It’s no secret that Staten Island is the awkward outlier of NYC’s boroughs. Born and raised New Yorkers will easily list Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx for out-of-town friends, and then pause before tacking “Staten Island!” onto the list of the city’s components. Suburban and distant, having more in common with New Jersey or Long Island’s character than the stereotypes of the other boroughs, Staten Island is easily forgotten and maligned as an afterthought, a poser, the lower-class, remote fifth wheel to the Bronx and Manhattan’s double date with Queens and Brooklyn.
I’m no fan of Staten Island myself, but I like to think that has more to do with the Staten Islanders I’ve met and its distance from my more centralized haunts than anything else. I’m known to poke fun at all locales—Jersey, Canada, Staten Island, Williamsburg, Westchester, Connecticut, Kansas, Boston—every area with a reputation is fair game to me. But when I’m not ridiculing inanimate locations, I’m a word geek. I pay attention to the way we speak and think; sometimes words are just words, but at other times, I find that word choice highlights how we think about certain topics.
The MTA, as always, is running ads on the subways. Ironically, everyone exposed to these ads is already using the MTA’s services, but they are always pushing good press and an explanation of their expenses. They know New Yorkers complain incessantly, and if we’re going to be taxed half to death, we’ll want to know why are the trains always running off-schedule, why the stop nearest to work is still under construction, and how on earth we justify being packed like sardines into subway cars every rush hour.
It makes sense, then, to advertise the improvements and adjustments to the transit system in that venue, in an attempt to keep riders informed and relatively up to speed regarding the MTA’s decisions across the entire network. But riding the 6 train recently, I noticed an interesting quirk of language between two adjacent ads. The first read:
Because SI deserves a new rail station.
Staten Island Railway is building a modern station at Arthur Kill to replace Nassau and Atlantic stations. The latest amenities and a 150 space park and ride lot will make it not just new, but very convenient.
Staten Island has a railroad? I don’t care. A parking lot? If possible, I care less, considering I neither have a car nor visit Staten Island and find myself in need of commuter parking. But, if the MTA wants to explain to me that they’re spending some of their budget for that godforsaken borough, I suppose I’d rather know for certain than wonder why there’s no money to fix a service I actually use.
The placard immediately to the right declares:
Our seats are the best way to yours.
Since Barclays Center opened, subway travel to Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr is up 63%. LIRR travel, up more than 300%. Economical. Greener. Faster. Bravo, you!
Again, I don’t care. I’m not sure I have ever taken the LIRR to Barclays. In fact, I doubt the majority of riders on the 6 would, either. These ads are irrelevant to me. I’m also a bit unclear on why the MTA is cheering for me when I had exactly zero to do with the improvement of travel to the Barclays Center, although any sort of positive thought while riding the subway is welcome.
I start to justify the MTA’s effort, reminding myself that I am not the only rider on this train. I’m sure this information is more pertinent to other riders. Plus, the MTA runs city-wide campaigns—these ads will be scattered across many bus and subway routes, reaching commuters of many different backgrounds. Interestingly, though, in the case of these two ads, the 6 they appear in does not go to Brooklyn or Staten Island. And while there will be riders on the 6 from the areas mentioned in the ads, and visitors to those areas who come from the 6’s route, there is no overlap between the 6’s path from the Bronx to the tip of Manhattan, the route all the way to the Barclays Center, and the glorified dump that is Staten Island.
Despite being presented in the context of this veritable Venn diagram of New Yorkers, the Barclays Center is blessed with the luxury of being part of the in-group, and Arthur Kill is not. The MTA’s seats are ours, as defined by the MTA. Logical. The Barclays seats are yours, belonging to me and the other readers lucky enough to be attending sports events or concerts at Barclays, instead of trolling back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry after work every day. But Arthur Kill is referred to with sterile, outlier language. There’s no linguistic wink to the fact that readers and writers of the ad are all part of the same system, the same city. By the language in the Brooklyn ad, the MTA creates a sense of inclusiveness that is noticeably lacking in the Staten Island sign.
Brooklyn’s sign is a grammatical round of applause and pat on the back, but Staten Island’s, on the other hand, is an excuse, even as the Island is implicitly excluded from the group referenced in the Barclays ad. The forgotten little sibling deserves a new rail station, poor thing. All the way out there on that island, Staten Islanders are part of a different clique. They’ve been stuck without up-to-date transit options, and now, the MTA is finally taking pity on them. Well, the ad is careful to note that the Staten Island Railway is doing the building of the new station, distancing the MTA as well as the sign’s readers from the project. (For the record, the Railway is technically a part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but that’s an easy fact to overlook. The implicit lesson? No one needs to be associated with SI unnecessarily). There’s no excitement, no inclusivity, and no camaraderie in the SI ad, just an explanation of why the Arthur Kill project is worth spending money on. The value of Barclays Center, on the other hand, is assumed—who wouldn’t justify spending MTA money to make it accessible in an economical and environmentally responsible fashion? According to this ad, we seat-users deserve accolades for simply using the MTA’s economical and green transit options. This is a team effort: MTA and real New Yorkers, working together.
Is this really fair, though? The MTA services all five boroughs, but is clearly playing favorites. Perhaps no one thought through the implications of these ads—I’m sure the MTA has more pressing matters to deal with than the nuances of their ad copy (like building the 2nd Avenue Subway or diagonal elevators). But if the MTA is going to tacitly exclude Staten Island from the in-group of New Yorkers, placing a branch of their own organization outside of the you/we fraternity of the rest of the system in the process, I’ll be the first grammar nerd to conclude that residents of the other boroughs are also absolved of the crime of excluding SI from their notion of the city. Personal opinions aside, the linguistic and grammatical fact of the matter is that either we citizens take our cues from The Man, the ever present and omnipotent MTA, or he listens to us (see what I did there?). If The Man is acting on his own, those who disdain SI are following suit, a product of their environment—the MTA should probably be a bit more impartial and loving to all its branches for the sake of city-wide unity. (It’s not our fault we don’t consider Staten Island to be part of the city—the city doesn’t either!) But if our plebeian opinions are what’s setting up this bias, as the MTA is staffed by flesh-and-blood, fallible, and malleable humans, then there’s hope! Maybe, one day in the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to cut the Island loose, as the popular opinion that SI should be a separate establishment comes into its own.* Then, finally, we can focus on New Jersey-bashing, a less cartographically complicated pastime.
*Apparently, they have already tried to secede, and very nearly succeeded.