THE CITY BENEATH US
I have been a New York City tourist on probably twenty different occasions, beginning as a child in 1943. I’ve covered every “tourist attraction,” and a few that are not commonly known. But what this intense metropolis has to offer to the visitor could fill a lifetime.
Last week I decided to go native and spend time in the great New York Public Library doing research! Not only is it FREE, the librarians are friendly and helpful, the restrooms are clean, and it was 10 minute walk from my hotel. What better place to satisfy my longstanding curiosity about the origins of the New York subway system.
Perhaps my interest is prompted by mass transportation challenges in my hometown, including the construction of a single two-mile tunnel which has taken four years to complete and cost gazillions of dollars the responsibility for which will be the subject of litigation into the 2030’s.
As you watch the bumper cars competing for space on the surface streets of Manhattan, it might occur to you to ask, “Where would this city be without the subway system?” Who had the vision and leadership to take on the gargantuan task? Someone in the New York City Public Library System ought to be able to help answer that question. Indeed!
I was shown a list of reference books on the Library version of Google, instructed to fill out the application for a NYC Library card, request the ones that looked appropriate and come back the next day when the books would arrive from their warehouse in another location.
Returning on Saturday morning, my books were waiting, one being so unique that I was instructed to sit at a special table while using it, to let the pages lie flat, and to use a pencil to take my notes.
The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subway was a project of the New York Transit Museum with author Vivian Heller. It was published in 2004, the one-hundredth anniversary year of the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit, the IRT. It provided a clear history of the beginnings of this enormous undertaking and dozens of pages of photos.
Not surprisingly, the concept of underground transportation was an idea which was around for thirty years before a contract was signed. One Alfred Ely Beach envisioned a pneumatic (air-driven) train and actually built (illegally) a prototype in 1870. City politics were having none of it, and Beach’s subterranean effort was sealed, and pretty much forgotten. The next couple of decades saw a proliferation of elevated trains, which eventually proved inadequate for the City’s growing population, exacerbated by the influx of immigrants toward the end of the 19th century.
At last, in November 1899, the State legislature authorized the City to proceed. In January 1900, a construction contract was signed with John D. McDonald, but there was NO financial backing! To the rescue came August Belmont — yes, he owned race horses — who provided capital, security and supervision! Belmont hired a 35-year-old chief engineer William Barclay Parsons and a vice president from St. Louis, E.P.Bryan. “Every detail of every contract…was absolutely under Mr. Belmont’s control,” his secretary recalled, “and it was 100 percent honest.”
October 27, 1904: the first line from City Hall to 103rd Street was opened with instant success! August Belmont stayed involved and profited from the endeavor for the next 14 years. He was scrupulously honest, with the keen eye of a businessman. The subway was overcrowded from the start, by 1908 carrying 800,000 riders a day! Belmont once wrote that rush hour without crowding would mean “financial failure.” Never mind that the crowding meant poking and prodding by policemen, sexual molestation, pick pocketing, fainting, fights and daily exposure to transmission of disease, even TB. This was an enterprise that was only meant to be sustainable if utilized to full capacity, or overload. The present-day Manhattan commuter might well understand. At least TB is gone (mostly).
The City Beneath Us provided dozens of pages of black and white photographs of the construction phases of the subway. The beginning method of construction was “cut and cover.” In layman’s terms, dig up the street, dig a deep trench, lay track, cover it and restore the street. This of course meant disturbing water and sewer lines, and created much chaos. “A ragged army of heroic, unruly men,” almost 8,000 of them, came from all over the world to do this work. When cut and cover would not work, there had to be blasting through “Manhattan schist,” extremely tough rock flecked with mica chips. Archaeological discoveries were made: mastodon bones, the hull of an old Dutch ship. Tunneling through solid rock turned subway building into a mining operation. Instead of digging a trench, workers bored dynamite holes; the foremen and the engineers set the dynamite, and the excavators cleared away the spoils.
By 1913 the IRT became the Dual Subway System jointly owned by the City of New York, the IRT and the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit). Expansion continued through the varied mayoral administrations, the Great Depression, with an infusion of cash from the WPA, and an indispensable role during WWII when the subway became, both in people’s imagination and in reality, part of the national struggle for survival. From 1940 to 1945, the subway became part of the war effort in countless ways. With steel and rubber going to the military, the auto industry ground to a halt, and drivers crowded the trains — to the point that overcrowding was unbearable. Mayor LaGuardia saw this as “proof of our life and vitality.”
V-Day August, 1945: the celebrations started in the subways. Passengers danced in the aisles and broke into drunken song. All night long the trains indulged the delirious crowds. “It was like the whole city belonged to us!”
That kind of euphoria is no doubt unique in the whole history of the system. The people of New York have a love-hate relationship with these trains and tunnels, in my opinion as a visitor. It seems like a tale of constant struggle for sufficient funding, of inadequate repairs, slow expansion, degraded performance, and fluctuating instance of crime.
Yet, for New York City to function, the “City Beneath” is as indispensable as the human circulatory system is to one of its riders. A subway ride was one of the first “thrills” I experienced as a 7-year-old visitor, when the fare was still a nickel. The nickel fare survived until 1948 — when it doubled! Last week I paid $2.75 to get through the turnstile.
As a “seasoned” tourist, I understand that when you need to get somewhere FAST, the subway is the only choice. In New York City it’s ALL about getting somewhere FAST.