Author Archive

It’s the end of the week and time to wrap up my guest stint here at Second Avenue Sagas. Thank you to Ben for the opportunity to share my work with other people who are interested in what I consider one of the greatest public transportation systems in the world.

I missed this story in the Daily News about the NYC Transit auditions for new station announcers. According to the article, potential ethereal voices are being culled from among subway conductors and motormen to cover fifteen posts throughout the system, and there is money in the budget for 14 additional posts down the road. A followup article reported that an unemployed chauffer, not even employed by NYC Transit, decided to audition as well.

In my interviews with passengers over the past several years, one of the foremost complaints that I have received about sound in the subway is the difficulty of understanding announcements in the trains and on platforms. Although the occasional tourist has a hard time understanding service changes because of the accent of the transmitted voice, most breakdowns in communication can be chalked up to technological malfunctions. Broken speakers, overpowering electronic buzzes, or crackling sounds due to a short in the wiring can all get in the way of clear communication if the public address system is not sufficiently maintained.

The introduction of automated, pre-recorded service advisories, voiced by Bloomberg Radio personalities, in the new R142 trains that have been running on IRT lines since 2000 are certainly an improvement. But even in those trains, sudden changes in schedules require the interjection of live announcements, often susceptible to the same issues mentioned above that other cars and station PA systems face. Although most planned service changes are announced with signs posted in stations, trains are regularly delayed or diverted from their normal routes for a variety of reasons, and in these instances the only way for passengers to know what is happening is to listen to the announcements. To make things worse, some stations – a whopping 35% of them as recently as 2005 – still don’t have PA systems installed.

I’d like to hear from you. Does your station have announcements? Do you have a hard time hearing them? Have you seen NYCTA workers walking through the trains taking decibel measurements of car speakers? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re really interested or opinionated about the issue, please take this survey on sound and the subway to contribute to my research. Thank you, New York!

Bill Bahng Boyer splits his time between Brooklyn and New Hampshire, where he is a visiting fellow at the Dartmouth College Leslie Center for the Humanities. He’s currently completing his dissertation, titled “Public Hearing: Sonic Encounters and Social Responsibility in the New York City Subway System,” for a Ph.D. from NYU. In his free time, Bill plays the sanshin in HappyFunSmile, a New York-based Okinawan and Japanese pop band.

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Susie Tanenbaum

Susie Tanenbaum

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.

A Viable Subway Alternative?

A Viable Subway Alternative?

Last week on the NBC Bay Area blog, on the heels of the resolution of a labor dispute between the BART administration and labor workers, Owen Thomas asked how San Francisco would be different today if the BART system were never constructed. Thomas’s speculation on an alternative reality for the Bay Area is replete with newer, faster forms of transportation that reach the most concentrated and important centers of the region. While the plausibility of the image that Thomas paints is debatable (and debated in the post’s comments), it leads one to wonder what a subway-less New York would look like.

Clearly, New York is in a very different situation from San Francisco, due to the fact that much of New York’s growth followed – and was a result of – the construction of new subway lines in the early twentieth century. Perhaps streetcars and elevated trains would have stretched the city limits to something resembling their current dimensions. Maybe in the absence of a subway system Robert Moses would have had a greater impact on the shaping of the city? In such a situation New York City proper might be smaller with more surrounding suburbs and highways crossing the island of Manhattan. Or was a New York subway inevitable, and would have been built in the 1960s following federal support for urban transportation, much in the same way the BART and D.C. Metro were constructed?

What do you think New York would be like today if the subway weren’t constructed in 1904? Share your imaginings in the comments below. [via The Overhead Wire]

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Bloomberg Seeks MTA Changes

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At an appearance before the press yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg announced 33 changes that he would like to see implemented by the MTA in upcoming months, a move that the New York Times is pegging as an “odd” first proposal in the Mayor’s campaign for re-election. The complete list of the mayor’s recommended improvements, which can be found on his campaign site, extend to railway, bus, and ferry services. Changes that affect subway service include the following:

  • the institution of an F line express train
  • the extension of V trains into Brooklyn
  • the expansion of the countdown clocks currently installed in on the L line to other stations
  • increased maintenance of subway stations
  • the creation of an integrated New York transit Smart Card
  • increased NYPD control of transit system security, with a reference to the installation of surveillance cameras in subway tunnels
  • partnership with area business owners, similar to the old Adopt-A-Station program, to improve cleanliness around subway entrances
  • the vague and questionable call for a “crack down on quality of life nuisances in subways and bus stations”

According to the AP, the MTA welcomed the mayor’s input, although the move is not without its critics. Although the mayor holds four of the seventeen votes on the MTA board, many wonder how much sway he can actually hold in the Authority’s operations. The New York Daily News points out that several of the mayor’s proposals “have been on the MTA’s drawing board for years.” Carly Lindauer, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg’s likely Democratic opponent, Controller William Thompson, called the announcement “more empty promises.” Thompson had already proposed one of the mayor’s ideas, namely the expanded use of CityTickets on the LIRR and Metro-North. TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, speaking with The Times, called the mayor’s press meeting more political grandstanding.

The mayor’s sudden interest in the operations of the MTA is a great change from just a few months ago, when elected officials and representatives of public interest groups repeatedly called the mayor to task for his near total silence during the MTA’s budget crisis.

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Subway Noise Revisited

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Hi everyone. While Ben is out of town on a well deserved break, Jeremy and I will do our best to keep the website in service over the next week. Let’s see if it’s still up and running when he returns.

Over the past year I’ve spent considerable time in the archives of the MTA Transit Museum poring over records, newspaper clippings, and correspondences between Transit Authority officials and members of the public. I’m doing this for the sake of reconstructing a historical soundscape of the subways, as part of my doctoral research at NYU. Over the months I’ve found quite a bit of information, although it’s not readily accessible due to the fact that “sound” isn’t something that the collection catalogs index. I tell you, there’s nothing more rewarding than going against the organizational grain in an archive and coming up with something that otherwise would be lost to time.

As was covered here earlier, a new report coming out of the University of Washington and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health later this month addresses the dangerously high noise levels present throughout the subway system. While the results of this survey will no doubt have an impact on the relationship between the MTA and the public in the next few years, it’s hardly the first time that the noisiness of the train has come under scrutiny. In fact, on October 29, 1904, the day after the subway opened, a J.R. Sedden wrote to the New York Times editor warning of “Auritis – A Subway Disease.” He predicted that it would become a fad among New York doctors over the next year. Although hearing loss has been a serious concern for passengers and transit workers ever since, the name never stuck. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing.

By the early 1970s, noise pollution had entered the public sphere as a serious issue. Around the same time that Mayor Lindsey was pushing for new noise-control codes to regulate the level of sound throughout New York, a series of reports on the noise levels of the subway were released, including one organized Columbia professor Cyril M. Harris and another from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the most interesting things that I found in my archival visits was the scant mention of an MTA public hearing held on December 11, 1974, concerning the noise levels of the subways. According to the MTA annual report from that year, the MTA board expected the public to be receptive to recently begun renovations of subway stations, including the installation of noise-canceling wall covers and other echo-deterring materials. Instead, the public overwhelmingly pressured the MTA that the more pressing issue was the elimination of wheel and brake noise. Apparently, the MTA took the public’s protests to heart and sunk several millions of dollars into maintenance efforts, including wheel-trueing and track welding, in order to reduce train noise.

Sadly, the MTA has no other record of this public hearing, so it’s hard to venture past speculation in recreating this little chunk of subway history. I’d love to read any press coverage or speak to someone who was in attendance. If you have any leads, please let me know!

Categories : MTA, Subway History
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