This week’s entry: New York City Subway
What it’s about: While New York City has many towering landmarks—the Empire State Building, the Statue Of Liberty, the Ghostbusters firehouse—the one most integral to city life is underground. New York’s subway system is among the oldest and most heavily used in the world, and has more miles of track than any other. It has had a starring role in everything from The Warriors to The French Connection to the opening of Welcome Back, Kotter, and it has been faster and cheaper than sitting in traffic for more than 100 years.
Strangest fact: The system has 469 stations, more than any other subway in the world, but it also has a number of ghost stations—stations that were closed but still exist as a safe haven for C.H.U.D.s and the army of rats that hopes to one day reclaim the city from the forces of gentrification. Most of the nine fully abandoned stations fell into disuse because a nearby station expanded and there was no need for two platforms within a few blocks. The Court Street station in Brooklyn was the terminus of a line that was rerouted, and was converted into the New York Transit Museum. Other stations have been partially closed, with one platform fell into disuse as train lines were rerouted over the years. The most famous of these is the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, also in Brooklyn, which found new life as a film set, used memorably in The Warriors, The Wiz, and Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video. In fact, the City Council debated renaming the station Hoyt-Schermerhorn-Jackson, but decided against it. A few stations also have platforms that were never in service, built in advance for a planned expansion that never happened.
Biggest controversy: While New York is home to people from every country, culture, language, and faith, all 8.5 million residents are united in their hatred of seemingly constant fare increases. The fare remained fixed at $1.50 from 1995 to 2003, but has increased five times in the years since then (one increase introduced a tiered system where monthly riders pay one fare, and one-time riders, such as tourists, pay an extra quarter). At one point in the early ’80s, fares increased four times in fewer than six years. Even adjusted for inflation, fares are at an all-time high. The current fare is $2.75; from 1985 to 2005 it mostly stayed in the $2 to $2.25 range (in 2015 dollars); it was as low as $1.21 in 2015 dollars in the ’60s; and in 1920, a postwar spike in inflation meant the nickel fare was only 60 cents in 2015 money.
Thing we were happiest to learn: They’re finally building the Second Avenue line. In 1919, the city-owned Independent Subway System (the city eventually took over privately owned lines to create a unified system) planned to add an additional subway line under Second Avenue in Manhattan, as only the 4/5/6 train serves the island’s East Side, and is perpetually overcrowded. (In fact, that single line serves more riders today than the second-biggest citywide system in America, the D.C. Metro.) The plans were put off for 10 years, when they were folded into a much larger expansion planned for 1929, which promised to put a subway stop half a mile from every point in the city. But the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed torpedoed the whole scheme. After WWII, talk of a Second Avenue line resumed in earnest, and through the rest of the 20th century, every time money was secured to start construction, it was either diverted into maintaining the existing lines, or another economic crisis hit and plans were scuttled. Finally in 2007, a mere 78 years after initial plans were drawn up, digging began on a new tunnel under Second Avenue, and the T train is scheduled to open at the end of next year, although it’s not outside the realm of possibility that delays could push the project back even 100 years.
Also noteworthy: The Hyperloop is not a new idea. The very first subway line built in New York was the Beach Pneumatic Transit (named for its creator, Alfred Ely Beach, not because it went to the beach). Beach wanted to demonstrate that the pneumatic tubes that sent mail flying through the bowels of the city would work equally well for passengers on a larger scale. It was built largely in secret, because infamous political leader William “Boss” Tweed opposed it. Intended only as a demonstration, the Beach line went only 312 feet under Broadway near City Hall. Plans were made to extend it five miles, reaching Central Park, but it was viewed solely as a curiosity by New Yorkers, and closed within four years.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Pizza-loving or otherwise, rats are as much a part of New York as taxicabs, and only slightly dirtier. The persistent rodents are so associated with the city that Wikipedia has a page specific to rats in New York City. The page has both tips for dealing with the furry pests, and a few particularly gruesome rat-related incidents in the city’s history. Read at your own risk.
Further down the wormhole: Unsurprisingly, there have been many attempts to get a free ride on the subway over the years. In the early ’80s, savvy commuters discovered that the Connecticut Turnpike used tokens the same shape and size as the subway, but for a third of the price. Subway turnstiles would accept the cheaper tokens without objection, and countless riders were able to beat the system until New York pressured Connecticut to mint new tokens. A stranger problem was that of “token sucking.” A common scam was to jam a token slot with paper, so tokens would get stuck. The frustrated token user would have to try again with a new coin at a different turnstyle. Then the scam artist would “suck the token from the jammed slot with their mouth.” The city actually sprinkled chili powder in token slots to discourage the practice.
As criminal mischief on the subways go, these scams pale in comparison with graffiti, which was epidemic throughout the subway system, with cars and stations alike being painted over almost without exception, until the city began using paint-resistant materials and other methods that effectively eliminated graffiti within a five-year period at the end of the ’80s. Despite this, graffiti is still a staple of city life, whether seen as an art form, a blight, or a combination of the two. We’ll take a look next week.