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NYC Subway Service Ads Replace Poetry, Literature

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(Credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (AP) — 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 for impotence treatments and law firms chasing accident victims.

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 a few days before Christmas.

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.

“I don’t begrudge them wanting to put their best foot forward,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign rider advocacy group. “But if this new campaign comes at the price of permanently kiboshing the literature, I think that’s a mistake.”

He acknowledged the MTA could benefit from a campaign to improve its image, particularly after a difficult year in which the agency severely cut service, eliminating some subway lines entirely, and passed another fare hike — by 25 cents to $2.50 for a single-ride ticket. None of the new service ads mention the third fare hike in as many years, taking effect Dec. 30.

Hundreds of station clerks, maintenance workers and cleaners also lost their jobs.

Soffin, the MTA spokesman, said the few literary placards remaining on subways are being removed. The authority has not renewed an agreement with its Train of Thought sponsor, the TV quiz show “Jeopardy!”

For a contribution of $50,000 a year, mostly for printing costs, the MTA churned out the placards with ideas from writers, historians, scientists, politicians — and just about anyone who could spice up riders’ time on public wheels.

Hundreds of the poetry placards still grace some city buses, thanks to thousands of dollars in private funds raised by the New York-based Poetry Society of America.

The current public service campaign will be up for a few months, Soffin said.

Transportation officials are aware of the popularity of both Poetry in Motion and Train of Thought, “and the rumors of the death of literary work in the transit system have been greatly exaggerated,” said Soffin, jokingly playing on the famed Mark Twain quip after a newspaper published the writer’s obituary, “The report of my death … was an exaggeration.”

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.

“We’ll see how it goes, and we’ll see what’s next,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a return of something literary.”

Margaret Davis Grimes, a jazz concert manager and frequent MTA rider, would be thrilled.

While reading the literary quotations, “many of us have felt uplifted and enlightened, have had our thoughts provoked in beautiful ways,” she wrote in an e-mail. “There’s so little in our society now that allows for such small miracles, made accessible as we sit for a few moments.”

Then she added, “Is there any effective way New York City transit riders can appeal these terrible decisions?”


(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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