Weeks 297, 2008. Photo by Stephen Mallon.

Stunning Photos of NYC Subway Cars Dropped into the Ocean to Become Reefs

Have you ever wondered what happens to New York City’s subway cars after they are taken out of service? From 2001 to 2010, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), dropped 2,580 cars into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, to become artificial reefs. This incredible process, which began in the 207th Street Overhaul Shop in Inwood, Manhattan, was documented over the course of two years by photographer Stephen Mallon.

Starting Wednesday, the public can see nineteen of his large-format photographs on display at the New York Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery in the exhibit: “Sea Train: Subway Reef Photos by Stephen Mallon.

Many of Mallon’s photographs in this series will be exhibited for the first time, capturing, as the Transit Museum eloquently states, “the seemingly impossible: iconic subway cars dropped like toys by brightly-colored cranes off hulking barges. As they are deployed to become artificial reefs, these symbols of industry and city life, which carried millions of passengers along New York City’s iron rails for decades, appear shrunken in scale against the vastness of the Atlantic seascape.” Mallon, whose work has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, and The Wall Street Journal calls the subway reef series one of his all-time favorite subjects. The Transit Museum has shared these photographs by Mallon and others on Untapped Cities as a preview for the exhibit.

Artificial reefing, or underwater habitats formed around sunken manmade objects, is a long-time marine practice. The first planned artificial reefs were boats in the early nineteenth century. Throughout the twentieth century, objects like school buses, refrigerators, have all been transformed into reefs. In 2017, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection placed 5,000 crushed porcelain toilets from New York City school buildings into Jamaica Bay to build an oyster reef. All artificial reefs are created following strict protocols enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From the 207th Street Overhaul Shop, the subway car shells get barged from the Harlem River to their final resting places off the Atlantic coast.

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