As a New Yorker who lives in one of the outer boroughs, the subway is an integral part of my life. At its core, it gets me almost everywhere I need to be: school, work, friends, and family. Despite my navigation skills being less than impressive, if you plop me into any subway station I am confident that after many transfers, waits and walks, I could get myself home without ever leaving the twisting underground tunnels.
I’ve always thought that the subway was a good representation of the diversity that I love in New York. Here, everyone mixes to form a true melting pot. Mothers with wailing babies, a teenager with a mohawk, middle aged man with a half sleeve tattoo of a mermaid, and an elderly woman with a pink cane all sit side by side, silently. They each have their own pasts, their own stories, and their own plans for the day but most likely they will never see each other again. They just quietly coexist, each hoping to get where they need to go. I’ve learned to love that weird atmosphere of simultaneously being surrounded by people, but still feeling kind of alone.
However, despite my romanticizations, the subway is dark and grimy. Hot and dirty. You can hear the squeaks of the mice running through the tracks. You can see people shifting uncomfortably, beads of sweat running down their foreheads.
Tiffany and Co., Controller handle, 1904. Collection of the New York Historical Society. Inventory Number: 1922.103
And for that reason, I was surprised to see anything to do with that grime in the shining and pristine silver collection of the Henry Luce III Center, on the fourth floor of the New York Historical Society. But there it was, hidden among the pitchers and platters: A sterling silver, Tiffany and Co. subway controller used on the subway’s maiden voyage. Looking at this object made me realize that despite my inability to imagine a New York without it, the subway was not always a part of this metropolis.
I can only imagine the excitement of the mayor, George B. McClellan on October 27, 1904 being part of what would be one of the biggest public transportation systems in the world. In fact, I know he was excited because he accidentally raced through the stop at 42nd street and didn’t stop until 103rd ! I think it’s ironic that what we now associate with “common” folk, affordability, sweat and grime, was connected to this Tiffany creation. Could they foresee how the view of the subway would change in the next century? Probably not. But maybe Mayor McClellan’s speeding foreshadowed the subway’s future role in helping New York City truly be the city that never sleeps.
By Hanna Khalil