Appreciating the NYC Subway with Vintage Maps and Photographs

Image of four vintage NYC subway maps and guides sitting next to each other

Is there a better way to get around this beautiful city of ours than the NYC subway system? The correct answer, factoring in speed, cost, convenience, and comfort, is no, there is not… although after a glorious of summer of Citi Biking all over the place, I'd say that bike sharing is a pretty close second; or, at least, is the perfect cross-town complement to the trains.

Anyway, most city kids, including my own, go through some sort of subway-obsession phase, and some of us (ahem, me), never quite get over it. So in honor of subway-lovers young and old, here are a couple of related items that have popped up on my internet radar of late.

Vintage map of the NYC subway system, circa 1924

Our Obsession of NYC Subway Maps

For many of us, the fascination with the NYC subway begins with the map. Really, I can't tell you how many hours I stared at one of these–the unfairly maligned Massimo Vignelli 1972 version, to be specific–at one point in my life. So you can imagine my delight when Gizmodo raided the NYC Subway's archives for this amazing tour through 15 different MTA maps, starting with the Queens- and Brooklyn-heavy 1924 version (Manhattan has only a single north-south line, and it tops out at 59th Street) to 2012's "Night Map", which uses a darker palette to denote changes in service depending upon the hour, and which I never even knew existed. Great stuff. Also pretty great: this one-off image in which a self-described "metro system geek" known only as Arnorian superimposed the current subway map over an aerial shot of the city

A picture of the current subway map superimposed over an aerial shot of New York City, created by Arnorian

Vintage photograph of a South Ferry subway train riding along the track, taken by Steven Seigel in the 1980's

Vintage Photography of NYC's Subway System

Some of you may remember the legendary/notorious subways of the 1970s and '80s. I sure do, with both a measure of fondness as well as relief that my kids ride in very different-feeling trains today. There's no shortage of excellent photographs of the subways, and the city, from those bad old days, but Steven Seigel's extensive "New York in the 80s" collection is definitely one of the best, not only for subway shots (above and below), but for everything else as well. Seigel also compiled some amazing film footage of the trains back in the day, focusing mostly on the graffiti, but it's all nicely atmospheric. Oh and Gothamist recently unearthed a collection of terrific shots of the NYC subways in 1940s, taken by Stanley Kubrick of all people (two down), when he was a photographer for Look magazine. 

Interior image of three New Yorkers riding a subway train in the 1980's

Black and white, vintage photograph of a man and a women leaning up against a support beam in a NYC subway station, taken by Stanley Kubrick

Christoph Neiman's The Boys and The Subway

Finally, if you've never seen the great Christoph Neiman's The Boys and the Subway, picture book/blog post, I suggest you do so now. In fact, even if you're familiar with Neiman's ridiculously charming, hilariously-paced portrait of his two subway-obsessive sons, it's well worth re (re- re- re-) reading. Just perfect.   

Cartoon of four figures, one has a talking bubble with a question mark in it, asking about which NYC subway track to take, another figure answers "F"

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