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SEPTA reopens its underground oculus, for daydreaming

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Beneath the surface of Dilworth Plaza, outside Philadelphia City Hall, is an oculus: a circular underground room that once had a portal to the sky. The room has been closed to the public for more than three years but will temporarily open for dreaming.

Filmmaker Anula Shetty toured the SEPTA concourse looking for spaces for her immersive video art installation, “Philly Daydreams: Stories in Transit.” When SEPTA officials unlocked the oculus for her, it felt like a spaceship.

“I love circles. I love the idea of expanding space and looking up into the sky,” Shetty said. “The oculus gives you that.”

Anula Shetty posing for a photo
Filmmaker Anula Shetty, artist-in-residence at SEPTA, interviewed 14 SEPTA workers and riders about their daydreams. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“You can almost see Captain Kirk there in his chair,” said Kim Heinle, SEPTA’s assistant chief operating officer for programs.

Shetty has created a series of 14 short documentary film portraits of SEPTA employees and riders, which are now accessible system-wide via digital QR codes posted on buses, trains, and trolleys.

“Philly Daydreams,” a project of SEPTA, Mural Arts Philadelphia, and the Forman Arts Initiative, leverages the common phenomenon of letting one’s mind wander while riding public transportation to foster feelings of community.

“People get onto the SEPTA bus, and you don’t really think about the driver. You don’t think about who cleans the subway stations,” Shetty said. “Stories are the ways that we can connect to each other. These are the people I want to hear from.”

A woman holding a sign that says Philly Daydreams
Philly transit rider, Karen, with the photo and QR code that links to the short film series, Philly Daydreams, a public transition art installation by filmmaker and artist-in-residence at SEPTA, Anula Shetty. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

One featured bus driver, Lovey McIntosh, said she feels like a “superhero” for taking care of passengers, getting them to work, school, or doctor’s appointments safely and on time. A trolley driver named Tracy makes a heart shape with her fingers: “I like to show love to everybody,” she said. “I blow kisses out to everybody.”

“I’m a first generation immigrant,” said Shetty, who grew up in Mumbai. She came to Philadelphia to study film at Temple University and has lived here for about 20 years.

“For me, being on the train takes me back to that feeling of being between destinations,” she said. “One of the fascinating things about Philadelphia is all the different neighborhoods. I really wanted to highlight some of the immigrant neighborhoods. I decided to go with community leaders who could talk about that immigrant experience, what it feels like to be in transit.”

Anula Shetty in a subway car
Filmmaker Anula Shetty, artist-in-residence at SEPTA, sees the public transit art installation, Philly Daydreams, on a Broad Street Line subway car for the first time. Shetty interviewed 14 SEPTA workers and riders about their daydreams. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

One of the subjects Shetty profiled is Iris Brown, a longtime volunteer with the Norris Square Neighborhood Project in North Philadelphia, who grew up in Loiza, Puerto Rico, a small town on the northeastern coast. She said she likes to select a window seat on the bus so she can watch the neighborhoods passing by while keeping an ear on her fellow passengers.

“I like to listen to the many, many languages,” Brown said. “If they are talking in a different language, their accent — to me — sounds like beauty.”

Jane Golden speaking at a podium, surrounded my numerous other people
Mural Arts Executive Director, Jane Golden, congratulated all the SEPTA workers and riders who participated in the Philly Daydreams film project at the installation’s opening event at the Oculus in the City Hall concourse on October 5, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)


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