the governor, in which the mayor even stooped down to hug his frequent nemesis the governor, Prendergast took to the microphone and acknowledged two things he never thought he would see — the opening of the subway and the Cubs winning the world series. He joked that the governor might have had something to do with the latter too, if he hadn't been such a Mets fan.
He then called for the hundreds of guests to begin descending to the train. Even here, on the toniest subway platform in city history, there were hints of that angst that comes with a rush hour crush: just after the mayor and the governor entered the main car, separately, a number of reporters crossed a stanchion line, and a governor's assistant into a frenzy. "No no no no no no no! Around here! Rich, get these people out of here!" The reporters doubled back around a newsstand in order to enter the next car, what the minders called "the press car." Suddenly we were on the grandest underground whistle-stop train tour in MTA history.
Before all the cameras could be carefully positioned out the window, the train lurched forward. Amid the commotion of reporters and PR representatives, it was hard to make out the announcement on the overhead speakers. It turned out to be a subway poem read by Billy Collins.
As you fly swiftly underground
with a song in your ears
or lost in the maze of a book,
remember the ones who descended here
into the mire of bedrock
to bore a hole through this granite,
to clear a passage for you
where there was only darkness and stone.
Remember as you come up into the light.
The journalists pressed against the front end of the car, trying to get a good look into the next one, where the mayor and the governor were pressed in with their staffs, but it was too crowded in there to see much.
At the next two stops, the reporters were mostly herded into a roped-off stable at the top of the escalators, so that when the mayor and governor and the rest of the grinning guests ascended into the brightly-lit mezzanine of each station, they were photographed as if they were entering a fancy opening gala or political fundraiser at a cavernous contemporary art gallery. There were no billboards on the walls: just giant mosaic and tile portraits by Chuck Close, the kind you're likely to see at the Met or the MoMA. Imagine a subway station where, while waiting for our trains, we staring not at phones but art.
Back at the 72nd Street station, the governor took the podium again.
"There are two words that you saw in these stations that I just want you to think of for this new year's," he told the crowd. "One word that you see when you're going down the escalators is the word 'Excelsior.' And some people said, 'well nobody's going to know what that means.' I said, 'Good! Let them look it up!' Excelsior means 'ever upward.' It is a perfect word to describe not just the state's motto," he said, "but the spirit of the people of New York."
The governor's own ambitious spirit has led him on infrastructure tear in recent years: there's a new $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge on the way, and renovations of Penn Station and JFK and La Guardia Airports in the works (Joe Biden once hissed that the airport was "third world"). The MTA operates at the behest of the governor up in Albany, not the mayor of the city where it primarily operates, and the governor has made it very much his own, at least when it comes to big shiny new things.
His involvement in the subway ramped up about a year and a half ago, when officials at the MTA said they wanted to push the deadline back by a year or so. Cuomo's aggressive, hands-on approach got the MTA on track, even as its earned him critics: a Port Authority commissioner recently took a public swipe at the governor over his hard-charging, behind-the-scenes approach, which he said was "fundamentally at odds with what the Port Authority should be about." In a Times piece, Cuomo noted the comparisons with New York's other big builder, Robert Moses. Moses was "dictatorial," said Cuomo, "whereas he himself believed in a more inclusive approach. "You have to get it done," he told the Times' Emma Fitzsimmons. "But you have to get it done in a way that brings the community along."
"They said, 'well, why did you need to get this done on deadline?'" he continued from the podium at 72nd Street. Contractors had been asked to work double shifts during the month of December; emergency and fire drills had been conducted around-the-clock. "We needed to get this on the deadline because we're New York," his voice rose, "and when we set a deadline we're going to get it done. We needed to show people that government works and we can still do big things and great things and get them done."
"We shouldn't settle for second best on anything," he said. "It's not okay that we have homeless people who sleep on the streets. It's not okay that we have public schools that don't educate every child to their fullest potential. This is New York and there is nothing we can't do when we put our minds to it, and that's what we have to remember, and that's what excelsior says to every one of us."
The dignitaries and bureaucrats hobnobbing with masters of the universe and police officials over local hors' d'oeuvres and "Second Avenue Subway" champagne flutes, dancing to a blues band and cheering for the politicians: One agog reveler could only compare the party to a set-piece from Batman (more Nolan than Burton). But it was also a critical, surreal scene from the Cuomo political saga, a golden spike in a track-laying towards higher office.
"The other expression is E Pluribus Unum," Governor Cuomo continued. He launched into a brief history lesson beginning with the Founding Fathers, who chose the phrase as the nation's motto (in 1956, the US adopted its official motto, "In God We Trust.") "The concept here is that they would form a country and they would open the doors and that's what the Statue of Liberty is in the harbor. And we would invite people from all over the globe...
"And I feel in a lot of ways, this country this year is going through a period of soul searching. And you feel sometimes that the country is looking for its moorings. And New York says that while the nation is going through its soul searching, we reject the instinct to blame, and we reject the instinct to divide, we reject the instinct to separate. Because the only thing that could destroy this country—the only thing—is to try to divide this country."
He didn't say it, but the subway was a good metaphor for all of that: this organ that connects everyone—where, more than anywhere else in the city, you can see the whole place, sociologically and literally, in cross-section. A rush hour subway car can feel like a can of sardines but it's also like a giant seafood sampler.
Governor Cuomo also did not specifically mention the "sandhogs," the city's legendary tunnel builders, or Adi, the 450-foot long, 484-ton tunnel boring machine that, at a top speed of about 50 bored feet per day, helped them make this giant cavern possible. (Adi's total take: 15 million cubic feet of rock and 6 million cubic feet of soil—enough to bury a football field 360 feet deep.) He did not mention all the dynamite required, and certainly did not talk about that time in 2012, when residents saw an explosion toss pieces of the street eight stories into the air (windows were shattered but no one was hurt). He didn't mention that no buildings were destroyed in the process of construction, not even those built a century ago on shaky "rubble foundations." (Some two dozen buildings were acquired by the city under eminent domain law, including a handful of reliable pizza parlors.)
The governor did not not have time to get into the risks that come with digging around faults and shear zones, the need to build around the many other tunnels, utility lines, pipes and cables that fill the underground in their own webs (the workers union said costs could have been cut if the subway had been dug deeper to avoid many of those things); nor did the governor talk about the giant water diffusion cannons that engineers used to cope with the problem of dust underground, or the way they coped with the constant threat of water too, the scourge of all subways: To know where the water was, they relied on a topographical map, first drawn in 1865 by the civil engineer Col. Egbert L. Viele, which illustrates the flows of the various waterways coursing through Manhattan island to this day.
"It wasn't until it opened and I saw the public in it that it was so humbling to realize the immensity of the public and the timelessness of it."
Near midnight, Governor Cuomo took the podium for a third time, as a selection of engineers, officials, and subway workers lined up on the stage behind him, some of them in the orange safety jerseys they had been wearing a lot recently. But it was late, and as he began to praise them and their hard work, all of a sudden a spontaneous countdown began in the giddy crowd, cutting him off.
Seven, six, five… and then a cheer, and the horns started up on "Auld Lang Syne" and glasses clinked and everyone on stage and on the floor toasted. People kissed and the giant TVs were stuck at 0:00. It was like a bar mitzvah until you turned around and saw you were standing on a mezzanine overlooking a wide staircase and escalator down to a subway platform. Down there, the trains, in their inaugural blue dress, were lit by the bright white lights of the subway network, where another countdown clock was still ticking away: in 12 hours they would be picking up their first official passengers.
Earlier in the evening, I bumped into Sarah Sze, whose mosaic artwork stretches from the entryway at 96th street down to the mezzanine. She was still adjusting to the idea of the profundity, the permanence of it—"more permanent than a building or a park," she marveled. "It wasn't until it opened and I saw the public in it that it was so humbling to realize the immensity of the public and the timelessness of it."
At 96th Street, Sze has created nearly 4,000 unique porcelain tiles for a 14,000 square-foot mosaic titled Blueprint for a Landscape. Among the biggest surprises, she said, was the trust and ease of her partnership with the subway's Arts For Transit group. "A lot of the drawings are just intimate sketches from a sketchpad, and the fact that I could make them so public and to translate that intimacy into a very public space and to trust that—that you can completely trust that larger process and see it come to life—and they were really attentive to making sure the artwork was not compromised in any way."
A different shade of blue at each entrance is meant to orient subway riders, but the images of loose sheets of paper, scaffolding, foliage, and other bric-a-brac—all appearing to be caught up in a gust of wind signaling an approaching train—suggest disorientation. It fits with her view of the subway: a hybrid place by nature, a place that moves even though it's still, where all parts of the city seem to converge. The thing that seems like it will never come—and then suddenly it's pulling into the station. Where, once in a hundred years, you might even end up at a New Year's party. The point is there is a predictable public utility to transportation but there's also a serendipity and surprise. delight even.
"You can fall into an artwork without knowing that you have, and then being completely immersed by it. That the boundary between what is the art experience and the life experience can be blurred so naturally, so that when you leave the art you remember it in relation to real life, and your whole relation to art becomes much less framed. You can see art and poetry in any moment."
Photos by the author