In July of 2007 Arun Wiita visited all 468 subway stations in New York City, taking photos around each of them. At one point during the ten days of documenting, he was detained by police, handcuffed and held for 30 minutes. Later in the year he filed a Civil Liberties lawsuit, with an overall goal of changing the NYPD's photography policies. We caught up with him this week, after he completed The New York Subway Project, where his photos from 2007 are included in a subway map, and every station contains notes on the interior as well as of the surrounding neighborhood.
Did you ever go through with the Civil Liberties lawsuit? What was the outcome? The lawsuit was filed by NYCLU in December 2007. After that point the NYPD had three months to respond to the suit. During that time I was deposed by an independent firm hired by the NYPD in order to give my testimony about what had happened. At the end of the allowed time period, the NYPD offered a monetary settlement for the lawsuit of $15,001 and legal fees.
They used a legal structure whereby if we continued with the suit, even if we won the case in court, were we to be awarded less damages than they had offered in the settlement we were liable for all of their legal fees. The NYPD's legal fees could be up to $100,000, while the most likely amount I would be awarded in court would be $10,000, well below their settlement offer. This was a difficult situation to be in; the original intention of filing the suit was not to win money but instead for the NYPD to change their policies regarding photography. We made a counter offer saying we would take zero settlement money if they were willing to change their policies, but they rejected this. Unfortunately, neither I nor the NYCLU could accept the financial risk of paying all their legal fees if we went to court, so we were forced to take their settlement offer.
I now feel vindicated, though, as my case was one of many cases filed by the NYCLU which finally persuaded the NYPD to change their photography policies and training in April of this year.
Have you been harassed for taking photos since? Fortunately, no. But then again I haven't been taking that many photos in the train... I'm not really much of a photographer, more of a New York explorer (usually without a camera).
Can you tell us a little bit about what you have done with the photographs from the project? Honestly, I have pretty much just had them on my computer since 2007. Compiling this website is the first real effort I have made at getting them out in public. I still have a goal of eventually putting together some kind of small exhibit with some of the photos (I've talked about this to a couple friends in the gallery world) but I don't have anything concrete at this time.
Do you plan to build on the website at all? I'm looking forward to seeing people's response to the website. If it seems popular or like a good resource, I would like to possibly change the format away from the current Blogspot hosting to its own independent site. One thing that would be great is if it could be interactive, with people uploading their own photos or impressions of the different stops to add to what I already have.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story. I guess this really isn't all that strange, but it is one of the things that I love about New York which I really don't think you would see anywhere else in the world: when I was riding the train in outer parts of Brooklyn, I was just so shocked to see how quickly the ethnic character of the neighborhoods could completely change from Mexican to Chinese to Bengali to Orthodox. One of the photos I took (at 18 Ave. on the F Train, you can see it on the website) completely embodied this for me: a Bengali woman in a shalwar kameez sitting on a bench in the subway station next to an Orthodox Jew in full black suit and hat. I just love that image because I honestly don't think you would ever see that anywhere else in the world.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York? I'm actually moving out of New York in a week and a half as I'm beginning my residency training at the University of California, San Francisco. I and my wife honestly both wanted to stay in New York, but the field of medicine I'm going into, laboratory medicine, is very small and unfortunately none of the training programs in New York are that great. For this reason I knew I had to move out, and the Bay Area seemed like the best place to live that also had a great residency program.
Do you have any upcoming projects? For an upcoming project, I am actually considering doing the same thing for the MUNI tram system in San Francisco; this would be a lot easier as the system is smaller, but I still think it would be cool to document what there is to see out on the left coast.
Which New Yorker do you most admire? One of my favorite New Yorkers is Fiorello LaGuardia. In doing the subway project, I was really influenced by reading a book "722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York" by Clifton Hood. A big problem in the early days of the subway, started in 1904, was that the first lines (the IRT, basically the 1/2/3 and 4/5/6 lines today) were run by a private company, then the next lines (the BMT, current-day J/M/Z, N/R/Q/W, L) were run as a public-private partnership. When LaGuardia was mayor in the late 1930's he realized the city would be better-served if the subway was publicly run. He both started the IND (Independent) subway lines (current-day A/C, B/D/F/V) and forced the private companies to hold their fares to a nickel a ride. This was way below cost and eventually the private companies were forced to merged their operations into the MTA in 1953. Having the MTA as an overarching public entity allowed for much smoother operation of the subway as well as much more convenience for commuters than having to switch companies during transfers.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? It might not be that popular, but I would say introduce congestion pricing and use the funds to invest in mass transit. The MTA obviously needs a complete management overhaul so I don't want to just throw cash at them, but it's critical to keep the subway maintained and to continue making capital improvements.
What's the best subway line? Best line is probably the E train. That line has lots of new cars, plus it runs like a banchee on the express through Queens. I can get from my place in midtown to the E stop at JFK in 35 minutes.
Best cheap eat in the city. My favorite place I came across during my travels was "Roti on the Run", right underneath the J Train stop at Norwood. It's run by Guyanese Indians and they have this amazing goat curry for $4 as well as aloo pies (basically spiced potato inside doughy bread) for just $1. So awesome! Too bad it's so hard to get to, but I did manage to make one trip back since visiting during the project.