New York City’s famous subways are a symbol of human movement. They have been under nearly continuous construction and use for more than 111 years—146 if you count Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Transit line. The most recent station was just opened this September. The system is a massive, sprawling, complicated web of stations, tunnels, and byways under and on the New York City streets. And it is, according to many, one of the greatest single works of civic art in the country.
Mapping all of the artworks in the city’s subway should be the work of a small army. Instead, it is the decades-long project of a single man. Philip Ashforth Coppola has, since 1978, undertaken the grand task of chronicling and reviewing the entire art collection of the New York subway system. To date, he’s published six volumes of his work, titled “Silver Connections,” and he expects to finish the project in 2030. He’ll be 82 by then. A documentary about his project, “One Track Mind,” is available on Amazon.
Each volume of “Silver Connections” is a treasure bound in cardstock. They are hundreds of pages long, filled with his black-and-white line drawings of the small pieces of art that make each of the system’s 469 stations unique. His hand-written notes fill the margins, describing colors and wear, and the illustrations are broken up by pages of narrative history of the artwork, often drifting into anecdote or imagination.
Coming across his books in a bookstore is unlikely – his print runs are small and costly – but they can be acquired through New York Bound Books.
After nearly four decades on the project, he’s hard-pressed to say precisely what set him on this track, but he does recall a childhood interest in the subway art.
“Way down beneath the streets of Manhattan,” Coppola wrote the first volume of “Silver Connections,” “there is still an ancient crow-stepped Dutch house on Wall Street, and for that matter, the spire of St. John’s Chapel still needles the sky over Varick Street, sloops go a-sailing from the Battery like they did back around 1800, and an old foot bridge still crosses the Harlem River from Third Avenue, and locomotives sporting big black funnels pull in at Grand Central by the hour.”
History is written in the art on those tunnel tiles, equal in every way to the paintings on ancient cave walls. And Philip Coppola is an anthropologist of the new city.