Thursday, August 19, 2010


Today I shall tell you about Clifton Hood’s 722 Miles, which takes a (not exactly uplifting) look at the building of the NYC subway. This book is well-suited to readers such as me, who can stare at a subway map for hours. It goes into a lot of detail (it's an expansion of Hood’s doctoral thesis) but is also accessible to those of us who are not huge history buffs or as up on economics as perhaps we should be. ’Cause as well as financial and logistical details, the history of the building of the subway is rife with intriguing people and events.

For instance, did you know that the Steinway Tunnel (stretching across the East River at 42nd Street, now home of the 7 train) as well as, presumably, Steinway Street in Astoria, was named after William Steinway, piano maker extraordinaire, a key player (har, har) in the development of both the subway and the borough of Queens?

Did you know that, before the IRT started building the first subway, inventor Alfred Beach made a mysterious hidden pneumatic tube subway right under the nose of City Hall? Its waiting room was decked out in paintings and couches; its car was such a sensation that thousands of people waited to ride it. Seriously, what’s better than pneumatic tubes? Maybe they're what the internet's made of.

Hood also zooms in on the development of Jackson Heights, a neighborhood that was created by developers in response to the projected expansion of the subways. Previously open farmland, Jackson Heights became a sort of garden-city suburb, proudly advertised as only 22 minutes from Midtown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idealized suburb offered fabulous accommodations “for those whose social and business references are acceptable”—i.e., no Jews allowed. I find it gratifying that this neighborhood has since evolved into one of the most diverse in probably the entire world.

On a less fun note, 722 Miles also provides an informative look at the circumstances that ultimately led to the MTA’s current dire straits (up to a point; the book was written in the nineties and really only discusses subway history until the fifties or so). Conflicts between big business and government in the subway’s early days meant that it didn’t achieve full government funding; later, petty fights among groups puttered on while the automobile gained primacy over the subway. And oh that subway fare. Politicians built entire campaigns on the importance of the nickel fare to the city’s everyman. (Successfully; the fare was not raised until 1948.) In the words of Maurice Forge, former Transit Workers Union leader, the public would view raising the fare as a crime on a par with “doing damage to motherhood, apple pie, and the Constitution.” But this fear of pie ruination spelled disaster for the companies, and later the city, running the subway; the system contracted enormous deficits as prices spiraled and the Great Depression hit and everything except the subway was subject to the economy...

Maybe it's sorta like what’s going on now, when service cuts are so often deemed preferential to fare hikes (not that that’s gonna stop the MTA from raising fares as well, most likely in 2011). I am sympathetic to the position that everyone should be able to afford mass transit, but in both the present instance and the historical one, I come down on the side of the fare hikers*—it’s no good maintaining an affordable fare for a system that just doesn’t run as it should. Particularly when increased fares could help fix some of the problems. (And fares are so low—even with my shoddy grasp on economics, I can still read and understand that both now and during the Depression, with inflation sidling into every aspect of life, fares cost proportionately less than they have at other times.) Grumblerumble.

Anyway, if you are ¾ and upward as much of a subway nut as I am, check this book out. At the very least you will wow your friends with your ability to finally keep the IRT, BMT, and IND lines straight.

*Though it will not surprise you to hear that I empathize with one Stanley Isaacs, councilman and former Manhattan borough president. His response to Robert Moses’s desire to construct tons of highways and bridges with the money that would be generated by a higher fare? “I believe that this is probably the most audacious proposal yet made to saddle those least able to afford it with the cost of civic improvements which in the main serve those in the higher income brackets; to make those who do not own cars but travel in the subway indirectly subsidize the motorist. The whole program is clear. The straphanger is to pay double the present fare so as to carry the full interest upon and amortization of the capital cost of the subways. Why? So that the city will be able to borrow more money to build parkways, expressways, and highways, which are to be furnished free of charge for the capital improvements to the man who can afford his own car, doesn’t travel on the subways and doesn’t pay even a nickel toward the construction of the speedways furnished him.” Grr.
(Quotation from 722 Miles, p. 246, where Hood also helpfully points out that at the time of Isaacs’s remark, two thirds of New Yorkers did not own cars.)


  1. I am very fond of pneumatic tubes. I remember going to the bank with my Mom as a wee one and being So Excited to go to the drive-through because she had to fill out all the mysterious papers and checks and then put them in a box and then push a button and...slurp, they were gone into the building and you could watch them come down the tube in front of the nice lady who would then, if she saw my little head peeking from the passenger seat, would send my Mom back her money plus a lollipop for me. Cherry, yes!
    Uh, I agree with all the wise things you say here about the MTA. Would you like to share the difference between the IRT, BMT, and IND lines with the rest of the class?

  2. Pneumatic tubes!

    IRT was the original subway, founded by August Belmont--it's basically the numbered lines today.

    Then BMT, which had a bunch of elevated railways in Brooklyn, built some subways and merged with IRT. BMT are some of the lettered lines, like the BDFM, JZ, L, NQR trains.

    IND came later. It was more closely run by the city and was a separate company from the other two: those are the rest of the lettered lines, as well as non-Brooklyn portions of some of the BMT lines.

    IRT and BMT did some building outwards to inspire suburbs (like Jackson Heights); the financial climate was bad by the time IND rolled around so they stuck to already-popular areas (this is basically why some parts of the city have several unconnected subway stops in close proximity. Man, I wish that IND C linked up with Atlantic... There are plans to link the R to the ACF at Jay Street soon.

  3. IND 4-life! Yeah!
    Right, I've wondered about the C before too. Lafayette and Atlantic could just be connected by a really long tunnel and my life would be easier. I suspect that our wise suggestions for improvement will, of course, be immediately taken under advisement by the MTA.
    As for fare hikes, I see the case for them, absolutely--the crumbling infrastructure of this entire country needs massive investment. On the other hand, I already know lots of underemployed people who try to fit everything (shopping, socializing, errands) into a single subway ride to save money. So maybe the fare hikes need to be in tandem with the closure of several major thoroughfares into permanent bike lanes and some other creative thinking.

  4. I agree with you about the fare hikes, though I still feel like an increase of even $.25 a ride or something would not be *that* huge of a financial drain if it actually keeps the system running. Of course, I come from a perspective of pretty much needing a monthly card no matter what, so I don't tend to think that much about individual rides. On Second Avenue Sagas there is lately some alarming talk, about such things...