THE BLOG
09/08/2011 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2011

Notes from the Underground: The Art Below

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Photo Credit: Subwaysigns.com

As a former New Yorker and daily commuter on the New York City subway, it never dawned on me that the transportation system itself could be a form of art. In the daily grind that is a work commute, the act of observation is not a highlight. Since leaving New York City and re-locating to Los Angeles, a city lacking a well-used public transportation system, the subway I used for eight years started to have more shine.

After learning more about my grandfather's work as a change agent and motorman on the NYC subway beginning in the 1940s, I decided to seek out a vintage subway sign. I poked around for a bit and settled on one of the only remaining signs still available from Manhattan.

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Photo Credit: Subwaysigns.com

The sign above used to live on the R9 train, a train that ran along the IND or Independent line. I located the sign on Subwaysigns.com, the first and largest online store for vintage signs from the subway system. This particular sign was on the original 8th Avenue line. Before the current system we enjoy now, complete with the 1, the 9, the A, and my most traveled L, the lines were the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit), the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) and the IND (Independent Subway System). The remains of these lines still exist today with the BMT trains & IND trains translated to the lettered trains and the IRT trains translated to numbered trains. The original subway lines (BMT & IRT) were independently owned and operated while the IND line, which came along in 1932, was owned by the municipal government. The first subway fare was only five cents.

My grandfather, William Giegerich, worked on the IND line, from the time he returned from World World II till he retired in 1973. The R9 trains were retired from service in 1977. As it turns out, the sign I purchased could have lived on a train my grandfather operated. This was a fact that I did not come to know until after purchasing the sign and learning more about my own family history from my father. It's hard for me to imagine the stories my father tells, of my grandfather picking up my father on the train and taking him home to Coney Island. The weight this sign will carry in my home will be palpable.

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Gramps and I, 1981

As the world progresses and our family histories are transmitted over social networking pages and email to each other, what physical reminders will we leave behind for our grandchildren? If one of mine is reading this some day, I suggest an L train sign. While I personally loathed getting on the train at 1st Avenue for my daily commute, I will never forget the four years I spent coming home along that line.

I will never forget my favorite waiting spot or the many ridiculous moments that transpired over the pathways of each train. I will never forget the moment I heard that a friend fell between two cars at a station in Soho and the train severed her leg. I will never forget the day World Trade fell or the city blacked out and every New Yorker was forced to find a new way home. I will never forget the day I sat mesmerized watching dancers back flip flawlessly while the train was in motion. I will never forget the day I saw a woman step in front of the train and take her own life.

Every moment while along the subway system, either within the underground or on the platform, is an instant I will try to hold on to as long as I live. This connects me to every moment my grandfather must have shared along the same tunnels I traveled every day. The subway system is a living, breathing memento of our lives, each train and pathway a reminder of those seconds, minutes and hours shared. The next time you step onto the platform and wait for that train, think about all the moments you've spent throughout the tunnels in NYC and the ways these have defined you. Art, after all, is a reflection of our own subjectivity. Reflected in this vintage subway sign hanging on my wall is a collusion of histories: my grandfather's, my father's, and my own. From New York City to Los Angeles, from the 1940s to today, the sign continues to transport.

If you're looking for more on the history of the New York City subway system, also check out Steve Duncan's trips underground.