A Guide to the Second Avenue Subway: Underground and On the Street

The long-awaited Second Avenue Subway is finally open, and its new art-filled stops make the subway a destination all on its own. With installations by artists Sarah Sze (96th St.), Chuck Close (86th St.), Vik Muniz (72nd St.), and Jean Shin (Lexington Ave/ 63rd St.), a ride on the Uptown Q becomes an underground art museum with the stops serving as galleries. It's tempting to keep riding to all the stops and never go above ground.

Entrance to 96th Street Subway station, 96th Street and Second Avenue

Don't be tempted. After seeing the art installations, get some fresh air and enjoy life in the streets.

From “Elevated” by Jean Shin, Lexington Ave/ 63rd St.
It's true that metro stops in many European cities have long incorporated contemporary design and art as part of their transportation networks - in Stockholm, Vienna, Milan, and Paris, for example, so New York may seem like a late bloomer. One of our first and most most beautiful subway stops, the fancy Romanesque Revival station at City Hall, opened in 1904 but is no longer in service.

At the same time, the MTA Arts & Design Program has enriched many subway riders with art, poetry, posters, and music since its beginnings in 1985. Most of these projects have come along as older stations required renovation.

So, in New York, we've waited a long time to get excited about a new subway line. The one exception may be the 34 Street-Hudson Yards Subway Station on the city's far west side, opened in 2015, but the future mini-city of Hudson Yards is not quite there yet.

On the other hand, the Second Avenue Subway stretches through established older parts of the city, at least the parts that have not been torn down in building contemporary New York. The historic neighborhood of Yorkville along the northern stops of the subway and the areas of Lenox Hill and the Upper East Side that surround the southern stations await your exploration and rediscovery.




To help summon the history and changing landscape of the Second Avenue Subway neighborhoods, I recommend delving into two offbeat guides. First, the story of the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Gummo, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo), begins in Yorkville at their boyhood home at 179 E 93rd St. (See related post.) Follow them through the old neighborhood, and you'll pick up what it was like to live in an ethnically rich neighborhood, though predominantly German at the time, that differed block by block.

Also, the 2009 novel Chronic City  by writer Jonathan Lethem is set in the Upper East Side, not in the old guard luxury blocks near Central Park but east of Lexington Avenue in the East 80s near Second Avenue. Read the novel to get a glimpse of the changing landscape in Bloomberg's New York and the collapse of the old order.
  
Subway 96th St. Q

“Blueprint for a Landscape” by Sarah Sze

Artwork: “Blueprint for a Landscape” by Sarah Sze
Neighborhood: Yorkville
Attractions: Marx Brothers boyhood home at 179 E 93rd St.; 92nd Street Y; President Barack Obama lived in a Yorkville tenement building at 339 E 94th St. while attending Columbia University.

“Blueprint for a Landscape” by Sarah Sze
"I still talk with an East-93rd-Street-New York accent. - from Harpo Speaks, by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber (Limelight Editions, 1961), explaining what his voice sounds like.

Subway 86th St. Q

“Subway Portraits” by Chuck Close (Philip Glass)

Artwork: “Subway Portraits” by Chuck Close
Neighborhood: Yorkville
Attractions: Gracie Mansion; Carl Schurz Park; MTA Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center; Yorkville Glockenspiel, E 83rd St and York Ave., a mural by artist Richard Haas (2005)

“Subway Portraits” by Chuck Close (Lou Reed)
"The secret of this place is its quarantine from the boom-and-bust of Manhattan's trends and fashions. Maybe someday, if the rumors are true, they'll build a Second Avenue subway line and all of this will change." -  Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 2009)

Subway 72nd St. Q

“Perfect Strangers” by Vik Muniz

Artwork: “Perfect Strangers” by Vik Muniz
Neighborhood: Lenox Hill
Attractions: John Finley Walk; St. Catherine's Park; Sotheby's.

“Perfect Strangers” by Vik Muniz

Subway Lexington Ave/ 63rd St. F-Q

“Elevated” by Jean Shin

Artwork: “Elevated” by Jean Shin
Jean Shin's installation draws on archival photographs of the old elevated trains in the neighborhood.
Neighborhood: Lenox Hill
Attractions: Park Avenue Armory; Society of Illustrators

“Elevated” by Jean Shin, Lexington Ave/ 63rd St.

From the Lexington Ave/ 63rd St. F-Q station, the Q continues to the 57 Street Subway station at 7th Avenue (N Q R W). From there, the Q runs all the way down to Coney Island. Subway riders on the West Side interested in exploring the Second Avenue Subway may want to transfer to the uptown Q at the 57th Street Station.


The embedded map offers a few suggestions for places to eat and drink near the Second Avenue Subway, but the streets are lined with many more dining establishments. They would appreciate your patronage after a long and challenging wait.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from January 2017.

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