As soon as I finished writing my initial proposal, I felt a jolt of satisfaction at finally being able to put my thoughts into words. This satisfaction was almost immediately followed by a sneaking suspicion that my work would end up taking a completely different form once I started actually pursuing my topic. Turns out I was right.

As I began pursuing secondary resources on the history of the New York City subway, I found myself taking an increased interest in the physical spaces of the stations themselves. I would make mental comparisons between the pristine spaces and structures celebrated as hallmarks of the early 20th century urban awakening and the places I experience that show evidence of decades of everyday use by everyday people.

This interest gave me a heightened awareness of the sensory experiences endemic to the subway system. The sounds and (of course) the smells of transit deserve devoted considerations of their own, but I am most interested in the sights – most specifically the many swatches of color and detail that comprise the physical surfaces of the stations. Stations serve as the locative nodes by which riders typically coordinate their journeys. The standard MTA logic systems of color-coded lines and Helvetica-laden signage aid this effort. However, I have found that, with close examination, these swatches can also serve as landmarks for the stations they inhabit.

This effort of geographic identification differs from traditional understandings of mapping in two ways. First, it transforms subway stations from being solely conduits for reaching other locations into destinations in their own right – from nonplace to place (Marc Auge). Secondly, as passengers reach these destinations, it encourages them to become amateur archaeologists and scavengers for unique artifacts and features.

For the URT, my plan is to gather as many swatches as possible and map them against the coordinates of their corresponding stations. The swatches will come from photographs taken by me, classmates, and friends I contact for submissions. All submissions will be held in a Flickr account, which will serve as an urban database documentary (Jesse Shapins). I will also continue research into the archives at the New York Transit Museum to reproduce relevant historical images for juxtaposition with the Flickr image database.

My goal is to create a representation of the transit system that will encourage people to view and experience their routines in a different way. I’m hoping that incorporating the photographs and perspectives of different people, all of whom will have their own takes on what qualifies as “interesting,” will be a good way to keep the database and map itself from being “routine.” The way beauty and decay coexist underground is appealing to me, but I expect that others will find passions of their own. Of course, I don’t expect to represent each of the 468 station for this project, but if this stage accumulates momentum, I’d be interested in continuing it beyond this course.

This project and my interest in revealing the urban unseen owe acknowledgment to The Colors of Berlin and Mapping Main Street projects created by Jesse Shapins and Stadtblind. I have long had an eye for the acute details of city life and a passion for the experience of urban travel, but these projects have inspired the vocabulary and working format for what I’ll be creating with this project.