Subway for Sale

Subway for Sale

April 05, 2012 at 4:00 am

What do you do with the stuff you no longer want? The Salvation Army is a charitable option for things not too well past their wear. Craigslist is great if you want to recoup a few bucks and maybe make a personal connection.

Subway station benches sold like hotcakes from the MTA's memorabilia website. Photo courtesy of the MTA.

In handling its own cast-offs, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has found a solution, much to nostalgia collectors’ delight. Its Memorabilia & Collectibles website includes old tokens, subway car hand holds, signs, master conductor controllers, bus seats, and, most recently, the large wooden platform benches you’ve jockeyed for so many times.

Michael Zacchea, Assistant Chief Operations Officer for the MTA, said the decision to sell outdated or tired equipment as memorabilia came out of necessity. Items weren’t quite “trash,” and with minimal storage facilities, Zacchea said the MTA based its solution on “logistics and economics for things that had outlived their usefulness.” What resulted is a good, old-fashioned case of supply and demand. Though the 35 wooden benches were listed at a hefty $650 each, which does not include transportation, they sold out within 30 days and have 60 hopeful buyers on a waiting list. The largest items for sale in both weight and bulk, “they excited a lot of interest,” Zacchea said.

The Redbird fleet, once a staple for NYC transit, is now a relic. flickr/gmpicket

In 1996, a unit was formed to handle the removal and disposal of non-hazardous objects. When the iconic Redbird subway car fleet (built between 1959 and 1963) was retired after 40 years and four paint reincarnations in 2003, the unit decided to “test the waters and see what people are interested in buying,” said Zacchea, who now heads the unit. As it turned out, the market was excellent. The metal, triangular-shaped hand holds are some of the most popular items for sale. “When people realized that cars wouldn’t be manufactured with [hand holds], they became a big seller,” said Zacchea.

Destination signs have also been very popular. While working in nightclubs, handbag designer and artist Darren Wallace noticed people wearing expensive jeans decorated with crystals. A few years ago, he happened to have an old subway sign in his apartment and thought, “how can I bling that out?” After saving his money for two years, he bought  70 subway signs in a lot sale from a demolition site and now makes art out of subway signs with Swarovski crystals. He has created around 30 pieces thus far.

Wallace’s hobby piqued his  interest in the history of the signs. By chance, he met Mark Ovenden, author of “Transit Maps of the World,” and has since learned the history of the fonts used by the MTA. This has helped him identify the decade certain signs were created; for example, Helvetica was used in the 1970s.

Trespassing looks tempting in this Do Not Enter art work by Darren Wallace. Photo courtesy of Darren Wallace.

Wallace knows that many people are attracted to certain signs for their nostalgia value, such as a stop they lived at, but his art is also commentary. Wallace loves the “dichotomy of the beautiful crystals with a throw-away thing like a subway sign.” For one piece, he used crystals to trace a jagged, downward-crashing “ticker tape” across a Wall Street sign. However, “it wasn’t very popular,” he said. “Might have been too close to home.”

The idea of home is what draws collector Willy Gonzales to subway memorabilia. From his garage in Queens, Gonzales stores and sells (via Craigslist) coins, hand holds, porcelain signs and a penny slot machine. “As a child in the 1960s, we took the train [from the Bronx] to Brooklyn, the old-fashioned ones with the leather seats,” Gonzales said. Gonzalez sees the history and changes in the city reflected in the subway, from the removal of graffiti to the updated subway cars. He likes the subway items because it brings him closer to his memories, both from his childhood and his adult life.  “I wanted to work on trains, ” he said, and he did just that for some years in the 1980s making repairs and replacing parts on PATH trains. Now 52, he works for the Airforce repairing F16 and F18 jet planes.

Subway hand holds now on display at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. flickr/virtiolicviolin

When a branch of the MTA decides they have some material no longer of use to them, they call Zacchea, who then sends a team to check the viability of selling the items, and from there, the process of listing them for sale to the public begins.

“The range of collectors is broad,” Zacchea said, noting that one of the bench buyers was actor/musician Jared Leto. Film companies and stage productions were interested in renting the benches. They had orders from as far as California, and he suspects that many buyers are in the financial business, looking for backyard decorations. They probably should put them outside, at least at first; despite the price, the benches come as-is without even being scrubbed clean. Zacchea chuckled when he said, “you really get the full subway experience with one of these.”