The moment on March 8, 1997, learning that rap icon Biggie Smalls just died. A chance encounter between two book-lovers on a morning commute. The eerie, uncomfortable silence of Sept. 11, 2001.
All of these moments, experienced in New York City’s busy and bustling subway system, are being captured and chronicled by Bronxite Christina Baez in her podcast “The Subway Portraits” — a project that began to form in early 2019.
For Baez, special moments of her life have taken place on the city’s rumbling trains. Moments like the first “I love yous” she shared with a then-partner on the uptown D train that led to the couple sharing headphones and playing love songs until the train’s final stop at Norwood-205th Street.
The inspiration for “The Subway Portraits” — where subway riders anonymously submit testimonials that are then highlighted on the podcast and animated shorts on YouTube — was sparked on Baez’s favorite train line, the red 1, which begins and ends at her favorite train station, Van Cortlandt Park–242nd Street station.
Baez said she began using a sketching app in her phone to create finger-line portraits of nearby commuters. This would begin feeding a curiosity within her to compile a living, breathing digital archive of subway riders and their memorable experiences in the 118-year-old subway system, launching the podcast in September 2020.
“Sketching the faces of my fellow commuters ignited a deep curiosity within me. We all come from different backgrounds, and yet we share this common subway system as a means of transportation,” Baez told the Bronx Times. “These small, intimate spaces connect us, even if we don’t know each other on a personal level.”
Each episode of the podcast is roughly 15 minutes, features around five unique stories, with tales transcending different decades and providing an audio and visual time capsule of the city’s subway system. The podcast invites anyone who has experienced a subway ride, from the everyday commuters to first-time tourists.
“It’s my way of celebrating the rich tapestry of subway life and the diverse stories that make up the fabric of New York City,” said Baez. “The ultimate takeaway is that this project allows us to hold a mirror to our social conditioning, which may allow us to have a better understanding of people that don’t look or act like us or who come from different cultures than us, allowing us to gain new perspectives to the stories that otherwise would have divided us.”
On Oct. 27, 1904, the city’s first underground subway line ran from City Hall to 145th Street, promising a “15-minute” commute between the Lower and Upper Manhattan sites. Now, 70 of the city’s 472 subway stations across the city are in the Bronx.
Many stations in the Bronx are above ground, but Baez knows that once the train goes underground — anything goes, where experiences can range from horrifying to hilarious.
“Through the podcast, I have uncovered stories of love, empathy, unexpected reunions and other beautiful moments that occur within the subway system,” she said. “Additionally, the project has served as a confessional space, where individuals have openly shared their somewhat sketchy past actions with remorse and growth. This has added a layer of depth and authenticity to the subway experience, revealing the complexities of human behavior.”
And New York City’s subway system is full of complexity. An MTA train car on any given day is filled with a cast of characters, from the “Showtime” dancers to the raucous schoolchildren to the homeless individual in need of shelter.
Within that complexity, and the stories and feelings shared by podcast participants, Baez has uncovered both the good and bad that comes with riding the subway.
“Based only on the stories shared through this project thus far, I believe overcrowding and delays seem to be the overwhelming issues,” she told the Bronx Times. “Commuters have expressed how those situations have led to stress and anxiety, late arrivals to their destinations, and aggression from fellow commuters from a lack of personal space.”
As for positive takeaways, she said the human connection formed on one singular commute “deserves more attention” in the perception of the city’s transit system.
For roughly two years, COVID-19 and the public health measures implemented to curb mass gatherings disrupted the social nature of New York City.
The pandemic has perhaps altered transit behavior and ridership — significantly below 2019 levels — more than ever.
“The pandemic has had a profound impact on our city, reshaping its social landscape and leaving a lasting imprint on the subway system. One notable effect has been the increase in mental health issues and homelessness, which has reverberated throughout the subway environment,” said Baez.
The transit agency has also had to grapple with perceptions of safety.
Last year, crime in the city’s transit system rose by more than 40%. What drove that number was larceny, a stolen phone or wallet from a snoozing passenger or items stolen off of a seat. However, high-profile events like the mass shooting in a Brooklyn subway that left 23 people injured, and the abundance of crime stories have created an environment where many different narratives of the subway persist.
This month, transit crime has fallen by 10% compared to May 2022. In the Bronx, transit crime has fallen 20% over that same time span. But depending on who you talk to, it’s hard to tell if the subway is safe.
“Even before the pandemic, the subway was known for its bustling and crowded nature,” said Baez. “However, the current circumstances have brought about an additional challenge: an influx of individuals seeking refuge or temporary shelter on the subway.”
“You read the news, and it seems like there’s a shooting at these stations every couple of months,” said Yaria Benitez, 28, at the Allerton 6 train station where a shooting occurred last month. “But I’ve rarely had an instance where I’ve felt unsafe or felt like I was going to die, so you never know what’s really happening.”
During the height of the pandemic, when many health services went online, individuals relapsed into substance abuse, exacerbating untreated mental health issues, lost their housing and, like Moses Morrison — sought refuge in the subway system.
COVID-19 upended Morrison’s life as he lost his job in April 2020. In the subsequent months, his marriage, living situation and soon his mental health spiraled. The Bronx-bound 4 train, and its 138th Street-Grand Concourse, has become a home for him, after a few months “struggling” in the city’s shelter system.
Morrison — who told the Bronx Times of a network of fellow homeless individuals who pool resources together for food — looks forward to the cast of characters that arrive and depart on each stop. But since the killing of Jordan Neely, the homeless 30-year-old who was the victim of a fatal chokehold on the Manhattan F train last month, Morrison says he’s felt less safe.
“I’ve definitely been more alert and more silent since (Neely’s) death,” said Morrison, 51. “I’ve been spat on as many times as I’ve been ignored. And I’ve also been treated with kindness. …You just never want to capture someone on their worst day.”
The subway has rebuilt its ridership in the recent months — exceeding 4 million people twice in one week at the end of April and reaching ridership benchmarks not seen since March 2020.
But the transit system is still grappling with financial troubles. The agency was the beneficiary of billions of dollars in federal operating aid, but with that money running out and fewer straphangers returning than anticipated, the agency has for months warned it was on the precipice of a “fiscal cliff.”
The MTA is considering boosting the cost of a single subway or bus ride to $2.90, up from $2.75, by Labor Day. The agency says it needs more money to subsidize a pre-2019 ridership that has yet to fully recover. Systemwide ridership may only reach 80% of pre-pandemic usage by the end of 2026, the MTA estimates.
But for some, that’s a bridge too far.
“Three dollars? For what? Trains still more than 20 minutes on weekends,” said rider Hannah Myers, at the 181st Street train station on a recent Monday. “I may just need to ride the bike more often.”