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The New York Subway
Beginning in March 1900, ground was broken in Manhattan for an electric-powered subway. Twelve thousand men worked to build the subway for the privately owned Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). When the subway opened on October 27, 1904, 150,000 people paid a nickel each to ride. New Yorkers embraced the IRT’s clean (electric power produced no smoke and cinders), quick ride. It was the fastest city transportation system in the world, since its four-track design enabled both express and local trains to run in each direction - its slogan being “City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes!” And it was the subway that allowed the city’s population to expand into the far reaches of the outer boroughs.
Soon the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company began building a new subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan - the BMT opening in 1915. Construction work began on a third, publicly-owned, subway in 1925, and in 1932 the Eighth Avenue Line, the IND, was finished - while the Sixth Avenue line, the last major piece of the IND system, opened in 1940. The city now had three separately owned and operated subways - forming the largest subway system in the world. By 1940 New York City had taken over the IRT and BMT and become owner-operator of all the subway and elevated lines.
Topping it all off was the fact that the inside and outside of the subway cars were decorated with the kind of colourful, frenzied graffiti name tags and scrawling that were treated as imaginative folk art by chic curators and collectors, and were seen by some writers as an affirmation of identity by the powerless. But most of us who rode the subways felt the graffiti as an onslaught on our senses and a blatant sign of how out of control the city and the subway system had become. And, as a result of the system’s deterioration, a subway ridership that had been falling (caused partially by the flight of the middle class to the suburbs), declined precipitously. Many New Yorkers began to dread the descent underground.
Images of the subway from that period appear in a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York of 65 colour photographs by documentary photographer, Bruce Davidson (the photos are also published by St. Ann’s Press in a book, Subway). Davidson’s photos vividly evoke the harsh reality of riding the subway then. Many of the images are close-ups of a wide variety of passengers - from corporate and commuter types in suits and ties to a half-dressed, disoriented homeless woman. There are feral gang members, respectable office workers, and poor families with children sprawled out on the seats - the subway in Davidson’s words being the ”great social equalizer.” Many of the people in Davidson’s photos look haunted, exhausted, or just utterly alone in the world, but there are others whose vibrant faces convey a sense that their lives remain full of possibility. All of them stand and sit inside badly lit subway cars with graffiti enveloping almost every available space including station maps, ads, and windows. Still, Davidson’s photos are so iridescently textured that they give the subway’s grimness a nightmarish sense of beauty.
However, the subway system began to slowly turn around, when nearly $11, 000 million was committed to capital improvements in the 80s. As a result, by the 1990s all the cars were air conditioned, and the system was returned to good repair. There were also now new cars whose surfaces were graffiti-resistant, and the tracks, signals, and stations had been overhauled. And the belated introduction of the electronic MetroCard in 1997 had made the system more efficient, and less vulnerable to fare beating. The subway today no longer feels like a fetid, perilous slum. Crime is down, the numbers of passengers are up, and though there are now scratch graffiti on the windows and many of the ads are for ambulance-chasing lawyers and dubious business schools - it is relatively safe and clean. But there is still a constant danger that without more financial help from the city and state, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will face a $1.4 billion budget shortfall in 2006. It will then be forced to raise fares after already making service cuts and increasing fares in 2005. The subway is the lifeblood of the New York, and it was no coincidence that its renewal paralleled the city’s own resurrection. It would begin to undermine all of the city’s gains in the last decade if riding the subway begins to feel again like a voyage of the dammed.