I walk into the Lorimer and Metropolitan subway station and before I swipe my Metrocard, I ask the MTA booth attendant if she knows what’s going on. I gesture to the large crowd of people standing around a news kiosk, while a man plays harmonica and guitar, and a group of men draw cartoons on a taped-up piece of paper.
The attendant shrugs. “No idea,” she says. “But I don’t think they’re leaving any time soon.”
She’s right. It’s a release party for a quarterly comics tabloid, Smoke Signal. The event is hosted by The Newsstand, the subway station’s current and most controversial tenant. Though they’ve only been there for two weeks, The Newsstand has gained its fair share of snarky, eye-rolling press. Some of it does seem warranted. After all, who wants to run into a newsstand for a bottle of water to find only Perrier and kombucha? Aside from gourmet candy and a ‘zine vending machine, they also sell a carefully curated selection of records, chapbooks and magazines from local stores and presses like Desert Island, McNally Jackson and Co-Op 87. According to The Newsstand’s website, they are an “independent media take over,” and whether or not that takeover is a hostile one remains to be seen.
Over 12,000 commuters pass through the Lorimer-Metropolitan stop a day, and though the station is in the heart of hip, artisanal pickling Williamsburg, many of those passengers are simply making their way to neighborhoods like East New York and Windsor Terrace. Subway stations have long been the location for strange antics, but in Williamsburg The Newsstand’s presence is unavoidable. During the party, I watch many commuters pause at the commotion. A few duck into the kiosk, looking for a pack of gum or The Times, only to walk away confused. Others complain about the crowd blocking the transfer between the L and G trains.
“These people are standing here like ducks!” one woman complains, dragging two young children behind her. Eventually, though, she stops when her daughter realizes that The Newsstand is giving out free popsicles.
Marcellus Hall, an illustrator who also moonlights as a musician, provides an acoustic set. People interrupt his set to grab free copies of Smoke Signal and, of course, raid the popsicle cooler. I step inside The Newsstand, which seems to be doing brisk business.
“Are you guys staying here for good?” I ask the woman behind the counter. She has Amy Winehouse eye makeup that I’m surprised she’s not sweating off in the heat.
“No, only for a month,” she says. “Then we’ll look for a different place to set up shop.” She goes on to tell me how hard it was to get a permit in the first place, though it was worth the effort. The whole time, she tends to an eager line of customers.
“Did you need a permit for this?” I ask, once again gesturing to the crowd.
“Nah,” she says. “People perform in the subway all the time.”
The crowd of party goers seem to fill the typical Williamsburg line-up: guys in jorts with intricate shin tattoos, girls with expensive cameras and bare midriffs, hip parents with iPad-toting children, French bulldogs wearing handkerchiefs. Much of Hall’s performance is filmed or Instagrammed. The audience mumbles their appreciation for this project in respectfully low voices. I watch one woman snap an iPhone picture of Hall, carefully choose an Instagram filter, then caption it: #killer.
The contrast between the steady stream of passengers and The Newsstand’s audience is palpable. Commuters pause to stare and many shake their heads or cluck their tongues. By my second popsicle, I start to feel self-conscious. I move to the wall where artists James Romberger, James Ulme, and Josh Bayer are drawing on a large piece of paper taped to the wall. Near them the crowd, seems slightly more diverse. A pair of senior citizens stand transfixed, along with a group of high schoolers Vine-ing the drawings’ progress. Watching the artists quickly and quietly doodle complicated, funny characters is hypnotizing. Perhaps that’s what The Newsstand needs: more on-the-spot creativity, less overpriced tote bags.
But the real question is: Does the Lorimer Street / Metropolitan Avenue subway station need a run-of-the-mill newsstand? The number of people popping in, looking for energy drinks or issues of Cosmo seem to point to yes, although it would be a shame to lose the random art exhibitions. Perhaps a happy compromise between the two can be reached one day. After all, the world’s best sushi restaurant is in a subway station, along with some notable riders — proof that culture and commuting are not mutually exclusive. Until that happens, though, The Newsstand’s current choice of location is bound to be polarizing.