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NYC's Fast Track to 100

By David Jackson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page P01

Viewed from the platform of the elevated Dyckman Street station on the 1 train of the New York City subway, it's hard to imagine that the bland, towering concrete apartment building is a monument to Manhattan's final triumph over agrarianism. Glowering over Nagle Avenue and the subway tracks with its Cold War charm, the building sits on what used to be a farm -- the last farm in Manhattan, actually. The site wasn't sold to developers until 1961. Prior to that, the holdout field served as an in-town vegetable provider to the crossroads of the world.

Standing on the platform, a tour guide points out the more comely prewar buildings that spread out from the station like a crazy quilt of brick and stone, all built after the subway first squealed above the neighborhood in 1905.

The Manhattan skyline peeks out from the 100-year-old subway line. (Frank Franklin/AP)

"The city, particularly the way Manhattan has been developed, is a product of the subway," said subway historian and engineer Joe Cunningham. "It enabled the development of the outer boroughs and allowed the central business district of Manhattan [the area south of Central Park] to develop as it did."

This month, the New York City subway, the catalyst of New York's 20th-century growth, celebrates the 100th anniversary of its opening on Oct. 27. Tours like this one -- which traces the route and history of the first line, 9.1 miles from City Hall to 145th Street in Manhattan, and some of its extensions built north into the Bronx -- are part of a year-long centennial fete put on by New York City Transit. All around the city are looks at the construction, culture and impact of one of the world's most famous subway system:

• A regular calendar of mobile tours, including one in early December that will start in Times Square and explore the 1940 merging of the city's three subway systems into one consolidated public entity.

• At the Transit Museum, in an abandoned Brooklyn Heights subway station, visitors can see a fleet of subway cars gone by, from wooden models to the late, and sometimes lamented, steel Redbirds, each adorned with period advertisements.

• A major 100th anniversary exhibit at the Transit Museum traces the construction of the system, including the story of a worker who was spit up from beneath the riverbed to the surface of the East River when a tunnel collapsed in 1916. (He survived, two others died; imagine the screaming headlines that followed.) The exhibition, titled "The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subway," also includes social history of the laborers who worked on the project, construction and engineering challenges, and the politics and business surrounding it all.

It's a time to remember the many moods of the system, from the hopeful inaugural train piloted by Mayor George. B. McClellan (it was a half-hour late) through decades of galloping outer-borough growth to the bleak, graffiti-filled 1970s when the tunnels symbolized urban apocalypse in such movies as "The Warriors," "C.H.U.D." and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." In recent years, the newly sanitized subway has come to symbolize the rebirth of New York in the Rudy Giuliani era.

But whatever the status of the love-hate-love affair between the city and the city below, through it all the subway has ferried countless passengers on their daily rounds -- currently more than 4.5 million along 722 miles of track. In the course of that century-long chore, it has profoundly altered the urban landscape -- and Cunningham wanted to show us how. The tour started outside the platform on the elevated station at 238th Street in the Bronx, a creaking wooden construction that palpably shakes when trains come through, even on the stairway leading up from the street.

As the 1 train rumbled into the station, we headed downtown. It is an odd way to tour, with regular passengers bounding on and off and no guaranteed seats. But our group -- some singles, a few families and couples, and mostly male specimens of the "rail fan" species -- managed to keep together.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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