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Community / Public space

In pictures: How New York's subway cars end up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean

When photographer Stephen Mallon was commissioned to produce a book of photographs in 2007, he settled on the theme of “recycling”. He contacted a few relevant companies about the project, but then he stumbled across something called the Artificial Reef Project, which was recycling something far bigger than batteries or lightbulbs: it was turning decommissioned subway cars into reefs off the US’s Atlantic coast.

Here’s how it works. The tourism boards of east-coast states buy a boatload of the cars from New York’s transit authority. Once they’re stripped of their doors, windows, wheels and interiors, a barge filled with 30 to 40 cars chugs down the coast, and a metal crane, er, shoves them them into the sea.

On the sea floor, the cars are colonised by plants and animals, and, like natural reefs, encourage communities to grow. Over the past ten years, the Artificial Reef Project has dropped around 2,500 New York subway cars into the ocean. 

For those charged with delivering the cars, the journey from New York is long. Even areas off the coast of nearby states like Maryland and Delaware can take 24 hours to reach at the barge’s 4-knot pace. Mallon has attended six drops since 2007, but on each he met the barge on a separate boat once it reached its destination, and took his images from there. This accounts for the photographs’ immediacy: he’s on a level between the barge and the water, watching as the 18-ton cars splash, then sink.

Mallon says he considered boarding the barge itself, to photograph the cars from above as they fell, but the crew weren’t keen: “They told me it wasn’t safe”. Quite right, too, as the stacks of decaying cars aren’t strapped in place. “One time, a car tipped over and landed right on the spot where I would have been standing.”

The resulting collection of images, “Next Stop Atlantic”, documents his six drops, and is part of a wider project on recycling called “American Reclamation”. 

All Images courtesy of Stephen Mallon and Front Room Gallery.  One of the images from the collection will be featured along with other work by Mallon in the solo exhibition  “Patterns of Interest” at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries from Feb. 6 to March 15 in New York City. More of Mallon’s work is available on his Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. 
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.