Rolling through subways & construction with a wheelchair and determination
By Laura Latzko
Carmelo Gonzalez is not your typical wheelchair user. He rides the subway.
A skinny businessman who looks minimal in a powered wheelchair and who speaks in a soft voice that is difficult to understand at times, Gonzalez, 40, is nonetheless an imposing figure when he wheels his way from a subway platform onto a crowded train at the City Hall station.
He powers from the platform to the train, picking up speed as he goes along. If there is a small gap by the train, Gonzalez is able to jump it on his wheelchair, his body bumping back and forth for a few seconds as he moves forward.
Unable to walk because he contracted cerebral palsy as a young child, Gonzalez doesn’t let his wheelchair nor his speech impediment slow him down. He ventures out daily, through construction near his apartment on Fulton St., and into selected subway stations.
Although he is almost always accompanied by personal assistants, one of whom is his son Carlos Sanchez, Gonzalez lives on his own and is able to get onto subway trains by himself most of the time, unless the gap between the train and the platform is too far for him to wheel across. If this is the case, Sanchez, 23, or one of his other personal attendants, will help him onto the train, tipping him and his wheelchair back and propping him onto the floor of the subway.
“He’s a roughneck, hard core,” Sanchez said of his dad. “He’s very strong.”
While rebuilding delays and construction obstructions frustrate many Downtowners, for Gonzalez they mean adding long periods of time to his trips.
Gonzalez, who lives at the St. Margaret’s House on Fulton St., usually starts at the City Hall subway station. His options are limited because only three stops near him are accessible Canal St., Bowling Green, and City Hall and they only use the 4,5, and 6 lines.
Gonzalez used to be able to take the E train from the World Trade Center subway station, but the elevator at this stop has been closed since April 2008 and will be closed while there is construction continues on the World Trade Center transportation hub. The hub was slated to open in 2011, but construction delays have pushed the date back even further. James Anyansi, spokesperson for New York City Transit, said he doesn’t know when the elevator will be able to reopen.
“I get frustrated because I have to take a detour,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t seem fair for people with disabilities. They should have other options.”
Gonzalez said that the W.T.C. station’s closure is especially inconvenient for him because he used to be able to take the E train to Queens for his physical therapy appointment. Now he has to change trains, from the 6 to the E train, taking his chances that the elevator at another station will work and battling crowds of people, with strollers and luggage, for a space in the lift. Gonzalez doesn’t complain about waiting, electing to sit quietly in his chair, but he is passionate about the elevator closure.
“I am very upset about that,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the one I used most of the time.”
Since the W.T.C. station has become inaccessible, only three of the 28 stations at or below Canal St. are accessible. It is not much better in the city as a whole, where only 67 of the 468 stations are accessible.
By 2020, the Metropolitan Trans-portation Authority has promised to make 100 key stations accessible, as part of a plan it developed after the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted in 1990.
Anyansi said other stations are inaccessible for a variety of reasons, including the fact that some subway stations are very old and electrical outlets need to be moved for elevators.
Funding issues also contribute to the system’s inaccessibility. Anyansi said that it costs on average $5 million to $7 million to put an elevator in a subway and $15 million to $20 million to make a station accessible, with mezzanine and street elevators.
Gonzalez said he rides the subways at all hours of the day, never scheduling his appointments so that he can go earlier or later to avoid rush hours.
“I force myself. I go whenever I need to,” Gonzalez said. “I want people to see me. Equal rights, equal problems.”
Gonzalez is a rare breed, a wheelchair user who favors the subway system over other means of transportation. He said that none of his friends in wheelchairs ride the subway, and he hardly ever sees others like himself on any of the trains he uses. He likes the subway because it is faster than other means of transportation.
He said M.T.A. buses and Access-A-Ride are too slow. The owner of Pursue Your Dream, a company that helps people start their own businesses, his job takes him to all parts of Manhattan and into other boroughs.
“I go everywhere,” Gonzalez said with a broad smile.
Gonzalez said that although he uses Access-A-Ride as a last resort, he likes to be independent. Gonzalez, like many other wheelchair riders, said that Access-A-Ride can be slow, unreliable and inconvenient. When he has to be at an appointment with a client, he can’t afford to be late.
But the subway also has difficulties. One of the problems that Gonzalez and many other transit users have is that elevators break down regularly. A report by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in 2006 showed that in subway stations in Manhattan, elevators were out an average of 11 days in A.D.A. compliant stations. Anyansi said that it takes an average of three to five days to fix an elevator, but some can take longer if parts need to be ordered overseas.
A broken elevator once left Gonzalez stuck in a station in Queens, and the fire department had to be called to get him out. He also once went down the escalator at 51st St., as a last resort, because the elevator was broken and he needed to get to an appointment.
“I love the subway,” Gonzalez said. “It’s faster, it’s easier, but I just hate it when you can’t get out or in.”
Sanchez said he always worries about his father when he is on the subway, especially when he isn’t with him.
One Sunday in early August, when he went out with his son, the Downtown elevator at 51st St. was out, which meant he needed to backtrack. Gonzalez, who regularly calls the hotline that the M.T.A. set up to inform people about elevator outages, was not aware beforehand that this elevator was out, and there was no sign posted to warn him that it wasn’t working.
Gonzalez and Sanchez didn’t complain when they saw the outage but instead went back to the platform and took the next 6 train to Grand Central. This station is one that Gonzalez likes because of the winding ramp that leads to and from the different platforms. Although he has to contend with crowds of people with luggage and baby strollers who push past him hurriedly, he still would like to see more ramps in subway stations.
“What they need to do is make ramps, not elevators,” Gonzalez said. “It’s hard to break a ramp.”
The stop that is closest to Gonzalez’s home is the Fulton St. subway, but it is currently not accessible because of the delayed station renovation project. Anyansi, the Transit spokesperson, said the station will be made accessible, but he does not know when. The M.T.A. does not have enough money to complete the center. Gonzalez said the station is five to 10 minutes closer to his home than the City Hall station, which is 11 blocks away.
Though Gonzalez uses the subway to get around Lower Manhattan and other areas for business, he doesn’t use it to go out socially to places Downtown. Once a resident of Chelsea, which he found to be more accessible and he liked for its gay community, he doesn’t go out much around his home. He said that too many of the shops around that area are inaccessible, and many of the sidewalks do not have curb cuts, which means that he has to wheel around in the streets.
But Gonzalez said his biggest issue is inconsiderate people, especially those who are able-bodied and still use elevators and ramps.
“Some people, they have no respect,” Gonzalez said. “They see people in wheelchairs, they don’t try to get out of the way.”