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A VHS copy of “Stations of The Elevated”

The urban landscape, through the lens of an obscure independent film.   Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated is, on its face, not a particularly remarkable film. In terms of subject matter, it’s a cousin to the far more prominent 1983 PBS documentary Style Wars. Both explore the graffiti epidemic, or artistic phenomenon (depending on who you ask) that became a symbol of the New York City Subway in the system’s darkest span of the 70s and early 80s.

A straphanger stares out of a train window in “Stations”

Where Stations of the Elevated differs is in its minimalism. While Style Wars follows some of the graffiti artists, as well as the officials who tried to stop them, Stations has no narrator, and no particularly coherent voices. It is instead a swirl of  “tagged” train cars, rolling across the urban landscape to the jazz of Charles Mingus. The film is astonishingly obscure; a 2005 New York Times trend piece exploring graffiti documentaries mentions Style Wars  rather prominently, while completely overlooking Kirchheimer’s documentary—an omission that prompted the obligatory letter to the editor from the filmmaker. While listings note the runtime as 45 minutes, the more easily available versions (e.g. what you would find if you searched the title on YouTube) were clumsily edited down to 26 minutes. This review, however, is based off the full version (which is available in 5 parts here  Update 05/15: That link no longer works, but a full cut seems to now be on YouTube). The film starts with a wide shot of trains sitting at a rail yard. (Sidenote: the yard seems to be Concourse Yard, which is very close to where I went to high school)  We then hear one of the trains, roused from rest by a motorman, begin to slide out of its siding. With this, begins a montage that is captivating and haunting at the same time.

The subway and the statue

What makes the film a higher level of art than simply a collection of archive footage is its use of contrast, recurring imagery, and sound. Offices on 6th avenue and the Statue of Liberty are some early shots, but the main points of contrast are that of the graffiti with various advertisements. The sounds of the trains, sirens, Mingus’ jazz, teenagers on a subway platform, and disjointed recordings from the radio system used by train operators, nicely complement the images. These images of the urban landscape make the film a substantially more immersive experience than Style Wars. The variety of recurring shots, from an unnamed slum in the South Bronx, to a sprawling upstate institution that is slowly revealed to be a prison, truly place one in the time.

This man is one of many advertisements we see the graffiti contrasted with in the film.

All of that said, it’s hard to discern what the film means, or if it has any “message” at all. As the credits make clear, the director had the cooperation of several prominent graffiti artists, but the cinematography does not necessarily “glorify” the graffiti. On the other hand, as has been suggested by some, the recurring comparison of the graffiti with various billboards could be seen as a commentary on the contrasting values society places on art and public expression; sanctioning commercialized messages in some spaces and criminalizing them in other spaces.

A trackworker stands aside for a passing train.

Indeed, on some level, the very premise of this film is sympathetic to the idea of graffiti as art; no one makes 45 minute  documentaries about, say, broken park fences. Still, there are many messages one could take from the film, and credit should be given to the director for not hitting the viewer over the head with any particular social commentary, other than the rather obvious observation that the inner city (primarily the Bronx and upper Manhattan) of late 70s/early 80s New York was not the nicest place. As a film, Stations would not work in the Bronx of today, partly because the subway is long past its graffiti phase, but also because even the borough’s worst areas are no longer evocative of post apocalyptic imagery. Kirchheimer’s film  should be seen a product of the bleak place and time sharply and bitterly captured by Grandmaster Flash in one of the very first pieces of modern hip hop, “The Message” (see below). Questions of social commentary aside, should you see Stations of The Elevated? If you have just under an hour to kill it certainly is worth a view. The immersive use of the clips, recurring images, and sound make this less a documentary and more a semi-guided walking tour of the American inner city at the depths of its mid century decline.

NJ Transit logo.

Here is the response NJ Transit sent today to the concerns I raised in a previous post.

Dear Abraham,
We are replying to your feedback of 5/18/2012 regarding subject: Bus System ease of use. We are pleased to hear that your travel on our No. 92 Line was satisfactory, thank you for sharing that information. NJ TRANSIT operates approximately 260 bus routes. Along with these bus routes there are over 15,000 bus stops and 2,000 bus shelters. We have not been able to produce a map of our bus system, on a manageable scale that will show a meaningful level of detail for our customers. We do provide the individual bus route map on each bus schedule, county bubble maps and online route information. There are a number of systems to help you with travel such as Google Maps and our online itinerary planner. Please also be advised that a number of counties throughout New Jersey produce a transportation guide for their area (please contact the county for information).Thank you for alerting us that Bus Stop #17228 does not list the No. 92 Line, I will notify the bus stop program manager. Please remember that our Transit Information Center operators are available to assist you with route, schedule and fare information daily, 7AM to 7PM, telephone (973) 275-5555. We believe pre-planning before travel generally produces a much more satisfactory travel experience.NJ TRANSIT looks forward to serve your transportation needs.
Sincerely,

[Employee name]
NJ TRANSIT Customer Service Team

Taking this is a much bigger pain than it has to be.

In which your blogger marvels at the awfulness of the New Jersey bus system.

As those of you who I regularly communicate with probably know by now, several months ago my parents moved to New Jersey, which of course means my permanent address moved across the river with them. We now live in the fairly affluent enclave of Glen Ridge, a comparatively small municipality sandwiched between the larger towns of Montclair and Bloomfield. While Glen Ridge itself is constructed in a manner that actually allows for walking to things, including the town’s train station, the same can’t be said for most parts of this state.

Which is where I begin the story. Today I had a job interview in an area further to the west of the state, in a town along another rail line. One of the side effects of growing up in Manhattan was that the ease of a car-free, transit based lifestyle meant I never got around to getting a learner’s permit, let alone a full license. That came back to bite in the proverbial backside this morning.

The trouble began before I left home. After getting the Google directions via transit to the interview location, I went to the NJ Transit website to consult the bus map. Alas, but there is not one. While the agency does publish schedules for individual lines, there is actually no official map of the entire system. Hopefully you live in a municipality that produces one of their own, or are adventurous enough to search for one of the unofficial maps that dot the internet. This proved not to be too large of a problem as the directions indicated exactly which bus to take.

After walking the half mile from my home to the bus stop in Bloomfield (Glen Ridge—in my limited experience—seems very much like the sort of town that would formally protest the placement of too many bus stops within its municipal borders), I was momentarily worried when I noticed the bus stop did not have marked on the sign the bus I was supposed to take, the #92. The crossing guards who happened to be standing near the stop reassured me that reality differed from what the sign was claiming. She also helpfully advised that I should stick my arm out when I saw the bus (similar to the classic New York taxi hailing gesture), lest the driver mistake me for someone who just happened to be standing patiently next to a bus stop, instead of someone who actually wanted to board the bus.

You better have done your research before getting here. (Bus stop on Glenwood Avenue in Bloomfield, Essex County, New Jersey)

This brings me to the other shortcoming of the NJ Transit bus system; there was no schedule posted at the stop (as with many NJT bus stops). Instead, there was a number, another number, and directions to text one of those jumbled digits to the other jumble of digits to get the next scheduled bus arrivals. And then hope that other forces didn’t intervene to make those scheduled times meaningless. While I will admit that this service worked as advertised, the lack of a printed schedule only adds to the impermanence of the stop and service. (this is actually, according to transit planners, very important to public perception and usage of bus systems)

Eventually, I saw the bus I had to take and stuck my arm out. The bus wheeled sharply to the curb and the doors whizzed open. The bus accelerated just as sharply, disrupting my attempt to extract the exact change the system demanded. Used I was to the relatively simple 1-fare, Metrocard or coin system of New York City’s bus system, I instead had to recall the fare structure for my ride (luckily I checked this before leaving), then feed the box the amount for two zones. To their credit, the NJT fare boxes accept dollar bills, a practice the MTA dispensed with decades ago.

The bus continued along its route, winding through the streets of Bloomfield, then through the progressively sketchier streets of Orange and South Orange. Due the earlier-mentioned lack of a bus map, and the fact that the timetables NJT does provide portray the bus route as an abstract line intersecting other vertical nubs at irregular distances, I had to constantly check my directional printout as the bus approached each stop, trying to interpolate the geometry of the streets I was traveling along to the mini-map on my sheet that indicated where to transfer to the rail line. Doing all of this while dressed in a suit, of course, makes one rather conspicuous. Luckily someone else more familiar with the route dinged the Stop Request tape before I had the chance to overshoot my destination.

While all of that above was only the first leg of a journey that also included navigating a barely-sidewalked highway, I’m focusing on the bus aspect because it is the one that stood out to me as the most problematic (and the most fixable). The problematic part came from the fact that, as I observed, the bus was clearly the primary mode of transport for most of those on it; I saw many lugging heavy strollers with their children onboard, others wearing shirts indicating work at a fast food establishment, and still others flashing the driver Medicare and Medicaid (American government healthcare plans for the old and the poor, respectively) cards for fare discounts. The problems noted above tend to plague suburban bus systems in other regions, and reduce ridership to those who don’t have a choice but to take the bus (page 24).

And now for some simple solutions

So how to fix these problems? First step would probably be to actually draw up a bus map. Presumably New Jersey Transit has the geographic information for the state lying around in one of its offices. They also know where the busses go. Both necessary ingredients for compiling an accurate map satisfied, right there. Second, put a basic schedule on at least some of your stops. New York City introduced the “guide-a-ride” boxes (pictured below; showing schedule, route, and fare info) on bus stop poles back in the 80’s.  It’s not a terribly new innovation. Third, upgrade the fare boxes and develop cards that actually swipe or contact with a reader, thus saving the driver the trouble of manually inputting the age group (child/student/adult/senior), distance (# of fare zones), and mode of payment (exact change/rail pass/bus pass/transfer receipt) of each person boarding the bus. All of that adds to the dwell time, or the amount of time a bus spends parked at a stop boarding instead of actually going somewhere. While a professional transit planner could probably suggest a variety of other changes, these steps above are some of the basics.

Guide-a-Ride: Making bus riding in New York City as easy as basic literacy.

On the map point, New Jersey Transit truly has no excuse. The other major suburban bus operators in the New York area, Bee Line in Westchester County and NICE in Nassau County on Long Island (formerly MTA Long Island Bus) both provide maps.

I emailed a much shorter version of these complaints to NJ Transit. I’ll revisit this post if I get any sort of meaningful response out of the agency. 

UPDATE: Here is their response.

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