Hailing the rails of New York

Special to The Times

Six separate realms make up New York City: the five boroughs and the world that buzzes mostly below. The city’s subway system has its own music, culture and rules. A single station has more characters than a Dickens novel.

Many New Yorkers consider the subway the engine that built the urban empire, settling those rural outposts called Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Many think it’s the jewel of New York’s renaissance, shining years before “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw donned her stilettos.

That’s why a quiet weekend fete would never do for the subway’s centennial. New York is marking that first run — City Hall to Harlem on Oct. 27, 1904 — with a year’s worth of events.


There is an exhibition or talk commemorating every aspect of track travel — architecture, cartography, design, history, music, poetry.

Writer and engineering historian Joe Cunningham, who will lead a tour of the Centre Street Loop, said that even though New York was founded in 1664, the city in our popular consciousness was born in the early 20th century. “The New York you see — in stories, in film and in song — it’s the subway that made that happen,” Cunningham said.

Music Under New York, which schedules performances in subway stations, will host a jam session Oct. 27 at Grand Central Terminal. Also at Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall through Nov. 5 is the exhibit “Subway Style,” featuring maps, design elements and advertisements. The New York Transit Museum is exhibiting photos of subway construction and memorabilia from the 1904 celebrations. Kids’ events rule: There will be readings from the Poetry in Motion series, a ceramic-tile-making project and a day devoted to building a model city.

The MTA store is selling copies of station signs and now-retired tokens, including the Y-cut and the bull’s-eye. But the highlight for real buffs will be Oct. 28 and 29, when the New York Transit Museum will dust off its vintage cars and run them throughout the system.

The New York Transit Museum, at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights, can be reached at (718) 694-1600. For a list of centennial events, see .

But for the everyday surprises of subway life, just head below ground. The salsa man will dance with his raven-haired mannequin near the 42nd Street stops, and the do-wop trio will croon through the west-side cars. These performances happen daily — unscheduled and free, save the cost of a ride.