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Post-election ‘Subway Therapy’ sticky notes taken down — but not thrown out

A woman posts a sticky note to participate in the art piece “Subway Therapy” at the Union Square subway station in New York on Nov. 17. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

In the days and weeks following Election Day, the sticky notes in the subway stations created a mosaic of the emotions, frustrations and fears felt by Americans:

“Woke up this morning and still can’t believe this world,” one note read. “As my heart cries, help me understand,” another person wrote.

Others were more uplifting:

“Never give up.”

“It gives me hope that such beauty and solidarity is coming out of such chaos.”

The nearly 50,000 sticky notes left behind in the subway stations in New York City became an international symbol of unity and expression. And on Friday, more than five weeks after the project — called “Subway Therapy” — began, the notes were taken down. A large selection of the sticky notes will be preserved by the New-York Historical Society as a way of documenting New Yorkers’ response to the election, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Friday. 

The notes will join a list of other artifacts the society has preserved from “spontaneous moments of crisis or exhilaration,” such as objects recovered from the Sept. 11 attacks, items marking the celebrations following the legalization of same-sex marriage and messages left behind at the Stonewall Inn during a vigil for victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, according to the news release.

“Ephemeral items in particular, created with spontaneity and emotion, can become vivid historical documents,” Louise Mirrer, New-York Historical Society president and chief executive, said in a news release. “‘Subway Therapy’ perfectly evokes this historic moment.”

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With the sticky notes being taken down just a few days before the electoral college is set to convene to formally elect Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States, the removal of the messages seemed to perhaps symbolize a turning point in the period of post-election anxiety and uncertainty that has gripped some parts of the nation. But the preservation of the notes also ensures the emotions expressed in them are not forgotten, said the project’s creator, Matthew Chavez.

“I’m happy their voice is safe, regardless of whether they wanted it to be or not,” Chavez said in a phone interview early Monday with The Washington Post.

After moving to New York about a year ago, Chavez became fascinated by an idea: How do people feel better about things they feel bad about? Nine months ago, he began sitting in subway stations with a book that people could write their secrets in. People started talking to him, revealing their thoughts and burdens, seeking what he called a sort of “spontaneous absolution.”

Chavez often goes by the artist name “Levee,” meaning “an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river.”

“When people are overflowing with emotion, help channel their energy into something good,” he wrote on his website.

The day after Election Day, noticing the devastation felt by so many in the city, he decided to bring pens and sticky notes to a bypass tunnel linking the 14th Street subway stations at Sixth and Seventh avenues in Manhattan. From 2 p.m. that Wednesday until 2 a.m. the following morning, Chavez offered travelers a chance to leave messages, drawings and other art displays on the wall.

“It was just an explosion of people using the sticky notes to find relief, to express how they felt, to comfort each other,” Chavez said. “I just stayed until people stopped coming.”

During the first few weeks, Chavez would take down each sticky note at the end of the night, coming back the next day with a portion of the notes. During the first five days after Election Day, Chavez spent a combined 40 hours in the tunnel. Soon, notes started popping up in other stations, most dramatically in the 14th Street-Union Square station.

In the days and weeks that followed, similar displays began appearing in cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto. Chavez has even received requests for assistance from groups in Paris, London and Brussels that are pursuing similar projects. The project became so demanding that Chavez had to quit his two jobs — working at a bar in Brooklyn and producing commercial voice-over recordings — to commit his time to “Subway Therapy.”

On the Saturday after Election Day, Chavez estimated that there were nearly 10,000 notes lined up on one wall of the tunnel. It took him a minute and a half to walk from one end to the other.

Many of the notes were reactions to the surprise victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. “As a non-hetero, colored woman in America, I am afraid but I will not cry anymore. Let’s stay strong,” one note read. “This is the wall that matters,” another person wrote, alluding to Donald J. Trump’s plans to build a wall with Mexico.

Others were deeply personal: “Suicide’s been on my mind but I can’t leave my family behind,” one person wrote.

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Chavez always thinks back to a note he read on his second day, in which a parent wrote, “I don’t know how to talk to my 9-year-old, who is crying and upset all the time.”

Another mother told him how important she felt it was to bring her daughter to see the wall, in order to show her how many people were out there, standing together.

“It’s so difficult for adults to explain to young children how the adult world works,” Chavez said. “It seemed like it was a great way for the parents to have this bridge to help them cross the divide.”

Last month, the governor placed a sticky note on the 14th Street-Union Square subway station with the words, “New York State holds the torch high!” and a quote from the sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free … I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

With Cuomo’s support, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority allowed the sticky notes to stay up. But as the project grew, so did certain problems that arose from it. Many people began posting propaganda and conspiracy theories on the wall. Police received at least one report of a racially insensitive message on the wall. People passing by would sometimes knock the notes down, or argue with Chavez that the wall was partisan, even as he insisted that it was not.

Realizing the disturbance the wall was beginning to create for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Chavez agreed to help in the removal and preservation of the notes.

Beginning Tuesday through Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, members of the public can still participate in the project by placing sticky notes on a glass wall inside the New-York Historical Society’s front entrance in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, according to the governor’s news release.

As part of the society’s History Responds program, the selection of notes will be preserved in clear protective material and eventually used for an installation, Margaret K. Hofer, the museum director for the society, told the New York Times.

Chavez said he plans to also archive the majority of the notes online so that the public can see them for free. He hopes to continue to provide “Subway Therapy,” in the tunnel in some way — whether it involves written notes or a different form of expression.

He would also like to expand the project to areas of the country that, unlike Manhattan, aren’t overwhelmingly liberal — to smaller towns in parts of middle America where Trump’s campaign appealed to frustrated people who felt their voices weren’t being heard.

“I think that’s why people voted the way they did,” Chavez said. “People felt really separate from each other.”

It is especially crucial to provide relief to people living in areas where such expression may not be as accessible, Chavez said.

“Even if someone doesn’t believe their voice is important,” Chavez said, “I think it’s important.”

In New York City, people find solace a week after the U.S. presidential election by placing handwritten, anonymous notes on the walls of a busy subway station. (Video: Reuters)

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