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New York’s Floating Sidewalk Subway Map

How does art become part of a city’s fabric? For a piece to be appreciated, does the original intention have to be clear? What happens when the context shifts but the piece remains the same?

In 1985, SoHo would’ve been dark and run-down, home to artists’ lofts, workspaces, and vacant buildings lining streets that were not yet gentrified. An art piece on 110 Greene Street was even more of a spectacle when it was finished 34 years ago, illuminating the block at night, drawing admiration and attention during the day. You can still find it right now, but SoHo looks pretty different; you’ll need to brave crowds of shoppers and tourists, and remember to look down.

Subway Map Floating On A NY Sidewalk by Francoise Schein is a spectacular arrangement of lights, stainless steel, and brass rods on the sidewalk. Her project required persistence (she was publicly mocked by the Department of Transportation while seeking community board approval), support (it was funded by Tony Goldman, who owned the building behind it), and a big division. She wanted to build something lasting, practical, and specific to New York City, the place where she got her education in art and design.

Subway Map Floating On A NY Sidewalk is 90 feet long and 12 feet wide, showing 156 of the MTA stops according to NYC’s public transit system in 1985. Each LED light–under round glass orbs hand-blown by the artist–glows at night, powered from the basements of nearby buildings.

Schein used this project to explore “mental map-making” and the “layers of information that define cities
and their inhabitants.” Public, practical, and accessible to everyone, her work has become essential to the fabric of downtown Manhattan and has received Landmark status. The Art Commission of the City of New York also recognized Schein with the Award for Excellence in Design on this project. The plaque accompanying the piece reads: “this project inspired the artist to reinvent five subway stations articulating the message of ‘the universal declaration of human rights” and was one of many projects throughout Schein’s career with the goal of interrogating human rights, access, and democracy in cities.

If you came across this piece without context, would you stop and investigate it? What story does it tell about New York?