New exhibit highlights role of transit workers as first responders during NYC disasters

Bess Adler, Metro

A new exhibit at the New York Transit Museum looks at the mass transit system’s response to major crises in the city, and highlights some of the transit workers who went above and beyond to respond to New Yorkers who needed their help.

The exhibit, called “Bringing Back the City,” opens at the museum in Brooklyn Heights on Wednesday.

Gabrielle Shubert, who retired last week as the museum’s director, remembered how Hurricane Sandy hit on a Monday. On Tuesday, she walked over to the museum — which is housed in an old subway station—to check to see if it had flooded.

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​“And the next day was Wednesday, and we decided to open the museum, even though we knew people weren’t getting around, but we know people in the neighborhood who had been hit and their kids were going to need some kind of normalcy. And a lot of people did, and a lot of people [later] told me what that meant to them,” Shubert said.

“Getting the transit system to run makes New Yorkers feel normal again,” she added.

Thereturn to “normalcy” and the average transit worker’s role is a central thread in the show, which includes artifacts and oral histories from workers during 9/11, the 2003 blackout, the blizzard of 2010, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

Josh Feinberg, a consultant who curated the exhibition, said the show is not only about looking at the response to events like Sandy, but “also looking to the future and how as a system the MTA is going to deal with an evolving, changing and adapting system.”

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The show, which gives viewers a peek into recreated MTA worker rooms and has artifacts of salt water damaged railway ties, televisionreports from the disaster and an old subway command center switchboard.

“I don’t know the streets downtown,” Beverly Chisholm, an MTA bus driver during 9/11, said during an interview played in the exhibit. “But one way or another, you hit water.”

Chisholm was one of many bus drivers who drove police officers and other first responders to and from Ground Zero after the attack.

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“As time went on we’ve heard more and more stories of heroics, and it was blowing our minds,” Shubert said. “Their houses were probably flooded [after Sandy]. But they were working, dealing with their responsibility to the transit system rather than their families…

People are honoring police, fire, EMTs—who all deserve it—but nobody recognizes what the transit workers were doing too. At 9/11, our guys had the heavy equipment, they had the cranes, the backhoes, and they brought their stuff down to Ground Zero immediately. The cops, the firemen, they didn’t have the equipment we had.”

Bringing Back the City: Mass Transit Responds to Crisis opens on Sept. 30 at the New York Transit Museum at Boerum Place andSchermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights. More information is available at bringingbackthecity.comand web.mta.info/mta/museum.

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