December 26, 2010 in Nation/World

Subway’s literary moments getting boot

Budget bumps poetry for transit puffery
Verena Dobnik Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Carmen Rios, of Staten Island, N.Y., reads John Keats’ “Ode To Autumn” while riding in a New York City subway car in 1993.
(Full-size photo)

NEW YORK – Not long ago, a subway rider who’d had a particularly tough day at work found herself staring up at the ads inside her subway car, where one of the placards featured a poignant literary quote.

It was from a 15th-century Turkish poet, Mihri Khatun, and it “turned my day around,” the rider later said in an e-mail. “Within me, the heart has taken fire like a candle / My body, whirling, is a lighthouse illuminated by your image,” the poet wrote.

Commuters like her have been able to catch relief during grueling rides by reading poetry and inspired literature among all the ads. But the train has screeched to a stop.

Transit officials have replaced the words of Franz Kafka, Galileo and other great thinkers – a program called Train of Thought – with service announcements about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s improved new technology, equipment and infrastructure.

The agency that runs city subways and public buses “needs to communicate with our customers about what we’ve done in the past year to improve the system,” said MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin.

In the past few weeks, the slogan “Improving, Nonstop” has displaced the Train of Thought quotes sprinkled amid private advertising.

Riders are mourning the loss of the campaign that provided a brief escape into literature.

“Every time we eliminate the arts, which speak to our souls, we’re creating chaos, because words were put on this planet to make us think,” said jazz percussionist Edson Silva, waiting for a No. 1 train on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The 2-year-old literary campaign was an expansion of the very popular Poetry In Motion – famed verses that filled thousands of subway cars from 1992 to 2008.

The MTA once described that program as “a way of delivering a bit of joy and enlightenment along with the ride.”

These days, the state-run agency has more pressing, nonliterary concerns.

Having filled a $900 million budget gap for the year, with “essentially no money for advertising,” the spokesman said, the MTA is using its limited subway and bus space to inform riders “of what we’ve been doing.”

Transit improvements include countdown clocks above station platforms that show how many minutes are left until the next train arrives; new security cameras; and special lanes on city streets dedicated to buses.

Soffin said there’s a chance that snippets of famed literature still “might return” to New York subways, but no precise plans are in the works.

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