Of Many Things

A hundred years ago, on the afternoon of Thursday, October 27, 1904, New Yorkers walked into various entrance kiosks of the city’s new Interborough Rapid Transit Company, headed down a flight or two of stairs, and took their very first rides under the sidewalks of New York, the transportation historian Brian Cudahy tells us in the introduction to A Century of Subways (Fordham Univ. Press). Being a native New Yorker, and a subway commuter since age 13, qualifies me to confirm that this event set in motion a major transformation of this great city. The book is subtitled Celebrating 100 Years of New York’s Underground Railways. And a celebration it is.

The author also provides lengthy and detailed histories of the world’s first subways, notably those in London (1863) and Boston (1897)perhaps too much detail, albeit interesting. Cudahy’s book is full of fascinating and informative details of the evolution and expansion of New York City’s underground phenomenon, which today encompasses over 700 miles of track traversed by some 3.5 million people daily. There are many illustrations, both pencil etchings and black-and-white photos throughout the book, as well as extensive ancillary material (charts, appendices, etc.) that will probably appeal most to the armchair transportation buff. Still, it’s worth the ride.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently disclosed plans for a fully automated subway system. The first line will be computerized within three or four years. A motorman/conductor will remain on board, however, to communicate any problems to a remote computer station. But that will mean no live person calling out the stations (not to mention warnings about blocking the doorway). All change is difficult, but we are not the first to go in this direction.

In commemoration of the subway’s centennial, as might be expected, many other publishers are reissuing older titles and/or publishing new ones. Among the latter is Subwayland: Adventures in the World Beneath New York (St. Martin’s Press), by Randy Kennedy, who created and until recently wrote a terrific New York Times column called Tunnel Vision.

The book is published by arrangement with the New York City Transit Museum and focuses on the architectural and aesthetic aspects of this urban wonder. Like Cudahy’s book, it too spans the century in both visual and textual detail and probably has a wider reader appeal than the former. Of the merits of underground traveling Kennedy writes that for both residents and visitors, using the subway offers the gift of proximity, making New York more cohesive than a city its size ever had a right to be.

As the city rebounds after the disastrous events of Sept. 11, 2001, and tourism is once again burgeoning, many are heading for the subway - maps in hand, of course - and taking advantage of the one-day (all-you-can-ride) Metro card for $7. Still, there is a bit of a dark underside. Following upon the rail attacks in Madrid, and in light of continued credible intelligence regarding future hits here even worse than those of 9/11, and with the upcoming Republican National Convention...need I say more? While it can be comforting to see strong numbers of New York’s Finest patrolling subway platforms and the cars themselves, decked out with anti-bio/chemical terror gear, the solace is tinged with abiding fear and concern. I’ve noticed in recent times throughout the system signs posted that read: If you see something, say something. Except who can tell the difference between a discarded Dunkin’ Donuts bag and a possible hidden explosive?

For the city that never sleeps, the subway system is up and running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Many of those lucky to get a seat usually spend their ride in slumber. May we not doze too deeply, though, lest we miss our stopor, heaven forbid, worse.

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