Should we smoot the subways?

Should we smoot the subways?

Can our geeky side make waiting on the T more pleasant?

Recent debates about whose subway is worse, Boston or DC, got me thinking about Moscow’s subway.  Moscow’s metro stations are palaces for the people, actual palaces. They are filled with marble, mosaics, statues, chandeliers, and even stained glass. You ride the steep escalator deep underground and emerge in a space as grand as a gilded theater.

Each station has its own theme and character. Kievskaya Station has elaborate gold trim around its arches and mosaics celebrating Ukrainian-Russian unity.  Mendeleev station has chandeliers that look like molecules. Revolution Square Station features 1917 armed revolutionaries hiding under architectural arches.  Mayakovkaya Station’s art deco columns, stainless steel, pink rhodonite, and white marble create a shiny futuristic design, to reflect poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s vision of a bright Soviet future.

A couple of times during my semester abroad in Moscow, fall of 1994, the escalators were out of order, and the crowd walked up the endless escalator-stairs. There would be at least one elderly woman bravely and visibly struggling, step by step, sometimes stopping, in tears.

Moscow stations built after the Stalin era are tile and concrete, like stations the world round. Utilitarian design is better for the public purse.

This got me thinking about some of the MBTA’s drab stations. We will not build gilded palaces for the people underground (although the new glass entrances at MGH and Government Center look nice). After years of deferred maintenance, the MBTA is in a dire state. Getting new rolling stock (trains) is hard enough.

As Boston celebrates its coming-of-age as a world-class hub, with billions in construction happening above its rickety subway, wouldn’t it be great if our stations could reflect the character of Boston that you find above ground? Is there a way to do it without breaking the bank?

The T has public art, but most of it does little to define the traveler’s experience. The one exception, I think, is the Kendall Band, a series of bells you can ring while waiting for the red-line train in Kendall Square. Park Street Station used to have marathon-season sneaker ads that I admired – 26 enlarged photos from each mile of the course – Just Do It. I would look at each photo and dream of the day I would run the course. (Still on the checklist.) Ads are not quite the same as art, though.

When you think of Boston, perhaps the Tea Party and the Big Dig come to mind. We are also an economic powerhouse: information technology, medical technology, robotics, the internet of Things, financial services, etc. Our hospitals are the envy of the world. We have universities and colleges on every street corner.

The universities bring to my mind the smoot bridge.  I bring out-of-town guests to see it as we tour the city. As an MIT fraternity prank, a guy named Oliver Smoot measured the Mass. Ave. Bridge in his body lengths, marking smoots across the span, in 1958. You can now measure distances on Google Maps in smoots. This is a rare instance of vandalism that yielded public good and public humor.

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I would never recommend student vandalism in T stations. Heavens, the T has enough problems. But, is there a way for us to harness the geeky humor of our academic types to make our time waiting for delayed trains a bit more cheerful? Could our brainy heroes find unusual ways to brighten our stations, without adding chandeliers, mosaics, marble, and stained glass? Something like the smoot? Something to leave the traveler shaking his or her head, laughing and wondering: “How did that get to be a thing?”

Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at

  • bluishgreen

    While it seems like a small thing with the T’s other issues, one of my pet peeves is the abandonment of the Kendal Sq interactive artwork. The first time I came to Boston in the early 90’s I thought it was a nice, quirky thing—nothing huge, but one of those little things that was different and made the daily grind a little lighter. Over time, they broke, and because we live in a disposable society, they were apparently just abandoned, rather than fixed. Even if the state won’t pay, you’d think that, being under a world-renounced university of engineering, someone in the community would notice and step-up to fix it as a school or community project.

    While it is probably too expensive for a random individual, it would seem trivial/small change for a wealthy school like MIT to have a professor get some funds together for a student project to figure-out and fix (probably just some re-welding). We’re talking about an entire school of people who love to analyze/fix/re-engineer things as their life’s interest. Not to mention the resources of all the huge tech & biotech companies in the neighborhood. Rather than always sitting back and yelling at the T and gov’t, where’s the local community spirit to take charge and fix the smaller things like this simply out of local community pride? I used to see that interactive artwork as an example of something cool, but now I see the abandoned, boarded-up controls, and it just depresses me as another example of how we don’t fix things anymore–once it breaks, just throw it away.

  • Amy Dain

    blueishgreen: According to my google search, MIT students formed the Kendall Band Preservation Society in 2010, and repaired at least part of it at that time.

    Is none of it functioning now?

    I agree about the art: I enjoyed ringing it!

    • When I was last in Kendall a month or so ago, none of it was functioning, though there are signs for the Kendall Band Preservation Society’s work from 2011.

      If I recall, there are four different handles (two in each direction), and two of them were entirely absent, with the other two not doing anything. I echo blueishgreen’s note: it’s sad that something so simple has been repeatedly abandoned.