A couple of years ago, I remember hearing a few scattered panicky reports about the impending sale of naming rights to subway stations. Everything is for sale these days, so instead of getting off at, say, Astor Place, you’d be at Starbucks Junction. The 79th Street station on the 1, 2 and 3 lines could be FreshDirect Central Terminal. (Eat it, Zabar’s!) 71st/Continental Avenue-Forest Hills might become, oh, I don’t know, Stolichnaya Station.
People around these parts talked about it for a few days, like people are wont to do — I’m sure there was no shortage of hysterical phone calls to boring NY1 phone-in shows — and then, like many things, it died out. But a few months ago, I started noticing something, something kind of subtle that I haven’t heard anybody mention. When my morning F train rolls into 47/50 Street-Rockefeller Center, the conductors no longer stop at the name of the station. Inevitably, they announce:
“47/50, Top of the Rock.”
It happens every time. I pass this station every single weekday and many weekends, and I can’t think of a single time since I started paying attention that the conductors have failed to announce Top of the Rock. Sometimes they go into explicit, tongue-tying detail: “This is 47/50 Street, Rockefeller Center, Top of the Rock. Change here for the B, D and V trains.” Sometimes they make do with a near-unintelligible “Mumblemumble Top of the Rock mumblemumblemumble.” Sometimes — I dare say often — it’s just, “Top of the Rock,” as if that says it all. Why, it’s almost like somebody instructed them to always say “Top of the Rock,” or else.
And what is Top of the Rock? An observation deck on the 70th floor of GE’s famed 30 Rock building, it’s a major tourist attraction. But there are much bigger tourist attractions in the tourist attraction capital of the world, and they generally only get mentioned at subway stops by completist conductors like the one I caught announcing incorrect directions to a Long Island Rail Road station last month. The Empire State Building and Macy’s rarely get mentions at 34th Street-Herald Square. Heck, Top of the Rock isn’t even the biggest tourist attraction at its station — Radio City Music Hall is a much bigger deal, as are the famous ice-skating rink and Christmas tree in the winter.
But what makes this a really obvious shill to me is the fact that Top of the Rock just reopened a year and a half ago after — get this — a 20-year hiatus. Its revival was much celebrated — in advertisements. The kind of people who run the subway and make the subway run couldn’t have cared less.
So even if nobody’s noticed, it certainly appears that subway sponsorship is here and most likely here to stay. And considering that Top of the Rock isn’t exactly a brand to rival Coke or Microsoft, my guess is it’s coming cheap. If it were going to be much of a financial drain, why would NBC throw away its money promoting New York’s second-highest observation deck when it could promote NBC?
This is only going to get worse, of course. It always does. What’s next? ESPN Zone? Mars 2112? I’m hoping standards continue to drop — maybe then we can get ourselves a Nuts 4 Nuts stop. It’ll smell better than the others, at least.