Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Amy Plitt, co-author of To the End of the Line, explains why you should take a long ride (and pack your own toilet paper).
There are plenty of reasons to trek out to the last stop on a subway line—and not just because you dozed off and didn’t wake up until the train jerked to a halt. (For instance, you could pull a Hannah Horvath and eat some cake in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel.)
In well-traversed cities, it’s hard to find anything that’s truly off the beaten path—but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to look. Sharing terrain with thousands—or millions—of other people can foster a desire for something a little unfamiliar.
One way to find it: Explore the far reaches of the public transit system. CityLab chatted with Amy Plitt, co-author of the new book Subway Adventure Guide: New York City—To the End of the Line, about why it’s worth exploring the end of the route.
What’s the appeal of the idea of traveling to the end of the line?
When you’re on the train, you’re constantly hearing about the last destination: “This is a World Trade Center-bound E,” or whatever. But unless you live there, you probably never go to the end of the line. My co-author, Kyle Knoke, was living up in Harlem and heard the recorded announcement about it going towards Van Cortlandt Park. He’d never been to the park, and finally decided to go check it out. The inspiration came from discovering another side of New York City.
What will surprise people when they get to the end of the routes?
I was surprised by how far apart some of the ends of the lines are. At the beginning of the research process, I checked out the four in lower Manhattan: Brooklyn Bridge, South Ferry, Broad Street, and the World Trade Center. They’re all really close together—that was an easy thing to do in about four hours. And then when I was planning to go to the ones in the Bronx, I realized that the ends of the 2, 5, 4, and 6 are all so far from one another—it’s much easier to drive. You can’t knock out a bunch in one day, even though they don’t seem that far apart on a map.
I was also blown away by how cool Staten Island is. The Tottenville stop, at the end of the Staten Island Railway, just doesn’t feel like New York. You’re closer to New Jersey than you are to Manhattan. And the whole neighborhood is full of big, old wood frame houses or crazy new mega-mansions. It kept thinking, “How is this a place that’s within the five boroughs?” I was so excited to see that you can get that faraway feeling here. It’s the same thing with Pelham Bay Park or Rockaway Beach. They’re so far away from what people think of as New York City, but they’re there, and you can reach them just by riding the train. I mean, you’ll have to ride for about an hour, but still.
Where do you live? What’s your neighborhood like?
I live in Boerum Hill, right off of the Bergen Street stop. There are a lot of great bars and restaurants, and it’s really pretty. I live near the mosaic house on Wyckoff Street. The owner, an artist, covered the entire front of her home in mosaic tiles, and after everything happened with Trayvon Martin, she put Black Lives Matter and other political signs up. She's been working on the facade for 20 years. That’s on my block, and there are also a lot of brownstones. And I live near the Gowanus Houses, so there’s an interesting contrast.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for 10 years—in Crown Heights, then Gowanus—and I love it. I work in the Financial District, which is always packed with people. Before that, I was in Times Square, and before that, right off of Penn Station. I’ve always felt so claustrophobic in the city, and I turn into a total homebody on the weekends. I didn’t really leave the two-square-mile radius around my apartment until I started working on this book. It got me out of my comfort zone.
Which place in the book is most different from where you live?
The Rockaways are probably the most dramatically different, and not just because of the beach. Far Rockaway is one of the neighborhoods that got cut off from the rest of the city when Robert Moses was plotting roadways. Certain parts feel really residential—there are shopping centers, and there’s a library—but it doesn’t feel very built up. And then on another end of the A train, you have Rockaway Beach and the houses out in Breezy Point. There are huge contrasts on each end of the train.
You’ve said that you hope the book appeals to both locals and tourists. How so? Locals might feel like they’ve already got a handle on the cool, insider-y spots, and tourists may want to see some of those cheesy, iconic places, right?
I’ve lived here now for about 15 years, but I still consider myself a transplant. Working at Time Out—I was there almost eight years—we always tried to appeal to an out-of-towner who might pick up the magazine, but also to New Yorkers who expected us to feature some of the more unusual stuff. So when we were talking about how the book would be angled, I was adamant that it should straddle the same line: It should appeal to New Yorkers who have never gone to Forest Hills or New Lots Avenue or some of the other more out-of-the-way neighborhoods.
That was especially difficult at the end of the L in Manhattan at 8th Avenue. You can’t write about that area without talking about the High Line or Chelsea Market, because they changed the neighborhood so dramatically. They’re big tourist destinations, but they’re a huge part of that neighborhood. So we included those, but also things like the Rubin Museum [which showcases Tibetan art]. It’s not like the Met or MoMA—it’s not necessarily a place that people have heard of before.
I also think visitors want to know what locals know about. I’m seeing that in my work at Condé Nast Traveler. People who are traveling want to feel like locals, and like they’re getting an authentic experience. They don’t just want to see Rockefeller Center and Central Park: They want to know about that Chinese restaurant in Flushing’s Chinatown, or the place in the Bronx that’s worth traveling for.
Have any of the places you explored for the book now become regular pit stops for you?
I had never gone to Totonno’s in Coney Island, even though it’s supposed to be one of the best pizza places in the world. It’s just so good, and I can’t believe I hadn’t done it before. I also didn’t know that the Mysterious Bookshop—which specializes in detective stories—existed, and now I’ll keep going back.
What supplies should people remember to pack for their own end-of-the-line adventures?
Definitely bring a book, water, and a phone charger. And remember sunscreen if you’re going out in the summer—I got a lot of burns because I didn’t realize how few trees there would be. Also, there aren’t a ton of restrooms, and you’ll be dealing with ones in parks or boardwalks. Pack hand sanitizer and some tissues—just in case.
This interview has been edited for clarity.