Growing up in Brooklyn, R. Raleigh D’Adamo ’53 lived within a few hundred feet of five different New York transit lines and, almost by necessity, developed an interest in public transit.

D’Adamo — who designed an earlier version of the current New York City subway system map — told students and Davenport College fellows about “How New York City’s Subway Map Got Its Colors” during a talk on Thursday evening. Audience members said they were impressed by both the simplicity and the innovation of D’Adamo’s ideas.

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In 1964, D’Adamo was one of three first-place winner in a New York City Transit Authority competition to design a new map of the subway system. A practicing lawyer with no previous experience in urban planning, he learned about the contest through a newspaper and was drawn by his previous interest in transit to participate.

D’Adamo said he noted then that London used eight colors to represent eight transit lines and Paris used eight to represent 15, but New York had for years used only three colors to represent 34 transit lines.

“Maps of New York subways are trying to make too few colors do too much work,” D’Adamo said in his winning entry.

These three colors represented three previously separate subway systems that were unified in 1940. D’Adamo said by 1964, the colors were unnecessary because the divisions they represented were no longer relevant.

D’Adamo added four more colors and tweaked other aspects of the existing subway map, leaving a map system that has remained virtually unchanged since its original implementation, he said.

A few years after winning the competition, D’Adamo recognized that his aspiration was not to be a lawyer but instead an urban planner, he said. He took courses at Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University, received a master’s degree in urban planning and transit and changed careers, beginning work for the Metropolitan Transit Authority where he served as Chief of Inspection and Review.

After several years working in other cities around the country, D’Adamo moved back to New Haven, where he spent his undergraduate years, to serve as executive director of the New Haven Parking Authority. He became a Davenport fellow in 1992 and has led the Davenport Book Arts Center ever since.

Some students who attended the talk said they found D’Adamo’s presentation interesting because of its impact on them and everyone else who uses the New York City transit system.

William Hennessey ’09 said he was impressed both by the depth of D’Adamo’s insight and his cleverly designed map.

“I thought it was a very informative, offbeat topic, something I’ve always wondered about,” Hennessey said. “Every time I’ve been lost, I’ve trusted the map because it’s very intuitive.”

Sydney Levine ’09 said she was grateful for D’Adamo’s decision to discard the outdated three-color system used to represent the unified subway.

“I think the main point was unifying three main lines for one unified system,” Levine said. “This idea of unification is applicable to everything.”

D’Adamo also discussed the evolution of New York’s public transit, explained the factors important in creating an accessible map, and showed the audience a slideshow of transit cartography worldwide, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo.

Each semester, D’Adamo also teaches a noncredit seminar in letterpress printing using Davenport’s printing press.