Historian Delights in New York's
722 Miles of Subways

By Lawrence Biemiller

New York, New York -- Astor Place, Spring Street, Canal Street, Brooklyn Bridge -- the downtown stations of the Lexington Avenue local are a poem in their own right, a song of the New York Walt Whitman knew, of sailing ships and gaslights, horse cars and tenements. It's here that Clifton Hood starts his tour of the subway -- right where it was born.

Directly in front of City Hall, Mr. Hood points out a stone set in the pavement. It marks the site of the "first excavation for the underground railway," which took place on March 24, 1900. The groundbreaking followed years of wrangling among politicians and civic leaders, much of which Mr. Hood describes in his book, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York, published last year by Simon & Schuster and just out in paperback from the Johns Hopkins University Press. The city's leaders could see that the Manhattan of horse cars and tenements was choking on its own traffic, Mr. Hood says, and they could hear that steam- powered elevated trains -- noisy and dirty -- were a poor way of enlarging the city. But they couldn't agree on how best to get a subway built, or how to get it paid for. Memories of Boss Tweed's corruption were still fresh; the project would have to be entrusted to the private sector.

Eventually, the contract for the first subway went to the Interborough Rapid Transit Co. -- the IRT. Mr. Hood, who is an assistant professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a former curator of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia's archives, talks the conductor on a downtown 6 into letting us stay on as the brick-red cars grind and squeal through the tight turnaround under City Hall. Out the right-hand windows we get a shadowy glimpse of the IRT's City Hall station, a masterpiece of green-tiled vaulting that was abandoned in 1945.

"It was really the flagship station, with the colored tiles and a chandelier upstairs," Mr. Hood says. "It's too bad it closed -- the subway doesn't have that many landmarks." But the platform wasn't big enough to accommodate longer trains, and anyway, it was within spitting distance of the Brooklyn Bridge station. When the IRT was built, Mr. Hood explains, the Brooklyn Bridge was the city's only East River crossing. The Brooklyn Bridge station served huge numbers of people, and having the City Hall station nearby helped relieve crowding. After other river crossings were constructed, however, the Brooklyn Bridge station became less busy. The City Hall IRT stop was deemed unnecessary, although a later station on the N and R lines, still in use, is also called City Hall.

Mr. Hood's tour of the subway is as much a scholar's review of New York's growth as it is a fan's catalogue of underground curiosities. Fourteenth Street, 23rd, 28th, 33rd -- we follow the IRT's original line up to 42nd Street on the Lexington Avenue local. We admire tilework and terra cotta, note where stations were lengthened as the IRT added cars to its trains. "In its first years, the subway was more crowded than it ever has been since," Mr. Hood says, adding that the first line was overwhelmed almost as soon as it opened, on October 27, 1904. By the late '40s, people packed themselves onto the trains for more than 2 billion 5-cent rides each year -- twice as many as New Yorkers take now. "Let me tell you this," an exasperated Mayor LaGuardia exclaimed in 1943. "Any time we don't have crowding during the rush hour, there'll be a receiver sitting in the mayor's chair, and New York will be a ghost town. Why, they talk about the rush hour and the crash and noise. Why, listen, don't you see that's the proof of our life and vitality?"

At Grand Central, we follow the original IRT line through what is now a pedestrian walkway to the 42nd Street shuttle, which we board. Alighting at Times Square, we peer into the darkness at the far end of the platform, where a sweep of shadowy columns marks the old alignment of tracks. Mr. Hood heads for the platform that serves the uptown 1, 9, 2, and 3 -- the Broadway/Seventh Avenue locals and the Seventh Avenue expresses. Such names survive from the IRT era, which ended more than 50 years ago. In 1940 -- again after years of wrangling among politicians and civic leaders -- the city bought out the IRT and its equally famous rival, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corp., or BMT. The lines were combined with the city's own recently completely Independent Subway System, the IND, to form what is now the New York City Transit Authority.

We get off briefly at 96th Street. This neighborhood, the Upper West Side, was the first to experience a real-estate boom because of the subway, sprouting apartment buildings as people moved uptown. "By 1915 or 1920, there were movie theatres and restaurants with roof gardens all around here," says Mr. Hood. The Upper West Side quickly outgrew the IRT's original facilities. At 72nd Street, one of the system's smallest and most crowded express stations, he points out narrow platforms and original staircases barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. Clearly the IRT's planners had no clue how busy it would become.

The irony of it all, Mr. Hood says as we arrive at 59th Street, is that when the city built the IND, it "built large and planned for expansion, but the people never came." IND stations feature wide platforms and spacious mezzanines, but already commuters were beginning to drive to work. Now, Mr. Hood notes, the system's aging infrastructure is supported on half as many fares as were collected 50 years ago. He blames the drop in ridership for the rise in crime, too: When the system was crowded at all hours, it was harder for muggers to surprise victims alone in cars or corridors.

We catch a B train for a sunset ride across the Manhattan Bridge, built in 1909 and just reopened to subway service after structural reinforcements. Mr. Hood is on sabbatical this semester, living at one end of Brooklyn's Park Slope while he does research for his next book. He relies on the F to get around. "It's a slow local train in a working-class neighborhood," he says. "But the great thing about the subway is that it's so chameleon-like. If I take the F at 6:30 in the morning, it's full of riders who are recent immigrants. At 8, it's full of Orthodox Jews and Italians, second-generation immigrants. At 9, it's full of professionals."

The last stop on our tour is Jackson Heights, Queens, where the arrival of the BMT in the early '20s prompted another real-estate boom. We wander among vintage co-op apartments and then settle in for dinner at the Jackson Diner, which now serves tandoori chicken and saag gosht. "Another thing about the subway is how many people are fascinated by it," Mr. Hood says. "At my book party, the first five rows were full of rail fans. 'You're their king,' a friend of mine said. I was on a radio station in Little Rock for half an hour. I was on TV in Brazil, and in the paper in Italy."

Mr. Hood is not that serious a rail fan himself. He can tell you that the IRT tunnels are smaller than those of the BMT and IND lines, but not that cars for the IRT are 8 feet, 10 inches wide, compared with 10 feet for cars on the BMT and IND routes. (A New York City Subway site on the World- Wide Web offers all kinds of details.)

But Mr. Hood is a fan in the larger sense -- in the sense of delighting in New York's love-hate relationship with the A train, the winding route of the Brooklyn-Queens Crosstown, the elevated stations of the 7 to Flushing. In 722 Miles, he quotes lyrics to songs, describes a 1934 woodcut in which black and white riders doze beside each other peaceably, tells how Herman Wouk and Alfred Kazin grew up exploring New York on the IRT and the BMT. "Thickly crowded with people of different classes and ethnic groups," he wrote, "the subways became known as a place of excitement and rich urban color that embodied both New York's grit and its endless possibilities." And they still do: Making my way back from dinner on an uptown 6, I notice someone flirting with me across the car. I get off at Grand Central, smiling.

Copyright (c) 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Title: Historian Delights in New York's 722 Miles of Subways Published: 95/12/01