How Dead Subway Cars Go to Ocean Heaven, in Photos

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The thought of sharks and octopi swimming along the seats of a retired F train seems the stuff of post-apocalyptic cinema. But from 2001 to 2010, NYC Transit helped turn thousands of subway cars into artificial reefs on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. American Reclamation: Next Stop Atlantic, a series by award-winning photographer Stephen Mallon, documents these subways’ journeys out to sea and their cinematic plunges into the deep.

“I’ve always been attached to these machines, their surreal beauty integrated into their functional engineering,” says Mallon, who documented the MTA Artificial Reef Program from 2008 to 2011. With this unusual fascination, Mallon turns what sounds like a dry topic–recycling urban infrastructure to benefit the environment–into breathtaking action-movie-esque images. “Train in the Sky,” for example, features a subway car flying through the air, like a still from a New York City version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “At first, I was stunned at the moments of violent recycling, watching the water quickly adapt to its new underwater houses,” Mallon says. “But after being pushed and stacked like a sardine in these subways cars over the past decade, it’s nice to see actual sardines getting one of these as their new steel condos.”  

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The MTA Artificial Reef Program is a creative solution by Asset Recovery to difficult disposal issues, and it’s also a bit of a logistical nightmare. Between August 2001 and April 2010, NYC Transit provided 2,580 retired subway cars to Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland to turn into marine habitats. It was an arduous process: First, NYC Transit stripped the subway cars of components that float and decompose, then steam-cleaned them. The cars were then loaded on barges and brought to predesignated drop spots, where a forklift tossed them overboard. “After they’ve settled on the bottom, it’s only a matter of time before these trains once again teem with life,” Mallon says.
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The series, on view now at the Brooklyn Public Library, is part of a larger project, called “American Reclamation,” that grew out of Mallon’s ongoing interest in the recycling industry and how everyday materials can be repurposed to serve the environment. The next part of the project focuses on the conversion of the Fresh Kills Landfill into a city park.

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American Reclamation: Next Stop Atlantic is on view at the Brooklyn Public Library until September 25th, 2015. All images courtesy Stephen Mallon. 

Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne

 

 

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