On Display



Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham illuminates how museum professionals are pushing boundaries to respond to the big issues of our time. In this episode, we explore how transportation is on display through the Center for Anti-Violence Education and New York Transit Museum’s exhibits and programs.

AIRED: May 06, 2020 | 0:13:43

Johnson-Cunningham: Mass transportation

is a part of the way

that people connect their lives through the city.

Kalter: They live the way they live in New York City

because of their proximity to mass transit.

When we see people protesting the cost of the fare,

this isn't anything new.

This is about the right of mobility,

and restrictions should not be a thing

in terms of people being able to navigate different parts of the city.


[ Siren wailing ]


I'm Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham,

and we are discussing transportation today

"On Display."

To understand mass transportation

is to understand that it is a core part

of our everyday experience and everyday life

here in New York City.

It's almost like the heartbeat of the city.

So, to know that there is a segment of our society

that don't have access to it

is to understand that there is a segment that is being crippled

because they don't have the financial means

to take public transportation.

[ Horn honks ]

New York's transportation history happened in phases,

from early ships and passenger ferries

to more modern subways, trains, buses, and cars.

The New York Transit Museum's collection,

artistic renderings, historic maps,

guidebooks, and digital technology

highlights how the city's transportation

has catalyzed its development.


So, this station that we're in right now, it was built in 1936.

It was called Court Street Station.

In 1946, the station shut down.

And then, in 1976 or late 1975,

there was a core of transit workers

who decided that they wanted to put on an exhibition,

a temporary pop-up exhibition,

with a lot of the vintage trains.

Today, we are still here 43 years later.

It never shut down.

It was so popular that we have been able

to remain as a museum to this day.

One of our main focuses in education

is really helping people understand

that they live the way they live in New York City

because of their proximity to mass transit.

And they just might not know it.

And so, we try to help people understand

how neighborhoods have been built

because of where the train lines are going,

who has access to mass transit,

and how that impacts their lives.

New York's growth can be found

throughout the increasingly connected transportation system.

Mass transit helped make the greater New York Region

what it is today.


Sykes: So one story I like to talk about

is the story about Elizabeth Jennings Graham.

So, we all know about Rosa Parks. Yeah.

But what most people don't know is that there was

a 24-year-old schoolteacher,

a black woman named Elizabeth Jennings Graham,

who won a landmark legal case

100 years before Rosa Parks. Wow.

So Elizabeth, on a hot summer day in 1854,

was getting on a school car with her friend heading to church.

And so, she was asked by the horsecar operator

to get off of the car because of her race.

When she refused,

she was forced off physically by a policeman

and thrown to the ground. Wow.

And so, a year later,

she actually sued the horsecar company.

She won that landmark case.

It's an important story to tell because,

even though it was an impactful victory for her,

it didn't end segregation on public transportation.

That happened legally in 1873.

So her, like, having the audacity

to sue a privately-owned company in that day was a huge deal.

Yeah. And so, we have an individual story,

but then there's also a story of a specific event

that happened, too, the bus boycott.

Can you share a bit about that, as well?

Yes. In 1941, black workers went on strike in Harlem

to kind of have the transport union workers, TWUs,

have them live up to their kind of principle

to have a diverse workplace.

And so, it was a peaceful protest.

A key figure in that protest was Adam Clayton Powell Jr.,

who was the minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church

at that time.

And so, what resulted was 100 black workers

becoming, you know, bus mechanics and operators,

because they were hired as cleaners and things like that.

Even if they had the required skills

to be promoted, they were not.

Yeah, and Adam Clayton Powell

was like our Martin Luther King here in New York City. Yeah, yes. Yes, yeah.

Like, really, because a lot of people

know about bus boycotts throughout the country

but not really know

about the history of the Harlem bus boycott

and how significant that was, as well.

And it was, you know, something that King kind of looked to

to kind of protest Rosa Parks' arrest.

When he did his bus sit-ins,

he looked to the Harlem bus boycotts

and how it was peaceful and it still got things done.

Those two stories stand out to me the most,

being a Harlem native. Yeah.

It was really interesting to learn about this boycott,

and I definitely didn't know about Elizabeth.

So being here really helped me learn that story. Yeah.

Yeah, and I'm grateful that the institution

has these kind of stories on display, as well, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

The museum also shows the evolution of fare collection

across all of New York's modes of transportation,

such as turnstiles and fare boxes,

to get a sense of the colossal process of fare collection.

Even though here in New York we think, like,

every year we're getting a fare increase,

actually, the largest fare increase

happened at the start of the second world war,

when the fare doubled from 5 cents to just 10 cents.

And so, that caused an outrage. Of course.

So imagine.

And so, having this in our collection,

we kind of see where it was and where we're headed.

This is a really extensive collection

we have here in the museum.

It starts from 1928,

when the IRT last had their tokens.

And it goes all the way through to the mid-'90s.

And, yeah, it's really cool

to see this evolution through the years

and also, like, the slugs that were used to avoid payments.

Yeah. I think these worked.

Some of them might have not.

Like, I believe they went in, and as they were --

So, what are they?

Yeah, so they were just, like, different things,

some that kind of looked like tokens. Yeah.

But they're slightly off in a certain way. Oh, wow.

We see from probably D.C. Metro

and other currencies from other countries.


People were using what they called "slugs"

to enter into the system, right, so creating their own coins.

And that is a form of protest.

And so, when we see people protesting the cost of the fare,

when we see people protesting that black and brown people

are targeted in the subway system,

this isn't anything new.

And the Transit Museum allows us to see that history firsthand.

The question that stands out to me is,

why are we charging so much for transportation,

and why isn't the city investing more

into our system, our transportation system?


The Swipe It Forward movement

offers a swipe to your fellow New Yorkers.

If you have an unlimited Metro card,

it will cost you nothing to swipe someone in

as you exit the station across the city.

Cadet: So Swipe It Forward is really based on the concept

of paying it forward.

And it's really telling New Yorkers

that if you have an unlimited Metro card,

when you exit the station and you see someone leering,

like, kind of looming near the turnstile,

you can offer them a swipe.

But we also, through grassroots fundraising,

have put money on Metro cards

and chant and let people know in the community

that if you need a swipe, we got you,

prioritizing black and brown New Yorkers,

recognizing that they are disproportionately impacted

through ticketing and arrests.

The issue that we see within the transportation system

with people being arrested for fare evasion

is a part of what's known as "broken window policies,"

where, here in New York City,

people are arrested and ticketed for small infractions

in hopes that people won't commit larger crimes.

It's interesting, because when we do those actions,

oftentimes, the people in the booth

will call the police on us.

And I've been harassed by the police when I have done that action.

Yeah, and it's a completely legal action.

Yes. It's really cool sometimes

when you're able to support community

within the parameters. Yeah, working within the parameters of the law.

To dismantle the system. That loophole, yeah.

It's like, "Ooh," and I know they're probably like,

"Ah, man, these activities." Right.

And we're like, "We're clever, and we're thinking about it."

And I think this is about the right of mobility,

and restrictions should not be a thing

in terms of people being able to navigate

different parts of the city.

I've seen people get arrested for jumping the turnstile.

I've seen police officers enter the bus in my neighborhood

and pull people off the bus to arrest them

or to give them a ticket for being on the bus

without any form of Metro card or any ticket.

So, the Center for Anti-Violence Education

originally started in 1974.

And it started as a place in the '70s

that taught women martial arts, self-defense.

So, that was its original roots.

And then it transitioned into being a nonprofit,

which now we have a plethora of different programs.

And we still have our self-defense

and martial arts program, as well,

but now it's extended to

including our active bystander intervention.

We teach across the city

to about 3,000 New Yorkers a year,

from schools to community-based organizations.

That's really amazing,

and I can see how effective that can be for a lot of people.

Absolutely. Yeah.

I think the best thing is for people to know their rights

and to know that they have the right

to speak up for themselves.

They have the right to advocate for themselves

if the police have stopped them.

Knowing your rights is also nuanced

because we know that we live in a world

where you can know your rights,

do all the things, and you can still be murdered.

So this action is a direct way

to say, "We are here for our community."

This is an action that is legal,

and it is an action that is directly community-based.

No one should go to jail, be arrested/ticketed for $2.75.

That is ridiculous. And the fines for it is $100.

So if someone is not able to pay $2.75,

how would they be able to pay, you know, a $100 fine?


That idea of criminalizing poverty,

and the Swipe It Forward action

being a direct action to combat that,

that is saying, "You should not be penalized

for not having this money."

Because, in addition, to further penalize poverty,

there is aggressive panhandling.

So if you are by the station, by the turnstile,

asking someone for a swipe, they can look at that

and say that that's aggressive panhandling,

and you can get a ticket for that, as well.

So people have to literally stand by,

hope that someone will offer them a swipe

or do a really, like, low-key, like,

kind of, you know, signaling,

because if the police "catch you,"

essentially, asking for a swipe,

you can also get penalized for that.

In New York City, we really have to fight for those

who may not have access in the way that we all have access,

whether because they are working poor or they are homeless.

And so, instead of harm people who cannot access the trains,

we need to help them.

Being a part of an organization

that helps to create a better world,

the world that I want to live in,

I owe it to the people who are coming after me,

the younger folks, to feel safer in the world.

And then I also owe it to my ancestors

and to people who have fought for me to do this work.

And that is healing for me as a survivor of violence.

It's healing for me as a person

who is a part of the black queer community.

And so, I'm able to help heal myself, as well,

and help others heal.

Museums are civic spaces.

They are in charge of providing us with knowledge,

with what's happening right before us,

what's happening right around us that's affecting so many of us.

So you may not necessarily be a person

who can't afford to take the trains,

but it's important to get involved

and to know what your neighbors in New York City

are facing and dealing with.

And museums and other historic sites and cultural institutions

are a large part of getting that narrative out to the public.





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