The Subway System: A Metaphor and A Hierarchy
and in the darkened underpass
I thought Oh God; my chance has come at last
but then a strange fear gripped me
and I just couldn't ask
The Smiths – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
(Morrissey and Marr)
Warner Chappell Music Ltd
The subway system has had quite a romantic aspect within literature, folklore and cinema and it has been a metaphor for isolation, mentally, socially or geographically. It is a place that is so out of place that it renders itself an outcast from the normal spaces such as car parks, the pavements and public areas such as parks and market halls.
Morrissey sings the above passage within the song, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out where he conjures up a stifled moment between two people that is ruined by their immediate surroundings, which is an underpass. I find this metaphor quite apt and in keeping with imagery that is associated with the subways/underpass systems. It was also the title of a chapter in the book of junkies and people from the outside of society called Trainspotting, (Welsh, 1993).
Much has been written in literature and displayed within film about the allegorical aspects of these non non-places/spaces, mainly as places of transitory transactions, social juxtapositions and as platforms for basic humanist endurances.
Within this essay I will try to argue and finally resolve the statement that the subways can be a metaphor for the arterial system of the human body. There will be comparisons both medically, socially and metaphorically. The subject matter may seem abstract at times but will have a foothold within formalist understanding.
I believe that the subway system is a non-space in its purest form. It is such a non-space that is owned by no one but is used by everyone at one time or another. They are a non-space that adds connectivity to a varied selection of hives of activity. (Auge, 1995)
In comparison the arteries are the non-places of the biological system in that they are the conduits that allow the blood to flow, hormones to seep and to help carry on chemicals to the main portions to the body. Thus the liver, heart and the brains become avatars for such places as the library, malls and universities. The hearts and brains etc become magnets to each arteries such as the shopping malls and retail units become magnets to consumers on the street.
As in the metaphysical branch of science that concerns itself with the questions of free will, determinism and space and time, the conduits of life can become blocked. The materials that causes blockage maybe physical or sociological, cholesterol and disease may be carried through to one section to the other as the social disease can be carried from one area of the urban sphere to another and become blocked with detritus, both human and human leftovers. These leftovers or more politely pointed out are human traces; be it in the physical sense or psychological traces.
What must be pointed out here are the common presumptions that when we are talking about subways the subject matter concerns itself with what the Americans call underpasses. This is a quaint colloquialism but it robs the English Dictionary of such a guttural and impacting word. The word underpass is, heaven forbid, an endearing on but doesn’t do the concept of subway any justice. It is inevitable that words do get added to the lexicon and with an ever-growing population; we get an ever-growing thesaurus as a result.
The problem does lie with the subway system as a transport link such as the London Underground, the Paris Metro and the New York Subways. These places have their place in their hearts and minds of the general public and are non places in their own right and are as enigmatic as the subways and underpasses of which I am concerning here.
The reasons behind my choice of venue and creating division within language maybe trite but I do have an understanding of the hierarchical aspects of such places. The differences on the surface are myriad such as speed, usage and environmental but if the surface is scratched the activities of each mirror but only slightly.
As a fellow transient of the street whom the renowned philosopher, Baudelaire named flaneur, as a person who walks the city to experience it’s offerings. These offerings may have negative aspects such as miscreant or idler but I will argue to the last breath that in order to understand your habitation, you need know your environment. (Ruth Eaton, 2001). The flaneur/flaneuse seeks the novelty of the streets and are tempted by it’s entertaining laden atmospherics the only downside is that this existence may be on the detached side and be dislocating and a lonely experience.
The subways with its cemented tunnels and graffiti adjourned walls together with lurking human sidelines gathering with nonchalant aplomb may seems like the areas of the cities where the inhabitants use only rarely. These non non-spaces are not that essential for the mobility for the general public to move from one hub of activity to another but they do counter out over-used and sometimes misleading pathways.
In this way the city is like a machine with it’s major components interlinked with streams and rivers of inhabited walkways, subways and train links. The banks, offices, town halls are in symbiosis, articulating with each other as in how the body works. In place of architectural organs there’s the brains, heart, kidneys the place where the work is carried out, not forgetting the essential factory and promethean work of the liver the chemical factory of the human city.
These soft tissue habitations needs to be interconnected and these connects are the arteries and veins that stretch around legion. They carry the platelets, white and red blood cells and other carriers such as vitamins and minerals. They speed through the system to each and every organ in such a way that they resemble rush hour traffic in the city, the platelets rushing on with their repair and recovery work, the red blood cells and their oxygen giving qualities loading and unloading their wares and the white blood cells fighting disease not unlike the city policeman on his day of crime fighting and peace giving duties.
These are the essential and base travelers through the organic system without them we are not responsive; the other transient inhabitants are the vitamins, minerals and viruses. Anthropomorphically, we can select personalities for these travelers and lazy assumptions can be placed upon them but in all, these are the flanuers of the human body.
They are carried into the city via means of camouflaged infiltration such as molecules, food and chemical laden pills. The side streets and the roads that they travel on all maybe clogged with cholesterol, enzymes et, cetera and eventually they reach the main hub of the city which is the heart. This is the vessel in which most of the traffic is directed to and can, at times, become stifled.
The heart is not unlike the four-entry subway system insofar that offers thorough movement and hence heightens levels of activity. The heart though is not a non-place but a named place. It is used for gain and not just for convenience and is govern by mitral regimentation.
The mitral valve participation governs the intake of what enters the heart but at the bottom left ventricle but sometimes this relationship can become broken down. This can be compared to the fear of victimization within the isolated subways and underpasses that serve our streets. As the veins and arteries of the biological system can become prey to invading parties and life threatening organisms, some people don’t use these amenities due to fear of their urban environment and the people who use these often out of way places.
Contemporary media such as literature, television programs and newspapers exacerbates the problems of such places and this in turn breeds the fear and loathing of such avenues. As what is written within Public Space – Urban Spaces (Carmona, et al., 2003) …(the) fear of victimization is a major factor in the creation of the contemporary urban environment.
As indicated in Public Spaces - Urban Spaces (Carmona, et al., 2003) These seldom used passages are what are perceived as the habitation of the underclass. Hordes of youths, miscreants, criminals and beggars together with a new order, the graffiti taggers and skateboarders call this home. As in the words of Julian Cope, “ Fear Loves This Place”. These are the people that create anxiety and obstructed the thorough of normal pedestrians. What in fact is happening here is what is thought of as the risk factor, the breaking of civil liberties? It is thought of as unsafe to use such under lit and isolated underpasses so risk management is undertaken to reduce the exposure of crime, this in turn causes the exclusion of particular places in the machinations of the cities.
It is evident that crime does happen is such clandestine places. Prostitution, drug dealing, muggings and personal attacks may happen but they do also happen in more open public places. The cut off point to actually being part of such activities would be to stay on the pavements and go on your way but at times, this particular point of action may not be viable.
The subway systems that are present near the Manchester Metropolitan University are quite unique in their placing and construction. These are placed near the area of Hulme and served the populations of the high and mighty but equally flawed behemoths that were the Hulme Crescents. No writings about this area could exclude a salutary nod to these almost sublime creatures of social upheaval. They were erected in the seventies to house the population of the recently demolished terraced slum dwellings. They were eventually demolished themselves in the late nineties to be replaced with more conventional housing.
These subways are distinct in that up to six directional can be used to enter them and both subway systems have four main chambers. I will call each of these two subways as Mancunian Way/System West and Mancunian Way/System East. The MW/SW inhabits the A5103 Medlock Road/ Princess road and is primarily used for the thoroughfare of the aforementioned Hulme/Moss side district, the MW/SE inhabits the cross roads of Cambridge Street and the Mancunian Way, both the Elevated Road and the A57.
These two systems may be so near but the human traffic that participates with them is quite different. There is graffiti in both locations and garbage piles up at the entrances to the epicenters of each chamber but what is evident is that they are used for different ends.
It may be another lazy assumption that the west system is used essentially for the local inhabitants of Hulme for easy access to the city and the east system is for easy access for the newly built up student village that has sprouted around Chester Street and Cambridge Street (Southbound), but the chink in the armor is the Salvation Army Homeless hostel that is on Chester Road. The people who have to live in such habitations will use this due to locality.
Of course, the aforementioned risk factors of perusing subways particularly at night rise due to irrational scenarios that need to be weighed up against the usability factor of such perambulations. The Mancunian Way is such a road system that makes it extremely tiresome and timely to cross. When entering from the Hulme Street entrance the pedestrian can bypass at least three roads and miss out the busy traffic. So, it cuts out precious minutes and shaves off the hassle of cross-town traffic.
The design of the two subway systems is a little bi-polar to say the least. They may be useful and have an aesthetic quality about them. They are landscaped with trees that gives an almost jardin-public effect and is quite landscaped but the juxtaposition of the flyover overhead, the concrete terraces and confused environment only adds to the jaded disposition.
There is no point of reference when entering the heart of the subway chambers. Hidden dangers are prevalent and viewpoints are distorted with concrete columns and raised hillocks. The situational thorough movement heightens the paranoia levels and quickens the pace. When I have visited these places, I feel the excitement of risk levels and feel the ambience but of course, I don’t linger in such places.
In contrast to the subways systems are the three subways that are placed within the legendary Bus Station at Preston. As with the Hulme Crescents, the Mancunian subways system and many flat-packed architecture of the autumnal portion of the twentieth century, this structure is Brutalist in style, carries an almost dystopian and sci-fi feel towards and is very utilitarian within it’s concepts.
The whole project was conceived and designed by Ingham and Wilson in 1969 and has become something of a tourist anomaly that visitors come to see and experience the terminus as part of the their journey and not just as a means to an end. Incidentally, the whole site is penciled in to be demolished in 2014 and this has created the generation of a worldwide petition. It is an almost organic looking building with a mezzanine of car park floors above and three subways that travel underneath it.
There are two kinds of subways even though three are used within the structure. The two very similar subways are within the epicentre and these carry the commuters to and from the busy station into two areas of the city centre and beyond. The main usage of these subways are placed at their given positions due to health and safety for the general public due to the business of the terminus and car parks.
These throughways are so different to the Mancunian Way subways due to the increased exposure to sufficient activity. They are still areas of risk such as hidden doorways and exits to darkened side streets but they are so linear in complete contradiction to the almost biomorphic aspects of their Manchester cousins.
As the Manchester subways are strategically placed at points of reference within the city where pedestrians can travel to areas quickly, the Preston subways are located at three areas, which are geometrical positioned.
The two more industrious of the three subways are territorial in which local youths have scribbled their monikers on the walls but these spaces are integrated with the non-place of the terminus. The fluidity is almost planned with the mirroring of retail premises from the start of subway within the terminus to the retail premises at far end near the entrance to the Guild Hall.
The flip side of this consumer based styled movement of these subways is the almost forgotten and slightly edgy subway at the far side of the terminus. There is a considerably lack of graffiti here and is very subterranean in it’s aesthetics. It is very burrow like with its steep steps that brings the commuter into its strip-lit tunnel.
I assume that this subway is used for the inhabitants of the nearby hotels and the residents of the local housing estate and of course, the student accommodation is right around the corner from the exit.
So I have presented two case studies of two different styles of subways and of where and why the architects place them and to where we eventually find them. The Manchester based subways are used primarily for commuters and inhabitants of the local areas and utilized for easy access to areas of the city where movement maybe jeopardized. As stated, the Preston system is used for commuters and consumers, the Guild Hall is near the building so that has a steady flow of patrons.
As a footnote with an almost apologetic tone is the now reduced subway systems of the small northern cotton town of Blackburn in Lancashire. The surrounding area of the inner spectrum of the town has been, and is still in, a state of flux.
The Market Hall was designed and constructed at the same time as Preston’s terminus and the mighty Crescents but time hasn’t been kind to the subways of the town. They are now only one whence there were quite a warren of them. With more continental styled town planning and the need for pedestrian based sideways and pavements, they fell quickly out of favour and was quickly filled in. Having the River Blakewater running under them didn’t add to the appeal when groundwater began to seep through the floors and walls.
The one that is left is now used rarely and with classical music filtering through it to halt the clogging of humanity who meander and congregate. In essence, it has retained its fundamental core as in that movement is at the heart of the urban experience. This can be either using the safer or often less risky pavements or their subterranean cousins.
The social use of space is integral to its utility. If the subways do begin to become clogged and it’s arteries thicken with what is considered criminal activity and the stains of society, they will be underused and these powerfully convenient and risky corridors will become defunct.
What part of the socio-geographical world does the subways belong to then. Are they in union with the roads and the street or are they on their own. They are under privileged to a great extent but have been usurped through the members of a fringed society. As Marc Auge suggests in the heady tome Non-Places (Auge, 1995), the places of transient usage and spaces of utility are to be classed as non-places. The rise through being a space up to a non-place is quite a hierarchal act of ascension. As he suggests, the streets are what is considered as spaces of human movement, what he fails to mention and give credit towards are the subterranean passages that inhabit lesser portions of the city.
I do feel that this is a class divide between what are spaces and what are places. Places are what they are due to human interaction and assimilation and spaces are what they are until we come on by and construction perimeters and walls and name these patches of land. Streets are obviously open and ready to be used by whomever decides on passing through them and in general they are spaces just like a patch of spare land that doesn’t seem to be owned.
Subways are covered, they are constructed the subways have been planned by architects for the sole use of the public. They are a contained unit of tiled walls, integrated lighting and have been given a considered conception into the urban environment. They are places in total opposite to the streets that re spaces. So I dub them Non-Spaces.
They can arise and begin to be utilized within the socio-geographical urban environment. They were designed for the contra-flow of humanity and let them begin to become relevant once again. The subways haven’t the functionality as the airports, retail premises and hospitals but they do have their place in the maximization of the flaneur and the urban dweller.
Basic space, open air
Don’t look away
When there’s nothing there
The xx – Basic Space
(Croft, Qureshi, Sim, Smith)
Universal Music Publishing Company-2008