This past Sunday, Red Molly and I went on a tour of the New York City subway. Not the whole thing of course; that would take days just to ride every train, still less to poke around every station. Besides, how would we know where to find anything interesting?
So what we did was use a Groupon to sign up for an “Underground Manhattan” tour at New York Tours By Gary. Gary’s business cards list his qualifications as “Certified by 50+ years as a New York Know-It-All”, and he definitely is that. It takes some talent to make a history of the New York City subway (given while we stood in the cold wind at Bowling Green station, waiting for the rest of the tour group to arrive) interesting, though maybe not as much as you might think. The history of the New York subway is as filled with disaster and skullduggery as any other part of the City’s history.
When the last members of the group arrived, we set out on the tour, which ranged from Bowling Green to Grand Central Station, and primarily used the subway itself as transportation (though you certainly will get a good hike in).
I’m sorry to report that we spotted no C.H.U.D.’s during the tour. Also, while Gary may indeed be licensed by the City to give his tour, he has no authority to take a tour group anyplace that civilians aren’t usually allowed to go, so there’s technically nothing on the tour that you couldn’t visit yourself.
What he does have is an encyclopedic knowledge of the history, art, architecture, and forgotten backways of the subway.
The high point of the tour came early on, when we visited the old City Hall subway stop, pictured at the head of the post. Though this stop has been closed for many years, only admitting visitors maybe once a year at best for special events, you can visit it the way we did any time you like. Just take the 6 local all the way down to the City Hall stop, which is the end of the line. The announcer may get testy with you – ours did – but you are legally allowed to stay on the train and ride it around the roundabout as it turns around and heads back uptown. Look out the windows on the right side. Go during the day, because unlike the photo at the top of this post, where all the lights are turned on, the old subway stop is usually lit only by natural light coming through the skylights.
The tour ends at Grand Central Station. It’s here that Gary gets really passionate, as he talks about how Grand Central is one of those places that makes you thank God for making you a New Yorker, and how close we came to losing it.
As it happens, I agree with him. I’ve always thought it was a shame that Grand Central serves only the Metro North lines, though those keep it plenty busy. I remember a character in Stephen King’s It describing how, in her youth, one could take a train from her hometown to South Station, “And from there, the country was yours”. It seems like that should be true about Grand Central as well. Such a grand, beautiful place seems wasted as a rush-through point for harried white-collar workers on their way home. By the same token, new arrivals in New York – fresh-faced college graduates, singers and actors and even business students who’ve never seen a city bigger than 100,000 people or a building taller than five stories – should be greeted by light and marble and huge windows and gleaming brass when they come here to seek their fortunes, instead of the bleak rat-warren at Penn Station or the moderately-better (but still not as awesome as Grand Central) Port Authority.
If you should go to Grand Central yourself, be sure to check out the famous Whispering Gallery:
It’s downstairs, on the dining concourse, directly in front of the Oyster Bar. Something about the shape of the dome and the composition of the tiles makes it so that if you and a friend stand facing corners diagonally opposite each other and speak, you can hear each other clearly. Red Molly and I did it, and we were both stunned. I was expecting to strain to hear, but no. It was like talking on a cell phone.
The tour is approximately 2 and a half hours, and there is significant walking involved, so be prepared. Once the tour begins (as opposed to when you’re waiting for people to arrive), you pretty much never leave the subway, so inclement weather isn’t much of a issue. One of the tour groups brought children with them – sixth-graders – and they were clearly bored to death. This is one of those cultural events that adults wish they’d been taken on as a child, but which 99% of actual children find deathly dull. Of course, the remaining 1% find their great Life’s Interest in just such a way, so maybe it’s worth it.
Highly recommended for those who love New York deeply, and wish to see and learn things that maybe aren’t on the tourist maps.