Adam Sneed is a senior associate editor at CityLab, focusing on city life and culture. He was previously a technology reporter at Politico and a researcher at Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
Two years, 121 stations, and countless connections throughout the city.
Three years ago, Laura Meilman assigned herself an ambitious project: Sketch scenes from each of the 121 subway and streetcar stations in Boston’s MBTA system.
It all started after Meilman, an artist who works with several museums and theaters in Boston, decided she wanted a structured art project with a goal; something involving travel, even though a long-distance trip wasn’t an option. She was already buying a monthly transit card, so she figured she’d put it to use.
It took almost two years to the day, starting with Heath Street on the Green Line in January 2013 and ending with the Orange Line’s Assembly Square at the beginning of this year. As she sketched her way around the Boston area, she earned a following on Tumblr and realized just how much the transit stations meant to locals.
“People have a lot of love for this city and kind of treat their T stops almost like their hometown,” Meilman tells CityLab.
With the new year approaching, she picked a small sampling of her “T-Scapes,” designed a monthly 2016 calendar, and put it up for sale on Etsy. Meilman thought it would get some interest among friends, family, maybe a few blog readers. As it turned out, they’re in high demand. She’s putting in an early order with the printer to make sure people have them for the holidays, and as more buyers roll in, she expects to send at least one more batch to the printers soon.
The surprising demand amplified something she realized as she worked on the project: Even with the unavoidable frustrations that come with public transit, even when people glue their eyes to their phones rather than talk to anyone around them, these stops are key points of human connection in a big city.
“These spaces are so public and so personal at the same time,” Meilman says.
She even made a few “small-world connections” of her own. At one point she heard from a Boston graphic designer Judi Hershman, who designed a mural in 1970 that’s still on a wall in Kenmore Station. The two met there, next to the mural, and Meilman sketched her holding an old copy of the newspaper with an article interviewing the station’s muralists.
“I thought that since I am making sketches of public spaces that thousands of people see and use every day, it is only fitting to incorporate the relationships other people have with those spaces, especially other artists who have contributed to the stations,” she wrote when she posted that sketch on her blog.
Another piece includes street art on the side of a wall near Eliot Station. “I showed a co-worker of mine and he immediately recognized it as the tag of a friend of his,” she says. “Whenever I drew a musician busking, I would meet people who recognized them from my sketches as people they had heard while waiting for trains.”
And with the help of another friend, Meilman’s project is taking the stage. She partnered with Jaime Carrillo, artistic director of local theater group Bostonia Bohemia, calling on writers to create plays, songs, poems, monologues, anything they could write with inspiration from T stations.
Their “Pla(T)forms” series received about 50 submissions—many from Boston locals, but also some from people who’ve never even been to the city. For those writers, Meilman’s sketches were their only frame of reference to start.
“We wanted the out-of-towner and people who weren’t familiar with the T as well, just to see what their take is on it,” Carrillo says.
The writings and sketches will be on display this month at three performances in the area. What they’ve reviewed so far is “very raw, very genuine, very urban, very fast-paced,” Carrillo says, much like the T itself. Still, writers haven’t focused much on the gripes you might expect from transit riders. “It’s more of a love-fest, which is kind of cool.”
Calendar, $16 at Etsy.