November 21st, 2011

Terminal Curiosity

Posted in Europe, Transportation, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

It’s one way to see a city: pick a subway line, any line, and ride to the end. In theory, whatever narrow perceptions you’ve acquired by sauntering through any metropolis’ most busy downtown streets will be balanced out by impressions of its flavor of ragged urban edge.

That’s precisely what my friend Tanveer and I did when we were trying to think, a few years ago, of a creative way to explore Lisbon. Miles out from the tightly gridded 18th century streets of Baixa, the Portuguese capital’s heart, a sprawling housing estate greets anyone arriving at the end of the line with splashes of bold color — and creepily empty streets. It was exactly the contrast with the Lisbon depicted on postcards and tour guides I that would have imagined.

Most termini, though, aren’t very representative of the city’s outer rim. The end of the line is also a starting point — a place where many begin their journeys on cities’ rapid transit systems after disembarking from buses and cars. That means they’re often hubs of activity that mirror the bustle of urban cores — with the crucial distinction that they’re rarely as well-known or experienced by anyone who doesn’t live nearby, as foreign to most residents of those cities as to travelers.

In Berlin, I lived in a bizarre neighborhood of vast, snaking concrete buildings a long walk from the final stop on the U6 line. At Alt-Mariendorf, the line’s last station (or, depending on how you looked at it, its first one), there was a bustling pedestrian plaza that was a hive of activity. Yet, for all the relative action that seemed to transpire there, and not the languid courtyards closer to home, few Berliners were really passing through. The end of a ride they never took to its conclusion, Alt-Mariendorf is, for most regular passengers of the U6, more aspiration than destination.

“Almost everyone in Berlin knows their names,” filmmaker Janosch Delcker introduces his recent short film, which takes viewers to the stations at each end of every Berlin U-Bahn line, “but scarcely anyone has ever been there”. He could be speaking about the last stop of any subway line in the world.

Delcker accompanies his film with a brief quote from French anthropologist Marc Augé, who coined the term “non-place” to refer a transient or anonymous location lacking the “place-ness” of somewhere individual, settled, or special — think hotels, supermarkets, airports — and subway stations. “Certain places exist only in the words that evoke them,” Augé wrote, “and in this sense they are non-places, or rather, imaginary places: banal utopias, clichés.” Deckler’s film certainly does a good job proving the latter notion: Berlin’s last stops aren’t much to look at, and tend toward enough repetitiveness that it can be hard to pick them apart.

But things that “exist only in the words that evoke them” can be taken to mean spaces much more expansive than Augé’s non-places. The end of the line has long been the start of terra incognita on the urban resident’s mental map — beyond it, often literally on many transit maps, is nothing but white space. This is where cartographers before the Age of Discovery would have imagined species of giants or sea serpents — the realm of the creative imagination. In a 2008 article on what author Andy Newman found at the end of each of New York’s subway lines, the New York Times put it this way:

For those who get off somewhere else — almost everyone — the end is just a sign on the train. New Lots: wonder what that’s like. Dyre Avenue? Sounds kind of grim. Middle Village — what is that, a jousting park? As it turns out, the end of the line, like most ends, is a place of abiding mystery.

Cities with even more thought-provoking station names make the exercise even more engaging; Boston’s Red Line runs between two curiously named places: Alewife and Braintree; its Blue Line terminates at Wonderland. And almost no one can fail yielding to curious bemusement when stepping onto London’s Piccadilly Line at Heathrow: the station at the other end of the line is called Cockfosters.

Photo by Mike Lewis

Back in New York, riders have found themselves increasingly compelled by the stations at the end of each line by new electronic displays — versions of the train arrival clocks long standard in Europe — that list incoming trains not just by number, but by terminus as well. Previously, New Yorkers would identify the direction of trains by much vaguer points of reference — whether they were headed to “Downtown & Brooklyn” or “Uptown & The Bronx” or Queens. Termini were listed on less conspicuous signs, rarely paid much attention to.

Thanks to the new displays — and the uncharacteristically clear announcements accompanying them — distant stops like “Wakefield-241st Street” have become part of the essential daily geography of people who once rarely stopped to consider such places — if they were even aware they happened to exist. Curiosity about what the oft-repeated places at the end of the line are like now crosses more New Yorkers’ minds more often.

The reality is that most of New York’s termini are, like many of Berlin’s, often nearly as busy as stations in the city center. Coney Island, where many subway lines running through Brooklyn converge, is one of the largest stations in New York’s system; its vast trainshed was meant to evoke Paris’ Gare St-Lazare. Outside is anything but an outskirts, with densely-built housing projects breathing life into the station even when the neighborhood’s beachside carnival shuts down after the summer.

And Flushing Main Street, where the 7 train finishes its slow crawl through Queens’ immigrant neighborhoods, is one of the city’s busiest. Outside is as close an approximation of a closely-packed Asian city there may be in the US; a skyline has sprouted in Flushing so fast that local real estate writers compare it, only half-mockingly, with Shanghai.

Both Coney Island and Flushing are interesting places in and of themselves, but, like many termini, they’re hardly indicative of what one might generally find on the urban edge. Other last stops are far less fascinating places, in general. Visiting these and other stations, though, Newman, the Times’ writer, managed to weave them all together in a single, exotic narrative. “Beyond the station gates,” he wrote:

a priest dreams of a vineyard. A car bursts into flame. An ancient sign in a boarded-up window opposite the platform reads “Wrestling Weight.” A stuffed bear mans a betting window in a struggling OTB parlor. The dead lie in rows uncounted, and the living mourn and wait and work and love and strum guitars on the front stoop, annoying the neighbors.

Newman’s article managed to recover plenty of truth about what lay at the end of the line — every one of the incredible findings quoted above taken, albeit somewhat liberally, from a real story — without undermining these stations’ necessary role in restless urbanites’ fantasies, as Deckler’s demystification, to some extent, does.

The best descriptions of outer regions and unexplored realms will always come from storytellers. But there’s a risk here. Fanciful accounts of far-flung places have often tended to bend to the biases of outsiders’ perspectives, reinforcing their (and readers’, or listeners’) preconceived (mis)impressions. That was no more true in grotesquely orientalized Asia than in distant corners of Queens. Allusions to such places were colored with illusions.

Earlier this year, McDonald’s ran an ad campaign in subway cars that toasted would-be customers with the slogan “To Not Falling Asleep and Winding Up in Far Rockaway,” the terminus of New York’s A train. It was the big budget equivalent of scrawling “here be dragons” on the margins of the subway map, or terming it a sort of transit Heart of Darkness. The company added a caveat — “Unless, Of Course, You Live There” — but the damage was done. It was forced to withdraw the offending ads under political pressure.

The city councilman who stared down the fast-food giant was quick to mythologize Far Rockaway in his own way, though, rhapsodizing about its “serene beaches”. Even those who live at the end of the line have a stake in keeping the sense of wonder their stops inspire alive. The banality of most terminals’ actual appearance would otherwise mean the subways’ final destinations terminated wondering passengers’ curiosity — and willingness to accept others’ accounts, good as well as bad — as much as they ended their ride.


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One comment

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    When the Montreal metro was extended into suburban Laval several years ago, some friends and I took a trip to each of the new stations to see what was there. So did a lot of other people, because the metro was free that day. It was a bit surreal: hundreds of people wandering down these grimy suburban roads, past cash-for-gold places, Armenian bakeries and country cottages from another era.

    Laval, incidentally, was nothing at all like I had pictured it, and my brief walk through the metro-adjacent areas only reinforced its sense of mystery.

    November 21st, 2011 at 4:24 am