The Untapped Cities: Past, Present and Future of NYC Subways Tour! is the kind of thing you might want to remember the next time you have a visiting parent, agile grandparent or semi-estranged friend-turned-acquaintance from high school who you don’t really know what to do with in the city. Personally, I attended on a Saturday in October, with a perfectly nice, 23-year-old Tinder date from Toronto. This was fine as well.
Before I get too deep into my review, here is a quick disclaimer: there’s lots of dead white men (DWM) ahead. This is not an alternative tour of New York history, nor a herstory, but the straight-up dead-dudes-with-well-flushed-out-Wikipedia-pages version of events.
If you are searching for a more diverse look into NYC’s history, Gallatin professor Jack Tchen’s classes or “Queer NYC” with Social and Cultural Analysis professor Caroyln Dinshaw in SCA might be good starting points. Rebecca Solnit’s essay “City Of Women,” among other pieces, is a feminist re-imagining of the subway systems and it includes a stellar map. Feel free to click those links and stop reading now if you’re over the whole Eurocentric, hetero, HIStory.
However, if the doings of DWM (this acronym evokes for me the fluorescent lighting of the DMV) are your cup of tea, I might recommend checking out the NY Transit Museum instead. For a more student-budget friendly $10 (as compared to $35, plus tax and two subway swipes) you can glean most of this information. Plus, you get to really see old trains in person, for the tactile learners among us. If you want someone to walk you through this history, they also offer reasonably priced or free with admission tours and activities, which focus on different age groups and moments in history. Admission under the age of 17 is only $5, and the activities listed seem more accessible for say a train enthusiast kid sister, who may have a hard time sustaining her attention for the two-hour Untapped Cities tour.
Part of my lackluster response to this tour was an expectation management issue: the “untapped” part of the tour’s title doesn’t mean underground, as I had mistakenly assumed. This is not one of Eli Diamond’s famed and now defunct guided subaltern extravaganzas. The Untapped City tour does not go any more underground into the subway system than your daily commute.
So, what do you get from this tour? Well, Jordon, our tour guide, was pretty great. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful. He made sure to bring and pass out great images he found in the Transit Museum archive. Old maps are beautiful and can be especially helpful for visual learners. He made sure to highlight not only the history of the trains, but some larger aspects of New York City history, as well as provide anecdotes about the architecture, typography and urban planning. I can safely say I was probably never going to read a whole book on the subway system or even make my way to the Transit Museum, so I learned a chunk of history about the subaltern device I place my body in on a semi-daily basis which I very well may never have known otherwise. For me, the tour was complementary and added nuance to other histories and herstories with which I already was familiar.
Another perk was the small group size — capped around 10 people — which allowed for relative intimacy in a diverse group. I think I was the youngest on the tour, certainly the sole undergrad. In addition to age gaps, our group members had different ethnic, religious and geographic backgrounds. Tourists, New Yorkers and my Tinder date — who it turned out had just moved to the city a few weeks ago — all walked, swiped and rode together through the sunshine down into dilapidated platforms only to emerge again. We got to know each other a little as we collectively experienced the subway system. There were moments of storytelling and commiserating. There were also many chances to ask Jordon questions about the subway system. He could pretty much answer them all.
Overall, I would give this three out of five stars. My Tinder date seemed to be pleased with the tour and remarked that it was very informative. Living up to the friendly Canadian stereotype, she also politely declined to mention the superiority of her own transportation system.
Email Ivy Oleson at [email protected]