Stephen Mallon’s Photographs Show A New Life for Old NYC Subway Cars

When you board a subway car deep below the surface of New York City, the first thing that springs to mind may not be “luxury accommodations.” But, if you happened to board that train deep beneath the surface of the ocean—and you also happen to be a sea bass, a blue fish, or one in a colony of mussels—things may look very different, indeed.

As it turns out, old subway cars—stripped of windows, interiors, wheels, and doors—make great reef building material: they’re heavy enough to stay put on the ocean floor, roomy enough to accommodate a wide range of fish, predators, and coral, and durable enough to last for decades.

Between 2001 and 2010, the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority sent more than 2,500 retired cars (many from the famous Redbird fleet) to coastal states from New Jersey to Georgia as part of an official artificial reef-building program. According to MTA Assistant Chief Operations Officer Michael Zacchea, the reef projects “presented the most economical and most environmentally-friendly reuse” of the cars.

Once underwater, the structures quickly become “luxury condominiums” for fish, ocean predators, oysters, mussels, and even coral. In Delaware, officials have noted a a 400-fold increase in the amount of marine life per square foot.

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A submerged subway car after five years.

Sadly, the MTA’s participation in this program ended in 2010. Newer subway fleets require “a more traditional abate-and-scrap disposal,” said Zacchea, because the cars contain a combination of plastic, fiberglass and asbestos not suitable for ocean-disposal.

But luckily, the subway-to-reef process has been documented! New York City-based industrial photographer Steven Mallon spent three years photographing the project for a collection he calls Next Stop Atlantic. Read on for a short Q&A with Mallon—and be sure to scroll to the end for his striking photos. You can also see more of Mallon’s work at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries, Feb. 6–March 15, 2015.


Next Stop Atlantic: Interview with Stephen Mallon

NYER: How did Next Stop Atlantic come about?
Stephen Mallon:
I was approached by a an agent that was interested in doing a book with me so I wanted to find a relevant theme that tied into what I was already shooting. My wife and I had been traveling around (we used to call it “picture-hunting”) looking for interesting industrial landscapes to photograph for a couple of years and realized that focusing on the re-use of space and material was a smooth transition.

NYER: What were the logistics of the shoot like? How did you take these amazing photographs?
SM:
The MTA preps the cars for over a month, removing windows, seats, heating and cooling systems, and more. They are then loaded onto a barge, which is towed from NJ to the artificial reef sights along the east coast. I would go out with the crew of the excavator on a separate boat and meet up with the barge in the ocean. The guys would climb up onto the barge and we would back off and wait for them. At that point I was able to position myself to where I wanted to shoot from.

NYER: Next Stop Atlantic takes place over the course of three years—what was happening during that time?
SM:
I started shooting it in 2008. In 2009 the project got delayed by another project—The Salvage of flight 1549. That shoot was only over two weeks but the following interviews and exhibitions took over a year of my life! In 2010 I was able to get back to Next Stop Atlantic.

NYER: What was the most challenging thing about the project? The most surprising?
SM:
Finding new and interesting angels for what was pretty much the same thing over and over again was probably the biggest challenge. The one thing that surprised me is that I am vulnerable to sea sickness if I try to look at my photos on a boat!

NYER: Any chance you’re going to go back and photograph these underwater, once they’ve taken on their new life as reefs?
SM:
Nope, not yet! I would love to get down there, I just need to get my “delusion of grandeur” lighting package together and head down.

NYER: What distinguishes this series from your other work?
SM:
This body of work resonates with a broad range of people. New Yorkers to New York fans to trainspotters to museum curators. Its been five years since the original solo show of the work and it continues to be recognized as a powerful project.

NYER: What are some of your favorite places in New York to photograph?
SM:
 Places I have to get special permission from. On top of the Manhattan bridge is good, barges are also handy.

NYER: What’s next for you?
SM
: American Reclamation Volume 4 has started with the conversion of the Fresh Kills landfill into a city park.

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All images courtesy of Stephen Mallon and Front Room Gallery.  One of the images from the collection will be featured along with other work by Mallon in the solo exhibition  “Patterns of Interest” at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries from Feb. 6 to March 15 in New York City.

More of Mallon’s work is available on his TwitterFacebook,and Instagram pages. 

Coney Island’s Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future

At one point in history, Coney Island was an actual island, separated from the rest of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek.

That changed in the 50s and 60s, when the waterway was filled with debris from the construction of the Verrazano Bridge and stopped up by the Shore Parkway. Today, Coney Island Creek dead-ends mid-peninsula at Shell Road, but the creek is anything but lifeless.

In his November Camera Obscura column over at Curbed, Nathan Kensinger explored this unique waterway, which has evolved over the years from a raw-sewage pit known to locals as Stink Creek and Perfume Bay into “one of the most beautiful spots in New York,” thanks to a range of recovery and restoration efforts.

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Swans in Coney Island Creek. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

Like any body of water in the New York area, Coney Island Creek is decidedly mixed-use: Kensinger describes a waterway that is simultaneously used for recreation, sustenance, religious ceremony, and, increasingly, shelter for the homeless.

“Educational, spiritual, environmental, cultural—there’s a lot going on there,” said Charles Denson, the director of the Coney Island History Project.

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Baptisms in the shadow of the Verrazano. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

But the future of Coney Island Creek is now in limbo. During Hurricane Sandy, the creek was the main source of inundation into surrounding neighborhoods; to reduce damage from future storms, the City has proposed creating a tidal barrier and wetlands at the mouth of the creek.

And, as always, the specter of development looms. Kensinger writes:

At the end of the creek, where public waterfront access is severely limited, several new construction projects are being planned on large swaths of open land along the shoreline. These include a storage warehouse that is replacing the former headquarters of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, and recently announced plans to sell the development rights for a 17-acre remediated National Grid brownfield

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The ship graveyard in Coney Island Creek. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger

Read more at Curbed: Coney Island’s Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future.

Queens’ ‘Forgotten River’ Looks Ahead to Cleanup and Change

Nathan Kensinger’s Camera Obscura column at Curbed is back this week with a look at the Flushing River in Queens, and a hands-on lesson in nature’s persistence, even in the face of decades of human development and destruction.

Kensinger deems it “one of the most tortured waterways in New York City,” and as he follows the river’s altered four-mile path through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and into Flushing Bay, it’s easy to see why.

Forced along an artificial route, the river emerges from underneath an MTA train yard, transforms into man-made Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, squeezes into narrow canals underneath a maze of highway overpasses, fills the Pool of Industry and the Fountain of the Planets, and passes through an underground pipe into the Pitch ‘N Putt pond. 

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Workers have hand planted 90,000 native marsh grasses along the river’s banks. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

The banks of the waterway are lined with storage facilities, auto repair shops, train tracks and bulkheads; its body is criss-crossed by bridges, highways, and overpasses. Because many of the natural marshlands have been destroyed, the river floods often, even with the slightest rainfall. And as if these indignities weren’t enough,

“the area’s waters receive approximately 10 truckloads of human feces a year from sewer overflows,” according to the Times Ledger.

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An unused cove between a U-Haul truck depot and a concrete plant. Photo credit: “Nathan Kensinger.

But Kensinger catches glimmers of hope beneath the sludge and muck, too. Fish and turtles that survive despite the pollution, Parks Department efforts to restore marsh grasses and wetlands, and

The Willow Lake Preserve, which recently reopened. In 2011, the Parks Department planted over 13,000 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 66,000 herbaceous plants here, according to a sign posted onsite.

See more at Curbed: Queens’ ‘Forgotten River’ Looks Ahead to Cleanup and Change

Documenting the Harlem River’s Rebirth

We’re really enjoying Nathan Kensinger’s Camera Obscura column over at Curbed exploring New York’s lesser-known  bodies of water. For a city surrounded by water and laced with streams and creeks, it’s incredible to think that waterways could ever be forgotten…but indeed they have been.

For his first entry, Kensinger took a look at the Harlem River:

For many decades, the Harlem River tidal strait between Manhattan and The Bronx was known as “New York’s Forgotten Waterfront,” its nine miles fragmented by a patchwork of industry, freight trains, chop shops, and communal dumps. In recent years, a loose coalition of concerned citizens and neighborhood groups has been working with the city to slowly reclaim the waterway, piece by piece, and today the Harlem River is showing renewed signs of life.

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Wildlife on the Harlem River. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger

Traipsing along the shores of the 9-mile waterway, Kensinger sees ample evidence of nature’s resilience—and a slew of New Yorkers who are dedicated to the river’s wellbeing.

“There’s a lot of life in there,” says Freddy, who has been fishing the Bronx side of these waters with his son for the past year. “Porgie, eels, flounder, blues, catfish, toadfish, striped bass. There’s some nice crabs. I wish I had a net. I jumped in the other day to get a crab and I was up to my waist.” Last year, over 70 different species were catalogued at Inwood’s North Cove by James Cataldi and his volunteers, including 45 types of birds that had stopped off at this remediated marsh, as well as mussels, clams, oysters, possums, raccoons, and muskrats.

See more at Curbed: New York’s Once-Neglected Harlem River Experiences a Rebirth

Beyond the Funnel Cake: A Photo Essay from the Delaware County Fair

Thank you to Heather Phelps-Lipton for the use of her beautiful photographs from the 2014 Delaware County Fair. 


In some ways, stepping foot onto the grounds of a county fair is like stepping back in time: with the rip of the paper ticket and smell of sweet, warm hay, you’re transported back to the days when homemade reigned supreme and when fried-everything on a stick was as guilt-free as it was delicious.

But fairs aren’t just batter-covered celebrations of yesteryear nostalgia. Even today—173 years since the inaugural New York State Fair in 1841—they remain a relevant platform for the work of beginning and established farmers and a meeting place for area agriculturists. For the rest of us, fairs are a unique way to connect with the regions and people that grow our food and our economy.

“State and local fairs are a wonderful way to showcase projects, ideas, and programs,” says Lorraine Lewandrowski, upstate New York dairy farmer and lawyer. She recalls a trip to this year’s State Fair: “At each stop, I was able to interact with people who were displaying their work. This is so different from simply looking at a website. Our conversations have led to more personal contacts and trust.”

Fairs are also a crucial way to cultivate and encourage youth participation in agriculture—something that’s on the decline across our nation. And even though 4-H and home economics still dominate display tents, some fairs have begun to encourage other disciplines, too, like science, engineering, and robotics.

This year more than 50 individual county fairs took place across New York, and the State Fair set a new single-day attendance record. But crowds at the fair still trend towards locals—something many would like to change. “I would like to see more urban attendance and participation,” says Lewandrowski. “It would be great if ‘urban aggies’ would bring up their displays to Syracuse next year.”

If you missed your county fair this year, or weren’t able to hitch a ride upstate, you’re in luck: today we’re bringing a taste of the county fair to you. Check out these images taken at the 2014 Delaware County Fair. Enjoy!

Scenes from the Delaware County Fair

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Heather Phelps-Lipton was born in Ithaca, N.Y. and raised by wolves. Her photography is a dialogue between curiosity and alienation and explores the drama of the everyday.

Heather studied art at San Diego State, technique at ICP and collodion under Jill Eisenberg and Joni Sternbach. Her photographs have been shown in San Diego, LA and New York. She has also shown photo-based pieces that employ pencil, crayon, embroidery and projection.

Publishing credits include the NY Times, NY Magazine, Village Voice, Time Out NY, Dutch, Brooklyn Edible, Japanese Vogue, Guns, Luna, Nona Brooklyn and Newsday.