Urban Sea Star/Flickr

It sure looks like it, but the MTA claims otherwise.

The rightful push to take down Confederate flags in the aftermath of the Charleston tragedy has reached an unexpected place: the New York City subway. The New York Post noticed tile mosaics in the Times Square Station that bear a striking and disturbing resemblance to the flag, and reports that they’re more than a design coincidence:

The tile mosaics honor the late New York Times head Adolph S. Ochs, a Southerner with “strong ties to the Confederacy,” said Civil War historian Dr. David Jackowe.

The tiles were installed more than 90 years ago when stations were adorned with symbols to honor prominent figures—in this case, the Tennessee-raised Ochs, who was buried with a Confederate flag after his death in 1935.

Jackowe links the tiles to Ochs and the Confederacy in a 2012 article for Civil War Times magazine (spotted by Animal NY). That piece traces Ochs to a “house divided”: a mother loyal to the South—“Robert E. Lee was her idol,” wrote Ochs, according to Jackowe—but a father who fought for the North. After buying the Times in 1896, Ochs apparently maintained some Southern sympathies; raised in Knoxville, he “donated to establish Confederate cemeteries in Tennessee,” writes Jackowe.

Ochs’s “reverence for the South” comes through most clearly in a letter quoted by Jackowe:

“I am confident that all to whom I am known will attest that the South, its interests and its welfare have been and are part of my religion and profession and hobby.”

Even if everything Jackowe reports about Ochs were true, there’s still a question about whether the subway station design is meant to reflect these Confederate roots. Jackowe argues the mosaics are an homage to Ochs by station architect Squire J. Vickers. He points out that other stations in the subway system honor historical figures—beaver plaques at Astor Place indeed refer to fur trader John Jacob Astor—to suggest that the same thing might have occurred at Times Square.

That’s an argument the Metropolitan Transportation Authority isn’t buying. On the contrary, says the MTA, it’s just a tile design. Here’s the agency’s response, via David W. Dunlap of the Times:

“The banding design was based on geometric forms with multicolored palettes, and the various designs are seen in stations that opened at this time,” said Sandra Bloodworth, the director of the authority’s Arts and Design unit. “While pictorial images that referenced what was above were often used in the designs, there is no evidence that the geometric patterns, and colors used, indicated anything beyond ornamentation.”

Some riders expressed outrage to the Post. “As a black man, it’s insulting, and it’s racist,” said one rider. And long before the Post piece, others had noted the tiles’ resemblance to the flag in blog posts and on social media. But Dunlap of the Times found that “no one seemed to notice” the mosaics during his own five-minute observation period, leading readers to wonder whether the Post baited its interviewees. And while some photos of the mosaic show a blue cross in clear parallel to that of the Confederate flag, a picture by Dunlap shows a cross mixed with green tiles, too.

CityLab asked an MTA spokesperson if the agency would consider taking down the arrangements regardless of whether or not they’re related to the Confederacy. The unequivocal response: No. Here’s the full comment, via email:

“Under no circumstances would we remove the design because it's NOT a confederate flag. The design represents the "Crossroads of the World"—Times Square. It is part of the architectural design of the Times Square Station, originally designed by Heins and LaFarge, opened in 1904. Later stations (7 and N, Q, R) were designed under Chief Architect Squire J. Vickers. The Times Square subway station was rehabilitated in 2005. The station included mosaics from the original stations and new mosaics that were created based on the historic designs. It is based on Arts & Crafts design and ornamentation of the period in which it was designed and built. It is a geometric pattern, not a flag design.”

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