Interview with Susie Tanenbaum, Subway Musicians’ AdvocateBy
Arguably the definitive book on musical performance in the spaces of public transportation, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York, by Susie Tanenbaum, presents an insightful and fascinating portrayal of the culture of music that has existed for decades in the stations of New York’s subway, adroitly drawing research techniques from urban anthropology, sociology, social history, cultural studies, constitutional law, political theory, urban planning, folklore, and urban ecology. Earlier this week I met with Ms. Tanenbaum in her office at Queens Borough Hall and had the opportunity to ask her about Underground Harmonies and the work she has been doing on behalf of local musicians and artists since the book’s completion.
It’s been nearly 15 years since Underground Harmonies was published. Are you happy with the book’s reception?
At the risk of sounding cliché, writing Underground Harmonies was an absolute labor of love. It meant a lot to me to be able to write about subway music as this incredibly special public space phenomenon, one that makes a difference to countless people as they go through their daily urban routine, one that legitimates the subways as a cultural venue, one that places value on subjective experience, and one that encourages people – complete strangers – to communicate across ethnic/racial boundaries without the need for advertising or other corporate packaging. It’s gratifying to know that UH was the first book written about NYC subway music; 15 years later, I’m thrilled to get contacted from time to time by researchers (like you) and documentarians.
Do you think it had an effect on conversations about public transportation and the arts?
I’m not sure I can gauge UH’s impact on conversations about public transportation and the arts. In January, I was invited to speak at a national transportation conference, and I was told that this was the first time the association (with membership in the tens of thousands) had organized a panel on arts in transit. Maybe work like mine, and yours, will become more relevant as transit experts and mavens pay more & more attention to aesthetics. The Know Your Rights Guide that I wrote after the book, in collaboration with City Lore: The Center for Urban Folk Culture, which is now on City Lore’s web site, may have had a greater impact on conversations between subway performers and police.
Have you noticed any changes in the situation of live musical performance in the New York subways in the past fifteen years?
The truth is, I don’t spend as much time in the subways as I did in the 1990s. But my own impression, and that of some of my friends, is that there isn’t as much live music in the subways as there used to be. If not, why not? Maybe it’s because subway music is no longer a novelty, and musicians have moved on to other venues and callings. Or maybe it’s because many transit police officers are still under the impression that the MTA’s Music Under NY members are the only ones who have a legal right to perform underground, so they (the transit police) shut down the freelancers. In reality, all performers, whether freelance or MUNY, have a constitutional right to perform in subway stations. Steve Zeitlin from City Lore has been getting a lot of emails lately from freelance musicians who say that the transit police have told them they’re not allowed to perform on subway platforms. Unless the MTA/NYCT rules were amended recently, this is untrue.
It’s strange…. Rudy Giuliani was a bully, obsessed with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s “broken windows theory” and determined to render our public spaces orderly by clearing out any meaningful human activity. But Mike Bloomberg is quite different. He really values public art, and in the summers he organizes these vehicle-free Saturdays to encourage people to come out and engage in all kinds of spontaneous play. Is this a situation where the sentiments of the folks in charge haven’t trickled down to what’s happening on the ground in the subways? Is it a situation where the priorities of the NYCT (getting people from point A to point B) conflict with the priorities of the Mayor & the MTA (making public spaces hospitable)? Or is it a situation where spontaneous play only matters when the city schedules a day for it – in other words, does the city still either not trust or not care very much about spontaneous, freelance street and subway performances?
How did you initially get interested in musical performance and doing an ethnographic study of people in the subway?
I enrolled in the Urban Studies Master’s program at Queens College-CUNY in the late 1980s, mainly to study with Dr. Roger Sanjek, an urban anthropologist who was doing fieldwork at the time in Elmhurst and Corona, Queens, the epicenter of the new immigration to New York at the time. Roger and his team were documenting the relationships between long-time residents and recent immigrants, and I deeply appreciated his approach to understanding the multiple layers of race relations in our borough and city. I arranged to do an independent study with Roger and, for reasons that remain unconscious to me, I wanted to explore how traditional music helped new immigrants to settle into their new society. After a few attempts at visiting particular communities in this part of Queens, Roger asked me why I don’t write instead about the guys I’d become friends with who were playing music in the subways. I’d been getting to know the members of Antara, one of the first Andean bands underground. I took Roger’s advice, and with guidance from another professor, Candance Kim Edel, I continued my fieldwork for the next four years. It became my Master’s thesis, then Roger helped me to get my work published by Cornell University Press. I’m still good friends with some of the original members of Antara.
If you were to republish the book today, what changes would you make?
Truthfully, I don’t think I could write the same book today. For one thing, transit police officers and NYCT employees probably wouldn’t grant me interviews as they did back then. Whether it’s post-911 security or a general trend toward bureaucratizing & controlling information, it seems our government agencies prefer not to have researchers document the subjective experiences of their employees. I really hope I’m wrong about this. In any event, if I were to write the book today, I would certainly include copies of the questionnaires that I used (the New York Times criticized me for leaving them out!). I’d love to know if people have suggestions on what else to include in a book like this!
What other projects have you been working on since you wrote the book?
In the 1990s I worked as Program Director and later Associate Director of the Jackson Heights Community Development Corporation. Among other things, I started LACE, the Local Arts Collaborative & Exchange, a network of 60 – 100 visual, literary and performing artists. Together we organized exhibits, concerts, readings & Open Mics throughout western Queens. Several of the members & my co-organizers were subway musicians. Currently I work for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, and two of my areas of responsibility are immigrant and inter-cultural affairs. I plan cultural heritage events with various religious and ethnic communities in the borough, and I organize cross-cultural dialogues, which still often incorporate music. I really enjoy bringing people together across cultural lines and creating spaces in which they build relationships; to me, this is a quiet but meaningful form of political empowerment, one that I actually get to do out of a political office (because I have a wonderful boss who is an integrationist and a veteran of the civil rights movement)! On the side, Steve Zeitlin and I are in touch with subway musicians and we’re hoping to revive what we call our Street Performers Advocacy Project. I’ll keep you posted on that.