Visitors to the stretch of Queen’s Broadway nearby my house often inquire about the silvery metal structures which adorn the sidewalks. They started turning up, as part of a response to a particularly heavy rainfall back in August of 2007 that flooded out and shut down the subways.
The MTA was looking for solutions to keep such a thing from happening again, and decided to focus in on the sidewalk level street grates (that ventilate the underground system) as an entry point for floodwater as being something they could address. Rogers Marvel Architects, along with di Domenico & Partners, came up with this undulating (and award winning) design.
Here’s the scoop on these items, with all the particulars, via contemporaneous reportage of MTA press releases at the NY Times.
These subway grates are all over Queens, although the ones in this post are found on either Northern Boulevard, or on Broadway in Jackson Heights, Woodside, and part of Astoria. Observationally, there are quite a few different shapes and configurations of the things, including a version that sports a little chair. I seem to remember them appearing in 2009 or 2010 around these parts.
Nasty subway air comes shooting out of them whenever a train goes by below, but the grate covers nevertheless provide a welcome place to sit down, whether there’s an “official” seat on them or not. There used to be benches in this town, nowadays there’s grates. You gotta sit when you gotta sit.
Most of the complaints I hear about these things are about the narrowing of pedestrian lanes, as you used to be able to walk over the subway grates which are flush with the pavement. Just the other day, I happened upon two teenagers who were working, with bent up clothes hangers, to try and retrieve a lost cell phone which had slipped through the grate. Before the drama concluded, they had accumulated a small crowd of passerby who set about helping them, but that’s Astoria for you. In the end, the phone was rescued.
Friends in high municipal places have told me that street furniture represents a particularly nightmarish approval process to them, and a contradictory list of code requirements for such items are offered to designers and architects by all of officialdom.
Regarding these grates, more than once the concern that a) “skateboarders would use them as ramps” or that b) “homeless people would use them as beds” has been mentioned to me in a sort of hushed whisper. The latter is the reason why street benches were originally removed from the sidewalks of NYC back during the 1980s, and the former has always struck fear into the heart of governing authorities. The undulating surfaces are a design response to both concerns. Raised ridges of metal, as pictured above, are included to address both points directly.
Thing is, though, that folks in Queens work pretty darned hard and it’ll take more than a few raised pieces of steel to keep them conscious. A Queensican likes a good nap, and whenever he or she can grab a few winks – whether on the subway or above it… they will find themselves a place to settle in for a spell.
(To be fair and as I personally witnessed, this fellow had just finished eating a gigantic lunch.)
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.