Wednesday, October 14, 2009



I first moved to New York in 1996. Almost at once, I fell in love with the subway system. I loved the idea that you could get virtually anywhere in town from anywhere else in town. At first, I struggled to learn all the color-coded lines and their destinations. I did not dare to leave Manhattan. As an 18-year-old whipper snapper at Columbia University, I was told that going above 120th Street would get you killed. So would going to Brooklyn, The Bronx or Queens. Not coincidentally, Columbia seemed to insulate itself from the "natives" outside by demarcating its property with massive stone walls studded with guarded steel gates.

In hindsight, the racial implications inherent in this "advice" seem both shocking and absurd. Yet as a freshman in New York, I believed that the city was a "dangerous place." That contributed to its magical charm, at least for me. In 1996, Giuliani had only been in power for two years. New York still seemed thrillingly nasty compared to my sleepy suburban homestead in Connecticut. I gobbled it up. For me, riding the subway was like a second university education. I learned New York by riding the trains--and by watching the people on them.

It took me a while to escape the xenophobic prejudices we learned during Orientation Week at Columbia. But I remember one day before Christmas Break in December 1996 I decided to "risk my life" by riding the "N" train beyond Manhattan. I rode all the way to Coney Island.

It was a dark, forbidding winter night. I sat alone in the car, gazing wide-eyed at the passing stations. Very few people boarded or left the train. I kept thinking: "OK, I haven't been mugged yet; and I'm tough because I'm in Brooklyn now!" Then the train popped above ground. It was the first time I had ever been on a subway with elevated tracks. Many New York lines run above ground, but this was my "first time" on an El. At this point, I felt pretty cool. I just looked out over the Brooklyn night with Manhattan glittering in the distance. Yet at the same time, I felt as if danger could strike at any moment. That was what I loved about New York: I relished it because it was so smelly, so nasty, so abnormal, so dangerous, so unlike everything I had been raised in. But that's what made it beautiful.

I made it all the way to Coney Island without dying. No one even threatened to kill me. After I got there, I walked around the decaying train station near the shuttered amusement park. I felt like I had stepped back into the movie "Once Upon a Time in America." I suddenly remembered a scene from that movie in which the young gangsters locked a treasure in a strongbox on Coney Island. The storefronts looked like they hadn't been renovated since the 1920s. I went to a little fudge shop in the station and bought a big block of vanilla fudge for $1.00. "How cool is this?" I thought. The station smelled like urine mixed with disinfectant. After about 25 minutes, I got back on the train and headed back to Manhattan.

I survived Brooklyn. I was a New York veteran now, unlike all those cowards who stayed holed up in their Columbia dorm rooms.

Within 90 minutes, of course, I was holed up in my Columbia dorm room.

I recount this story because it was an early voyage in my lifelong love affair with New York and its subways. Over the years, I ventured out into the city more and more. I wanted to see all the places that tourists didn't see. I wanted to see the "most dangerous" parts of town, not the prettiest ones. I rode the trains for 8 hours at a time, stopping to take walks along the way. Eventually, I started bringing a camera on my trips. I snapped hundreds of shots. Thankfully, I still have them all. It's only been a decade since I took those pictures. Yet the New York in those pictures no longer exists. Things change fast around here, even without terrorist attacks.

I don't take pictures around town anymore. But I still know the subway system inside and out. I even know its history. The subway system has evolved over time, just like America's economic system. When the first subway opened in 1904, it was a private enterprise. The city had nothing to do with it. A private corporation called "Interborough Rapid Transit Co." (the "IRT") built all the lines and stations that now bear "numbers" rather than "letters." Back in those days, they referred to the train by the line it traveled. For example, it wasn't the "1 Train;" it was "The IRT Broadway/7th Avenue Local." It wasn't the "4 Train;" it was "The IRT Lexington Avenue Express/Jerome Avenue Line." Now, if I need to ride uptown on the West Side, I joke with my friends that I'm "taking the IRT." I like old stuff.

Hundreds of immigrants died building IRT tunnels and structures. The IRT opened during the golden age of capitalism; and the IRT got the job done. But true to capitalism's spirit, the IRT soon faced a private competitor: Brooklyn Mass Transit Co. (the "BMT"). The BMT built numerous lines throughout Brooklyn and Queens, siphoning off riders from the IRT. Price wars ensued.

With the Great Depression, however, the private companies could not continue operating without government aid. The city increasingly subsidized the IRT and BMT. In the mid-1930s, with New Deal funding, it even opened up its own subway system: The "Independent Subway" (the "IND"). Soon thereafter, the private subway companies folded. By the 1940s, the city took over from the private companies and began running their systems. In the case of New York City subways, capitalism did not work. The government took over, and--truth be told--it has done a very good job managing mass transit.

In a way, the fall of private subways in New York mirrors the New Deal that swept the country under FDR. Government got involved for the better. And it proved that government solutions sometimes work very well, despite all the whining from free market apologists. The sky did not fall when the city took over the subway system. Nor did it fall when government began regulating the securities markets.

Today, you can still learn a lot by riding around on the New York subway. You can see social reality at work, along with all the maddening inequality that comes with life in a big American city. New York--like America--is splintered along economic, ethnic and social lines. Blacks live in poor neighborhoods in the Outer Boroughs; affluent whites live in premiere Manhattan areas. Yet every neighborhood has a subway station. You can tell whether you're in a rich neighborhood by looking at the station and how many people get on the train. Stations with lots of paying riders get overhauls. They get new stairways, new elevators, new tiling, new lighting and new tracks. But poor stations with few paying riders rot away; they look like they are caught in a time warp. You know the neighborhood is bad when there are crumbling platform edges, decrepit columns, bad signs, dingy light fixtures and a bad PA system. This is classic American inequality. And it's all right there to see on the New York subway.

I also discovered that the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) publishes a "Ridership Table" detailing how many riders patronize each of the system's 468 stations. A quick glance at the figures confirms the inequality that simple observation reveals when traveling over the rails in New York. You can also see who lives where, and why some stations have many more paying riders than others. By studying these numbers, you can see demographic shifts at work. See

Consider the BMT Canarsie Line, AKA the "L Train." This train runs along 14th Street in Manhattan, then goes under the East River and into Brooklyn. Right across the river is a neighborhood called Williamsburg. The "L Train" conveniently stops right in the heart of the neighborhood at a station called "Bedford Avenue." Until the 1990s, Williamsburg was a largely Hispanic, working class district with a significant industrial base. As rents in Manhattan increased under Giuliani, however, many white Bohemians and young professionals fled across the river. They settled in Williamsburg. In the last 15 years, rents in Williamsburg have ballooned beyond all recognition. It is a "hip" and "trendy" place to be. Wine bars and vintage clothing shops have displaced textile factories. The MTA's ridership report confirms this demographic shift. In 2007, more than 5,600,000 people boarded trains at Bedford Avenue, far more than any other station along the "L Line" in Brooklyn.

Williamsburg's well-paid colonists can afford the fare. That explains why residents further along the "L Line" do not use stations nearly as much as those around Bedford Avenue. The "L Line" travels deep into Brooklyn and its allegedly "bad neighborhoods" like East New York and Brownsville. Leaving aside the question whether these neighborhoods are "bad," the MTA Ridership Report shows one thing: Not many people use the subway in these neighborhoods compared to the folks in Williamsburg. Consider the dilapidated "L Train" station at Bushwick Avenue-Aberdeen Street. Here, only 315,000 people boarded trains in 2007, even though it's only a short hop from Williamsburg.

Why the discrepancy? Simple: New York neighborhoods are segregated. Five and half million people could pay $2.00 a ride at Bedford Avenue in 2007, yet only 315,000 could do so at Bushwick Avenue. Two dollars might seem insigificant, but for people in Brownsville, it's a considerable expense. Other factors explain the discrepancy, too. Many people ride the subway to get to and from work every day. In Brownsville, unemployment is extremely high; there is no need for unemployed people to ride the train into the city. No one used the Bushwick Avenue station in 2007 because most people in the area are so poor that they could not afford the (then) $2.00 fare and because they had no jobs requiring subway transit. It is an economically depressed area. It is also largely African-American, and the crime rate is much higher than in more prosperous districts.

Just ride the New York subway and study ridership data to understand social realities in New York. Overall, New York is an extremely wealthy city. It generates phenomenal wealth. Rents in Manhattan are dizzyingly high. Yet just a few yards from luxury condos stand destitute housing projects teeming with unemployed, desperate people. You do not even have to go above ground to know that there are haves and have-nots in New York. Just ride a subway line and note the crumbling stations where no one seems to be waiting for a train. Then look at the ridership report and put the pieces together for yourself.

We hear that the gap between rich and poor is growing in this country. In New York, it has been obvious for a very long time. I saw it the moment I started riding trains around town. And it's only getting worse.

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