In New York’s subway shutdown, an unthinkable departure

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FILE - In this April 13, 2020 file photo, a man enters the subway on a rainy day in New York. New York City transit officials said they're providing buses for homeless people to shelter from unseasonably frigid temperatures this weekend during newly instituted overnight subway closures. The subway system has been shutting down from 1 to 5 a.m. since Wednesday, May 6, as part of an outbreak-related plan for daily train disinfecting. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK – It’s not the end of the line. But it once was.

When the first New York subway line connected Lower Manhattan to Harlem in 1904, the stop at 145th Street was its terminus. Since that inaugural run, the subway has never ceased running. There were brief blips of interruption after 9/11 and in the last decade for hurricanes and blizzards, but for more than 115 years, the rumbling on the rails has kept the click-clack heartbeat of New York. A second, tunneled city that, like the skyward metropolis above, never sleeps.

Last week, for the first time, the trains stopped running in a planned shutdown. Between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., the subways and New York’s 472 stations began closing for a nightly cleaning to disinfect trains. It’s a humbling concession for a swaggering, all-night town that, as much as anything, shows how the coronavirus pandemic has seized the gears of New York, one of the world’s hardest hit cities.

On a recent late night, as the trains began to slow, the sole person on the platform at 145th Street was Joe Hall, a 58-year-old homeless man. He pushed a cart of plastic bottles and waited for one of the last downtown trains. Unwilling to go to a shelter (too dangerous, he said, because of the high rate of infection) and soon to be turned out of the subway, he planned to sleep on the street.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

Except for commuters fleeing to the suburbs, the entire concept of “last train” is anathema in New York. London, sure. Boston, of course. Even Tokyo. But not in New York. Through the night, trains have always shuttled early-morning workers and late-night revelers. A four-hour shutdown may not seem like a drastic change given all the transformations wrought by the pandemic. But in New York, it means a tear in the fabric.

“Without the subway, New York does not work. People are saying now, ‘What happens if people drive after the epidemic has passed?’ Well, they can’t do it. If all the people who wanted to drive in New York drove, you’d have to pave over Long Island to park all of the cars," says Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia and author of “Empire City: New York Through the Centuries.” "It’s more important than the public schools. It’s more important than anything.”

Even at a time when New York remains on lockdown, stopping the subway for even four hours has an enormous effect. Ridership in April was down more than 90%, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority still estimates that 11,000 people had been using the trains during that overnight period. Many are essential workers and others — caregivers, custodians — can’t afford not to work.