The Tracks That Built New York City
By Lorraine B. Diehl
Potter. 128 pp. $18
NEW YORK UNDERGROUND
The Anatomy of a City
By Julia Solis
Routledge. 176 pp. $35
One hundred years ago this week, the mayor of New York, George B. McClellan (not the dilatory Civil War general, but his son and namesake), officially opened the first of the city's subway systems, the IRT. At the City Hall subway station, he piled aboard an eight-car train with the usual retinue of bigwigs. He "was supposed to start the train as a ceremonial gesture and then hand over the controls to the motorman," according to Lorraine B. Diehl, but instead he took "the group of dignitaries for a grand ride." Ignoring the 30 mph speed limit, he declared, "I'm running this train!" and displaying more forward movement than his father ever did, he raced the train northward. At one point he inadvertently slammed on the brakes, "bringing the train to a screeching stop and sending [his] high-powered guests flying about the cars."
The mayor lived every boy's dream all the way to Broadway and 103rd Street, where he finally turned the controls over to the motorman, who took the train to its final stop, 145th Street. The mayor "spent the return trip to City Hall among his friends, the aura of the urban pioneer about him as he described what it was like to play motorman in the city's new subway." It was an auspicious if somewhat comical beginning to a remarkable century in which the city's system grew from a single, privately owned, nine-mile line to one that now encompasses 722 miles and may eventually grow still farther, if the long-planned and partly constructed Second Avenue line ever gets built. It isn't the country's prettiest or most efficient system -- that's probably either Washington's Metro or the Bay Area's BART -- but it's the biggest, with the world's largest stock of subway cars, carrying more than 4.5 million riders every day.
Diehl's "Subways" and Julia Solis's "New York Underground" commemorate the subway's anniversary in different but complementary ways. Diehl's is a compact, well-illustrated history of the system, from the one-block, pneumatically driven line that Alfred Ely Beach constructed in the late 1860s -- incredibly, he built it secretly, because "Boss" Tweed's cronies were opposed to subways -- to the revival of the system in the 1990s after its painful decline in the 1970s. The subways are only part of the story that Solis tells. Herself what might be called an urban spelunker -- a person who loves to explore urban undergrounds -- she provides a tour of everything in New York from sewers and water mains to railroad tunnels and secret wine cellars built (most famously, at the "21" club) during Prohibition.
Each book has much to recommend it, but if you can have only one you'll probably want "Subways," since it focuses on the topic of the moment and is published in dimensions compact enough for subway reading. The story Diehl tells has been told many times -- most recently, to the best of my knowledge, in Clifton Hood's "722 Miles" (1993) -- but she obviously has explored the existing literature with care and writes in a lively way.
The subways came into being against strong opposition. The Tweed Ring was opposed because it couldn't see much opportunity for graft, whereas, Solis writes, "Tweed was receiving generous kickbacks from the streetcar business." Real estate interests, Diehl writes, "worried that the digging would undermine building foundations and make it impossible for customers to shop at their stores," and it wasn't until 1900 -- with Tweed at last out of the way -- that the Rapid Transit Commission let out bids for construction of the first line. It was won by the newly formed Interborough Rapid Transit Co. (hence IRT) and underwritten by the fabulously wealthy August Belmont.
Washington residents whose memories go back to the construction of Metro will have no difficulty empathizing with New Yorkers of a century ago. Just as downtown Washington turned into a nightmare as streets were ripped up, so New York became one gigantic hole -- "Dig We Must," as Consolidated Edison put it half a century later -- that separated customers from stores and workers from offices. The inconvenience was staggering, but New Yorkers knew that the benefits would be immeasurable and put up with it in, for the most part, good spirits.
As it turned out, the benefits were far greater than anyone could have guessed: "The subway . . . changed the city's face, creating neighborhoods far beyond the limited reaches of the elevateds. By unifying and connecting the city, the subway . . . truly urbanized it." The city's five boroughs had been consolidated in 1898, but it was the subway that really made the five into one. As it reached out into Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, places that were still farmland at the turn of the 20th century became bedroom communities for hundreds of thousands of workers who could get to their Manhattan workplaces in a matter of minutes -- and for a fare of 5 cents.
The nickel fare was the boon of the subway's youth and the bane of its middle age. It remained fixed for just shy of half a century, finally going up to a dime in 1948. It was a blessing for immigrants and blue-collar workers and thus a major contributor to the city's growth and diversification, but it also deprived the transit authority of funds to keep the system in peak working order, and thus played a significant part in its postwar decline. Cars got outdated and dirty, and in the 1970s graffiti "artists" turned stations into slums. Not until the 1990s, when the subway benefited from the combination of an overheated economy and the Giuliani crackdown on crime, did they regain their health.
Along the way, though, the subway system consigned a number of stations to oblivion from which they seem unlikely to recover. The most notable of these is the beautiful City Hall station, which both Diehl and Solis celebrate; it can be seen only by passengers who stay aboard while the southbound train makes the loop to head north again. Other defunct stations are visible only as blurs as express trains rocket past them. Still other stations have to all intents and purposes disappeared, no longer needed and totally forgotten.
The subway's place in New York City lore is fixed and ineradicable. The subways took people by the millions to Coney Island. They connected fans of the Yankees, the Giants, the Dodgers and the Mets in "Subway Series" that kept the city on tenterhooks. They inspired Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington to write "Take the 'A' Train," and Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein to set important parts of "On the Town" in the subway, as Gene Kelly pursues his dream girl, Miss Turnstiles.
Subway aficionados should be advised that a third celebratory volume, "The City Beneath Us," was scheduled to be published this month by Norton but has been delayed until early next year. Written by Vivian Heller in cooperation with the New York Transit Museum, it is most notable -- on the evidence of advance proofs -- for a remarkable collection of photographs of the system under construction. The publication delay is regrettable, but the book probably will be worth the wait.