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See NYC subway cars get a second life as artificial reefs in a new exhibit

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Photographer Stephen Mallon documented the creation of “redbird reefs” from 2008 to 2010

Abbey Road, 2008
Photograph by Stephen Mallon

What happens to subway cars once they’re too old to be used by commuters anymore? A lot of things, but perhaps the most interesting way the old cars—like the Redbirds that ran from the 1960s to the early aughts—have been repurposed is as environments for artificial reefs.

Beginning in 2001, the MTA sent thousands of old subway cars—both Redbirds and the circa-1964 Brightliners, some of which still run on the A and C lines to this day—to coastal areas along the eastern seaboard (including Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia), where they were dropped into the ocean and, over time, became habitats for underwater creatures.

Transfer, 2009
Photograph by Stephen Mallon
Mind the Gap, 2008
Photograph by Stephen Mallon

For the final two years of the sea reefing project, from 2008 to 2010, photographer Stephen Mallon followed along, going up to the 207th Street train yard to watch the cars be cleaned, then tracking their progress as they were loaded onto barges and sent south to their final resting spots.

And beginning March 20, an exhibition of 19 of his photos from that time will be on view at the New York Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex at Grand Central Terminal, offering a peek at how this unique adaptive reuse program came together.

The End, 2008.
Photograph by Stephen Mallon

“His work is abstract in many instances, and it is only when we see these stripped-down machines juxtaposed against the sweep of the Atlantic Ocean that we understand he is celebrating both their past and their future as a new home to thriving marine life,” Amy Hausmann, the Transit Museum’s senior curator, said in a statement.

South Carolina’s Redbird Reef.
Photo by Robert Martore/Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
Photo by Robert Martore/Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources

In addition to Mallon’s photos, the exhibit will also include some images from a “Redbird Reef” located off the coast of South Carolina, where more than 200 subway cars were placed and have since become thriving underwater ecosystems, teeming with fish, coral, and other sea creatures.

All told, by 2010, approximately 2,500 subway cars had been dropped into the ocean in pursuit of creating artificial reefs. The city doesn’t decommission subway cars at quite the same pace anymore—according to the Transit Museum, the agency now retires cars a few at a time rather than in great swaths—but the program, and Mallon’s photos, show the possibilities of adaptive reuse, and how old and busted infrastructure can take on new forms.

Sea Train: Subway Reef Photos by Stephen Mallon” will be on view at the New York Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex beginning March 20.