Subway People

french boys

New York City is filled with all kinds of different people from all over the world. Everybody knows that, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting in the eyes of a visitor. What better way to get a look at people than on the subway?

Riding the NYC subway lines 4, 5 or 6 up and down Manhattan, from Wall Street up to Union Square then on to Grand Central, or taking the ‘L’ over to Brooklyn is as pleasurable to me as being above ground visiting the sites we are all supposed to see when you go to New York. The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Statue of Liberty are all great places, but frankly, I’m over them. It’s the people of New York I want to see.

Mom and daughter on NYC subway

Riding a city’s subway is a great way to gain insight on population demographics and local fashion trends, but more than that, it’s the subtle social interactions that you experience and observe in this underground world that teach you a lot about the culture of the place in general — the acceptable voice levels, personal space requirements, or the maximum length of eye contact before someone becomes uncomfortable.

In Seoul, for example, you could talk really loud if you want to, but you would be considered quite strange and uncultured if you were seen eating something on the subway. In Montreal, a sultry gaze in the direction of a stranger is an integral part of the lifestyle, and this applies equally on the city’s metro cars. From my recent experience on New York’s subway, it seemed perfectly acceptable to eat something, but I felt it was necessary to make some sort of effort to respect the space of the people within my vicinity, even if the trains were busy. This doesn’t require needlessly excusing yourself every time you brush shoulders with someone, as would be the case in über polite Toronto. In New York it’s more of glance that says “Hey, I’m here, you’re here, let’s work this out and not piss each other off.”

NYC subway people

On the train in New York, you can never really know if that stylish-yet-tired guy sitting across from you is a born and bred Brooklynite on his way back to his parent’s house after a long day working at a record store in the East Village, or if he’s a traveller like you heading back to his hostel after checking out art galleries in Chelsea all afternoon (credit amanda). Maybe that well dressed, attractive, middle-aged woman is a big shot lawyer heading up to her posh pad on the Upper East Side, exhausted from working ten hours straight defending the rights of a pharmaceutical multinational. Or what about that ambiguously gendered, pensive young person with the chains around his neck and spikes in his hair? Actually, I bet it’s a girl and she’s probably brilliant. One day the words she is writing on the pad of paper will be read by millions. In New York, you never really know.

Girl on subway

guy with hat

This entry was written by David Maloney , posted on Thursday August 27 2009at 06:08 pm , filed under Public Space, Transportation, United States and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Subway People”

  • C. Szabla says:

    Of course the subway is a wonderful place to observe local characteristics (in New York’s case, for example, <a href=" manage to read no matter how awkwardly squished they are, whereas in Asian cities no one seems to read at all!) Still, I’m not sure the subway is the greatest place to the culture of a place in general. New York subway culture always struck me as its own beast, divorced from the behavioral codes of those who strode along the streets above. See this NYT blog piece featuring a pregnant woman who claims she is treated better on the surface than on the subway.

    Part of the reason may be that you don’t necessarily see a real cross-section of the population on the subway, either. While most New Yorkers, even the wealthy, commute on it in the morning, many prefer cabs or car services late at night, or stick within walking distance of their homes on weekends, skewing the demographic you see riding the system. As is the case on many subways, different lines carry different types of people — the F, for example, is known for being filled with publishing industry types who commute from brownstone Brooklyn to Manhattan. It also doesn’t touch on many minority neighborhoods, which means it has a very different racial balance from other lines. There are even different proportions of tourists on the subway than on the streets — below ground, they tend to skew European.