Theses Master's

The New York City Subway: Invisibility, Crisis, Materiality, Fantasy

Kim, Jean

In many ways, large infrastructural systems like the subway represent a collective fantasy of the city - a shared physical apparatus that shapes individual routines, desires and identities. The subway is what enables the vision of New York City as “The Greatest City on Earth” - “The City that Never Sleeps.” From the day that the first underground line opened in 1904, the subway system has run 24/7, setting the terms for social and economic life in the city.

These visions are enabled by the material infrastructural components that make up the subway system - the train cars, tracks, signaling systems, control rooms as well as the train operators, maintenance workers and MTA officials that operate them. Yet these material and human infrastructures are often rendered invisible because they are valued only for their utility as a means to our ends, causing the material conditions of the system to remain invisible except in moments of crisis or disruption. This thesis begins by identifying three recent moments of crisis - Hurricane Sandy (2012), the Summer of Hell (2017) and the Covid-19 Pandemic (2020) - that brought the material components of the system into friction with our fantasies of the subway.

The post-crisis recovery process forces us to reconcile our individual and collective expectations of the system with its actual material condition. This negotiation exposes the normally invisible socio-political processes that determine which projects and material components are prioritized over others, or what I call the logics of repair. By tracking and categorizing the MTA’s capital spending in the years surrounding these crises through publicly released data and reports on the MTA’s capital plans, this thesis illustrates the ways in which fantasy has mobilized large amounts of financial capital and political will for certain projects at the expense of more critical system-wide repairs.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Devlin, Ryan
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
July 27, 2022