One day last year my mom posted something on my Facebook page. Well, let me be more specific. Last year, on 300 out of 365 days my mom posted something on my Facebook page. One of those things was a video on the New York Transit Museum – a New York City museum I had never heard of, despite visiting NYC a couple times each year and always looking for new museums to visit. (The rest centered around either cats, honeybees, or puppies in backpacks. She knows me well.)
How it was that this super interesting museum had eluded my internet searches all these years is beyond me. I mean, really. I sneeze and Google shows me ads for Kleenex and cold medicine—but I swan dive into the web looking for quirky museums in a city I visit often and all I can scrounge up are discount tickets to Madame Tussauds nightmare factory.
Leave it to my mother to outsmart Google’s complex algorithms and give me what I really want—not ads for hygiene products, not ads for The Bachelor (for the love of God), just beagles in backpacks. But also, an introduction to one of the most interesting and highly underrated museums in New York City.
THE NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM
The New York Transit Museum is dedicated to all the transit systems in New York City—the buses, the commuter rails, and the New York City subway—and is located, underground, in a decommissioned subway station in downtown Brooklyn. Now, before you get all “a museum about the NYC subway? Pffftt.” on me, don’t forget that some of the coolest things are found underground. I mean, hello?: Fraggle Rock, chapels decorated in the skeletal remains of plague victims, the Mines of Moria, ancient Maya artifacts, and all the best NYC clubs recommended by city correspondent Stefon.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, she must be one of those ‘train people’ or something.” Well, no. I am not a ‘train’ person. A bowl-of-Lucky Charms-a-day person? Yes. A tries-really-hard-at-Zumba-but-really-just-looks-like-a-wacky-waving-inflatable-tube-man person? Absolutely. I am many things, but a certified lover of trains is not one of them. (How could I be? I got robbed on one.)
What I am though is someone: who loves history, who enjoys finding out how things work from behind the scenes, who likes to travel through time, who enjoys visiting movie and TV settings, and who loves showing off quirky and unique places that don’t get the love they should. If you’re any of those kinds of people too, read on. (Train people, you’re welcome here as always!)
HOW TO GET TO THE NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM
Guess. What. In the most ironic twist of fate since Marie Kondo wrote a book about getting rid of your books, you can take New York City transit of all types to the New York transit museum. To get to the New York Transit Museum you can:
- Grab one of the almost 14,000 taxis in New York City driving past you right now, and now, and now, and now…
- Summon an Uber or Lyft and plug in the New York Transit Museum address: 99 Schermerhorn St, Brooklyn
- You can check out this New York City bus map and see if you can figure out whatever the hell it means.
- Take the A, C, F or R trains to the Jay St./MetroTech subway station, the #2, 3, 4 or 5 trains to Borough Hall, or the A, C, G trains to Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street. If that sounds like gibberish, here’s a pretty subway map.
However, my preferred mode of travel is my own two feet.
The Brooklyn Bridge is a tourist attraction in its own right and just so happens to lead from downtown Manhattan right to the New York Transit Museum. “Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge” is totally on your New York City itinerary, go ahead, admit it.
And it should be! Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is a great way to spend some time while in town—great skyline views, great photo ops, great history to absorb, and great googly moogly don’t you dare step into the bike lane! Well, not unless “get yelled at by a real New Yorker” is also on your bucket list. If so, this is the most effortless way to check that one off. It’s all about saving you time here at MWL.
Once at the corner of Schermerhorn Street and Boerum Place, you’ll see what looks like the entrance to a subway station. Now, before you get all “Girl, you told me the closest subway stop was three blocks away!” on me, know that this is actually the main entrance to the New York Transit Museum and not some evil ploy cooked up by Michelle Obama and I to get you closer to your daily Fitbit goal.
WHAT TO SEE AT THE NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM
Who in their right mind would want to spend a couple hours underground in a New York City subway station? ⇠ Sure, we’ve all had that thought. It kinda sounds like the prologue to a dystopian horror novel about a man-eating rat king, actually. But THIS subway station has so much more to offer than stale hot air, the smell of urine, and a man in the corner having a conversation with his tub of Vaseline. THIS subway station tells the story of how that all came to be, once upon a time. Read on, children.
At the New York Transit Museum you’ll find exhibits on:
- How the NYC subway system was constructed in the first place (IT’S SO FASCINATING!)
- How the New York transit authorities deal with crisis situations (with a special emphasis on their response to the 9/11 attacks)
- Subway turnstiles and tokens through time—beginning in Yore and continuing on until whatever TF world we’re living in today
- All times New York transit has wound up as a guest star of its own in popular culture
- Galleries of past subway advertisements and etiquette best practices
- Traffic lights, actual buses, and other things you can examine up close
- But the best part of the museum (in my humble, okay-fine-I-love-trains opinion) is…
The collection of vintage subway and elevated cars that spans an entire city block. Here you can see and enter and sit on twenty subway and trolley cars dating from when the systems were first installed (early 1900s) to today (whatever year it is when you read this). We have now entered the time travel portion of our programming.
Take your time going through each of these, noting how subway cars have changed over time, but, mostly, just to be like WTF WERE THEY THINKING PUTTING CEILING FANS IN SUBWAY CARS? Each car is outfitted with era-appropriate ads, vintage signage, and most likely some bratty kid thinking this museum is his personal playground. All of this in a real-life, decommissioned-yet-still-plugged-in subway station that totally has enough voltage to shock you back to the 1920s, should you touch the rails. In other words, train people, your world is about to be rocked.
“You must be this short to ride.”
TIPS FOR VISITING THE NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM
As with most things in life—driving a front wheel drive vehicle in the snow, proper poutine preparation, or flying trapeze artistry for instance—I’m happy to impart the wisdom I have come to possess. That sentence comes off better if you picture me saying it with my legs crossed atop a giant lotus flower. Go ahead and picture me with a tan too while you’re at it.
When visiting the New York Transit Museum, you should know what to expect. For instance, on many-a-website you’ll be told that the museum is “great for families!” and other nonsense like that. I’m not sure what they think the kiddos will enjoy more… learning about the process of digging a subway tunnel in pre-electricity times, or how the transit authorities handled the 9/11 crisis… hmm… it’s a toss up!
What they’re really saying without saying, is that their kids had a great time running amok, totally unsupervised, treating the museum’s exhibits on turnstiles and vintage subway cars like a McDonald’s PlayPlace. Forget the fact that the museum still has a live third rail with 600 volts of direct current running through it. That’ll just be a fun surprise for later!
Another tip would be: if it’s hot outside and you’re planning to walk to the museum from Manhattan, you may want to bring a handheld fan. I left about three liters of sweat in the “Steel, Stone & Backbone” portion of the New York Transit Museum.
Which reminds me, maybe leave your claustrophobic friends and family members back in the wide open expanse of Manhattan? Okay, well, at least above ground then. The majority of the museum is not cramped, but it is in a low-ceiling-ed, windowless space underground.
Another tip that sounds kind of stupid up front (I know this) is to not miss the vintage subway cars. Look, I realize it’s a major part of the museum but upon first inspection, you may think you’ve missed them. The New York Transit Museum is actually two floors, with the vintage car portion is on the lowest of the two levels. Just when you think you’ve seen the entire museum, backtrack towards the entrance/exit and the stairs down into the former Court St. subway station will be right there.
WHY VISIT THE NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM
There are many, many popular museums in New York City worth your time and money. I mean, they don’t call it “New Dork City” for nothing. Okay, I just made that up. But really, you’ve got the Met, the Museum of Natural History, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, MoMA and the Guggenheim, the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, and soooooooooooooooooo o ooo oo ooo many others. And, obviously, you should visit every single one of them. #knowledgeispower
However, don’t stop after just seeing the top listed ones. For instance, it took me (a museum lover) 14 years of visiting New York City on a pretty regular basis to even hear about the New York Transit Museum. Here’s why I think you should visit the New York Transit Museum on your next trip to NYC:
⇢ Because it’s a museum dedicated to one of the largest, most sprawling aspects of life in New York City that most people don’t know the first thing about. (Except as a place where rats drag pizza slices back to their lairs, but what can you do?)
⇢ Because it’s a museum where you can touch the exhibits, get inside them, and get a real taste for what it’s all about. Okay, that sounded less creepy-Vaseline-guy in my head.
⇢ Because it’s (quite literally) a hidden gem and therefore provides you with an experience free of lines, cattle herding, airport-like security protocols, and, despite what my last point would have you believe, frisking.
⇢ Because you can step onto the 1950s-era subway car and be instantly transported into a Marvelous Mrs. Maisel setting. Put that on your plate!
⇢ Because once you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge you’ll need somewhere to go instead of just “back from whence you came.”
WHERE TO STAY NEAR THE NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM
Just because you’re visiting New York City doesn’t mean you have to stay in Manhattan. No sleep ’til Brooklyn, right? Check out these hotels for your next stay in New Dork City:
Pod Brooklyn | I *almost* always stay at either Pod 39 or Pod 51 when I’m visiting New York City. I haven’t stayed at Pod Brooklyn yet but I imagine it’s just as awesome. Pod Brooklyn is not within walking distance of the New York Transit Museum but you can find deals here so good they’re worth the taxi fare. Read reviews on Tripadvisor or go ahead and book your room now, but whatever you do, check out my review here first ⇣⇣⇣
Nu Hotel | Want funky wall art? Want a hammock in your room? Want a sidewalk cafe? OF COURSE YOU DO! The Nu Hotel is just a four minute walk from the New York Transit Museum, breakfast is included, and is considered the best value in Brooklyn. Read reviews on Tripadvisor or go ahead and book your room now.
Hotel Indigo–Downtown Brooklyn | Funky, modern, kickass international hotel chain Indigo has a location less than a 10-minute walk from the New York Transit Museum. All rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows, free Wifi, and there’s even a sweet roof deck. Read reviews on Tripadvisor or go ahead and book your room now.
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