Archive for Subway History

In 2014, this brightly lit G train covered in fake graffiti is what passes for a view of 1980s New York. (Photo via Shavon Meyers/Facebook)

For those New Yorkers of a certain age and certain background, the concept of an “authentic” city experience always seems just out of reach. We live in the era of super-tall buildings with $50 million apartments, brownstones in Bed Stuy that trade for $2 million, and a designer clothing store inhabiting the former home of the Ramones, Talking Heads and Misfits. Immigrants dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters are a far cry from Times Square’s halcyon days of strippers and drug addicts, and the East Village embodied by Jonathan Larson’s Rent is a distant memory. The Bronx is booming, not burning.

For long-time New Yorkers, the city has lost some of the je ne sais quoi that made it special. Sure, it’s safe, and anyone who bought an apartment 30 or 40 years ago is sitting on a valuable investment indeed, but the grittiness of Old New York is no longer with us. It’s too safe; it’s too sterile; it’s too much of a playground for the rich. The cleanup efforts that started under Rudy Giuliani culminated in a 12-year Bloomberg mayoralty, and today, New York is a big booming city that’s pushing gentrification into areas that, 10 of 15 years ago, seemed impregnable and immune to the coffee shop-and-kale expansion.

Nothing quite encapsulates New York’s rebound from the depths of Drop Dead 1970s quite like the subway. Today, nearly 6 million people per day ride the subways, but in the nadir of the 1980s, Crime — not of the “Showtime!” variety — breakdowns, track fires and derailments were the norm. The Bernhard Goetz shooting came to symbolize an era of unrest when subway ridership was sparse, and on one would ride late night through certain neighborhoods. Ridership in 1982 was 938 million; ridership in 2013 was 1.708 billion. We ride at 2 a.m. without thinking; thirty years ago, this was unimaginable.

For younger New Yorkers, for transplants, for children of the late 1980s who came to New York for that authentic experience, it’s gone. The L train has new rolling stock and is packed to the gills 24/7. The J and Z trains ride through some gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods, and a trip through East New York is simply a means to get to JFK or the beaches in the Rockaways. This is the New York of the 2010s; this is not New York of the movies. Kurt Russell escaped, and the city hasn’t been the same.

Still, that desire for authenticity persists which leads me to Shaina Stigler, a 25-year-old performer who, according to reports, moved to New York in 2007 and this past weekend tried to recreate an era for which she wasn’t alive. When the Daily News first reported on the 1980s recreation set for a G train on Friday, I was inherently skeptical. While I’m no fan of the bank-ification of Manhattan real estate, development and growth should be encouraged, and for many reasons, I find fetishizing nostalgia highly problematic. It focuses on the image of grittiness without exploring what were deep-rooted crises and social ills plaguing the city.

Stigler’s piece though was ostensibly art and a means for self-expression. In one sense, that drive to create and perform has been a part of New York through good times and bad and will always be an undercurrent in the life of the city. And yet, in reading, Sarah Goodyear’s wrap up of the subway takeover, I had the distinct sense that this was the 1980s through the lens of the privileged class of 2014 New Yorkers. Stigler claimed she wanted to recreat what Goodyear termed the “grimy, traumatic, and glorious ’80s,” but from the photos, this was heavy on the glorious, low on the grimy and traumatic.

To recreate the scene, Stigler decked out a car in plastic wrap and had a graffiti artist create the illusion of a tagged car. They even enjoyed the company of old Guardian Angels, though none of them faked any crimes on Friday. It seems and sounds surreal. “My generation romanticizes that time,” Stigler said to Goodyear. “I think as artists in particular, we are definitely feeling a lack of authenticity in the city. As it gets cleaned up and made more beautiful, it’s lost a lot of what made it great to begin with. Back then it was more of a life or death thing. It was, How much are you willing to risk to be an artist or whatever you want to be? Through that adversity and through that struggle, amazing, beautiful things can happen.”

The 1980s in New York were not a rough time for everyone, but the adversity that Stigler mentions today involves waiting a few extra minutes for a G train that, thirty years ago, the crowd celebrating on Friday would never have ridden. The adversity of the 1980s included a crack epidemic and the AIDS crisis. It featured parents so overly concerned for their kids’ safety that some of my friends — native New Yorkers at that — took their first ever subway rides when we went to Yankee Stadium to celebrate my 10th birthday. This ain’t no party, David Byrne once sung, and it wasn’t.

But we can remember through nostalgia too and hold onto parts of forgotten New York that made people want to come to the city in the first place. If we forget, do we lose that part as well? Dwelling on the negative without celebrating the positive will make us forget why we’re here and why so many people wanted to be here. Authenticity is ultimately what each person makes of it, and it’s a balancing act. Maybe there is no authentic New York and maybe there never was. Maybe authentic New York is what each person makes of it every day.

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Remembering the token

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It’s hard to believe, on one side of the coin or the other, that the MetroCard as we know it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. While the pilot launched in 1993, the first stations equipped with fare card readers opened in early 1994. Three years later, every subway station and bus were equipped with MetroCard readers, and four years later, Straphangers could take advantage of the promise of an unlimited fare card, thus ushering in a new era in booming transit ridership.

These days, we’re waiting impatiently for the end of the MetroCard era. It was not exactly a new technology when it was introduced, and the MTA has since been lapped by nearly all of its competitors when it comes to some form of contact-less fare payment. Since 2006, the agency has spun its wheels with a variety of pilot programs but has now committed to finding a replacement by 2019. We still don’t quite know what form that next-gen fare payment technology will take, and hopefully, we’ll know more after my Problem Solvers session on that topic next Wednesday. (RSPV now. Seats are going fast.)

I’ll spend some time looking forward next week. Tonight, I wanted to look back. For fifty years, the token reigned supreme, but these days it is only a memory. Many New Yorkers — those who moved to the city over the past 10 years — now the token only in the abstract. It was a thing some may remember as tourists as the keys to the subway while others hear of it only in city lore.

For me, tokens were a part of my youth. I could flash my transit pass to the token booth clerk to gain entrance to the subway, but my parents weren’t so lucky. They kept piles of ten-packs of tokens in a shoe box in our linen closet, stockpiling them right before fare hikes. Tokens required planning and attention to the number of rides one might make during a day, and their brothers in arms — the flimsy paper transit for the bus system — always come with a pesky time limit.

For all their symbolism, by the time of its death, the token was around for only half of the subway system’s life. For fifty years, so long as the fare remained the same as a Treasury Department coin, the city’s transit agencies could collect nickels and then dimes, but as soon as the fare went up to 15 cents, collecting coins become impractical. The first hints of a New York City subway token came in the early 1940s when the IRT purchased a bunch of tokens in the late 1920s in anticipation of a fare hike that never came. The company eventually ditched those plans, and the token would not emerge as a potential discussion piece until 1947.

By then, the city knew it had a financial problem on its hands. The subways were bleeding money, and the various agencies discussed a token in conjunction with a fare hike. The transit deficit at the time was $84 million — or over $850 million in today’s money — and the proposals on the table ranged from 7-10 cents. Anything requiring multiple coins would have led the debut of a token.

The Board of Transportation was not easily swayed. In an extensive July 1947 article discussing the looming transit referendum, The Times mentioned that BOT objected to tokens on that grounds that they can be “easy to counterfeit and bulky to handle.” In fact, the BOT was so concerned with slugs that many related to transit services planned to lobby the feds for an eight-cent coin in advance of the potential fare hike.

When the fare hike became a reality in 1953, the New York City Transit Authority had to turn to tokens because some turnstiles were not equipped to handle multiple coins. Nearly immediately, the TA had to deal with the issue of slugs, fake tokens that would be a thorn in the agency’s side for fifty years. Furthermore, token clerks had to deal with surly, incommunicative customers and were instructed to avoid becoming “impatient, discourteous or abusive to the passenger.” By late 1953, one Times even urged the TA to sell tokens in bulk as little packages could make great birthday presents or stocking stuffers at Christmas.

Ultimately, the token settled in for 50 years of use, abuse and redesigns. Its departure earned an obit, and New Yorkers’ pockets were lighter for it. Now we carry around a flimsy piece of plastic that one day too will become part of New York City subway history. The MetroCard may live a lifespan half that of the token, but it won’t make it to the venerable old age of 50. Few symbols in New York City do.

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9780823253692 The Routes Not Taken, Joseph Raskin’s thoroughly detailed an illuminating look at the various unbuilt subway routes that litter New York City history, begins with a simple premise: It is amazing that our subway system, in its present form, flaws and all, exists in the first place. We spend a lot of time imagining fantasy maps, pouring over details from lost and forgotten extensions and trying to catch a glimpse of the past’s future provisions. We never think about how we got to where we are today.

After Raskin’s first chapter though, reality sets in. While the subway system somehow encompasses 468 stations and 722 track miles, the more tantalizing elements are those lines and extensions that never saw the light of day. The D train, for instance, ends at a stub tunnel at 205th St. that was supposed to be the Burke Ave. subway. Meanwhile, in Queens, the mystery of 76th St. runs deep on the Internet, and plans to send trains to College Point or even the Nassau County line remain a relic of the past.

I’d urge any student of New York City history to read Raskin’s book. At times, it gets lost in the details as the author charts yet another community group meeting or business association that fights for a subway line. But those details are what makes this book so vital. New Yorkers fought for subway lines everywhere. They fought for subway lines down Utica and Nostrand Avenues; they fought for subway lines up and down the East Side. Raskin tracks each and every one of these fights, meetings, politicians’ positions and the myriad plans released by the Board of Transportation, the Board of Estimate and everyone else with a stake in the fight.

What’s most telling to me about Raskin’s book are how so many of the themes resonant today. The biggest recurring problem is, of course, NIMBYism. We know and hate NIMBYism today, and the last 100 years of New York City history were no different. NIMBYs fought long and hard against elevated lines that, even 80 years ago, were a much cheaper way to extend the subway system. NIMBYs are why the East Side has been a near-transit desert since the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els were torn down.

But then some NIMBYs fought against underground lines too. Some groups wanted stations and routing shifted one or two avenues north, south, east or west. Others feared a few years of construction would disrupt street-level business. It was the ultimate in short-sightedness as today, and for decades, neighborhoods with subway lines are far better off than neighborhoods that successfully fought against them.

Beyond the NIMBYs though were the deep-seated institutional problems that affected transit expansion. I found Raskin giving Robert Moses to many excuses toward the end of the book, but the man both threw up barriers to transit and took money away from it. He knew how to get his projects funded while both the BOE and BOT couldn’t deliver money for that Burke Ave. subway in the Bronx. Meanwhile, whenever a new subway extension would inch closer to reality, an interborough warfare would break out. The Queens Borough President would bemoan expenditures in the Bronx while the Staten Island delegation wanted its cross-Narrows subway before a Utica Ave. line would see the light of day. Ultimately, this fighting is why it took years for the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway to become the 5 train’s Dyre Ave. line and why only a segment of the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch is part of the subway.

Finally, Raskin analyzes the financial realities that plagued the city as well. He dives into the controversy surrounding the 1951 bond issue. Hundreds of millions of dollars that were supposed fund a Second Ave. Subway went instead of modernizing an aging system. But the real problem was the fare. Since subway fares were so politicized, no one could stomach the blowback of raising the fares. By the time the city discarded the nickel, the subways were operating at a crushing loss, and the hope of using proceeds to fund any subsequent system extension were dashed. We dreamed big but never with any money behind it.

So we return to the idea of our system today. It’s a marvel that it exists as it does and works as it does. But we need to move forward. If New York is going to grow, the subway must grow with it, and we know, from Raskin’s work, that the plans are out there if we dare to dream big enough.

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A few years ago, local blogger NY by dZine suggested sending the N to Laguardia via an elevated structure over the Grand Central Parkway. (Source)

With the news that the Port Authority will spend at least $1.5 billion to send PATH trains to Newark Airport, the most rail-accessible airport in New York, I started thinking about Laguardia again. It is frustrating close and seemingly so far away. For anyone taking transit to the airport, the trip involves a circuitous subway-and-bus combination, and it’s been over a decade since anyone has mentioned a direct rail connection, monorail or subway, to the terminal geographically closest to Manhattan. They why of it involves a typical tale of New York NIMBYs and frustrating political processes.

The Fiorello H. LaGuardia Airport in Queens is one of the nation’s most infuriating urban airports. In Queens, it’s tantalizingly close to the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn — and of course, the subway — but it’s so far away because traffic congestion frequently creates trips to Queens that last an hour and 30 minutes from Midtown’s West Side. The only public transit options that delivery riders directly to the terminals are a handful of local buses and a a new Q70 limited bus. On a good day, for example, the M60 — recently denied Select Bus Service status — goes from 125th St. and Lexington to the airport in a half an hour.

Over the last few decades, city officials have become quite intimate with the problems plaguing LaGuardia, and many have tried to fix it. The N train, whose northern terminus is less than three miles away from the LaGuardia terminals, is so tantalizing close to the airport and yet so far away. With the PATH extension back in the news, many are asking why we haven’t focused more on improving access to Laguardia. It isn’t for lack of trying as 16 years ago, city and MTA officials were heavily invested in a plan to extend the N to LaGuardia. In the face of other pressing transit needs, such as the Second Ave. Subway, and widespread community opposition, the agency eventually shelved this much needed link to LaGuardia.

So what then were the plans that engendered widespread community outrage and still cause politicians to chime in now and then, over a decade after the MTA discarded the idea? Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and explore some Giuliani Era transit developments.

The plans to extend the N to LaGuardia first came to light in 1998 as city officials recognized the need to build better access to the airports. As part of a $1.2 billion package with funding coming from the MTA, the Port Authority and the city, Giuiliani put forward a plan to build an airtrain to JFK and extend the subway to LaGuardia. The JFK line — built over preexisting rights-of-way — survived. The LaGuardia plans, obviously, did not.

The first and biggest problem the city faced in Queens came about because of the proposed routes. The preferred routing would have extended the N along 31st St. north onto Con Edison’s property at the edge of Astoria and then east along 19th Ave. to the Marine Air Terminal. The MTA also considered an eastward extension along Ditmars Boulevard. This involved a plan to reroute LaGuardia-bound N trains from Queensboro Plaza through the Sunnyside rail yard and along the eastern edge of St. Michael’s Cemetery to what Newsday described as “elevated tracks parallel to the Grand Central Parkway.” A barely-acknowledged fourth route would have seen trains head east via Astoria Boulevard.

On the surface, these plans seem no worse than building the Second Ave. Subway through densely populated neighborhoods on the East Side. In Queens, however, the MTA would have had to build a spur line off a pre-existing elevated structure, and all of the plans called for the train to LaGuardia to run above ground through significant portions of Astoria. So while airport access ranked tops amongst Queens residents transit expansion wishlist, no one wanted to see Astoria further scarred by elevated structures. Chalk this up to a remnant of the 1920s and 1930s when New Yorkers objected en masse to elevated rail lines.

At the time, the Daily News termed the opposition response NAMBYism — Not Above My Backyard — and nearly every single Queens politician opposed the idea. Some preferred the Sunnyside alternative, but at the time, NYCDOT said plans to widen the Grand Central Parkway would interfere with the train proposal. Others called for an extension from Long Island City to skirt the borough. Such a route would run from 21st St. along the East River to the airport. Still others preferred a longer Willets Point extension of the LIRR to the airport.

Peter Vallone exemplified the opposition. “Extending the elevated track will cause unnecessary hardship to residents and businesses in the area,” the City Council member said in 1999. “The MTA wants to go their way, not our way.” It was, you see, a play on that old MTA slogan, “Going Your Way.”

In the end, despite opposition, political support for the plan from City Hall continued well into the 21st Century. With the backing of Mayor Giuliani and Queens Borough President Clare Shulman, the MTA’s 2000-2004 Five-Year Capital Plan included $645 million for the LaGuardia subway link, and even though a $17 million planning study was the project’s only expense, in late 2002, Mayor Bloomberg threw his weight behind the LaGuardia extension as a key post-9/11 revitalization plan.

Finally, in mid-2003, the Queens communities won the battle as the MTA announced plans to shelve the airport extension. With money tight after 9/11 and Lower Manhattan on the radar, then-MTA Chair Peter Kalikow said that the agency’s attention had turned to the JFK Raillink from Lower Manhattan, another plan that never materialized, and that the agency was prioritizing the 7 Line Extension, the East Side Access Plan and the Second Ave. Subway over the LaGuardia N train extension. “LaGuardia is a good project, but you have to prioritize,” Elliot Sander, then at NYU, said. “In terms of political support from City Hall, Albany and Washington, it’s moved back in the queue.”

In Queens, local politicians voiced support for different plans. George Onorato had previously supported some spurt from the 7 line in Willets Point that avoided residential areas. Of course, in the intervening decade, the Mets placed a new baseball stadium in the way, and the city’s plans to develop Willets Point don’t include a rail extension to Laguardia. Never mind the fact that going to Laguardia via Willets Point is a time-consuming and circuitous routing that wouldn’t attract many passengers.

And so in the end, we sit here with largely the same travel options to LaGuardia as we’ve always enjoyed (or suffered through). The Port Authority is set to spend $1.5 billion on a duplicative rail extension to an airport already served by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, and the MTA is in no position to take another crack at sending the subway to the airport. Oh, what could have — and should have — been.

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In a rather absurd ranking of the New York City subway lines on Buzzfeed last week, the Z train didn’t score too well. It landed at 17 on the list, and the author was skeptical of its existence. Considering how little time the train spends in Manhattan and the path it takes as it winds through Brooklyn and Queens, many lifelong New Yorkers rarely find themselves riding the Z or even its more frequent brother the J. It’s such an odd little quirk of the subway system.

My first trip on the BMT Nassau St. line came years, and perhaps even decades, after my first subway ride as a baby. While growing up in New York through the 1980s and 1990s, not only were there few reasons to take the J, Z or M trains over the Williamsburg Bridge, but it also simply wasn’t a safe line. It went through bad neighborhoods and didn’t go anywhere a kid from the Upper West Side needed to go. When we would take family trips to the dearly departed Ratner’s, we switch at 14th St. to the F, and upon exiting at Delancey St., I’d catch staircases leading up to the mysterious J train. What was it? Where did it go?

I had no idea then of the train’s odd history and the way it mirrors the ups and downs of the city’s subway system. It began as a noble plan to link up various neighborhoods in Brooklyn via a series of loops through Lower Manhattan and has stumbled to its current iteration with a series of decrepit and little-used Manhattan stations, the oldest section of elevated track in the system and the sorry stations underneath Archer Ave. that aren’t nearly as old as they look. In between, it cuts through neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying that look nothing as they did 15 or 20 years ago.

When work began and planning started for the section of subway that became the BMT Nassau St. line, transit developers wanted to, for reasons not immediately obvious to us in 2014, create a series of Brooklyn loops, and those loops not only arrived but survived well into the second half of the 20th century. Before the tracks from Chambers St. to Canal St. were disconnected to the Manhattan Bridge, the line we know as the J train could have run through the Montague St. tunnel from 4th Ave. in Brooklyn, under City Hall and over the Manhattan Bridge and back to the 4th Ave. line. It also could have continued north over the Williamsburg Bridge and out to Queens. It skirted the edges of Manhattan, running close to more reliable and more useful subway lines.

After some time, these loops became less useful. After all, the service was highly redundant; no one needed to go from Court St. to De Kalb Ave. via Lower Manhattan and the Manhattan Bridge, and the BMT found that direct service over the Williamsburg Bridge was far more in demand. Snip went the loops, and gone, these days, is the service via the Montague St. tunnel, a victim of the 2010 service cuts.

Today, the Manhattan stations along the Nassau St. line are in serious need of something. The Canal, Fulton and Broad St. stations are relatively fine. At Canal, at least, vestiges of the loops can be seen fleetingly from the platform as the decommissioned eastern set of tracks is visible. Chambers St. is an absolute ruin (but still with a provision for service over the Brooklyn Bridge), and the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s least used and most oft-forgotten stations, well, this photo of the area still in revenue service speaks for itself. Maybe one day, these stations will get their just dues.

To me, there’s something almost romantically nostalgic about the BMT Nassau St. line in all of its various iterations and conditions. It’s from a time when subway lines got built and when builders left in provisions for other connections to bigger systems and potential expansions. Maybe the BMT Nassau St. didn’t quite work; the best part of it today is a connection, established long after the fact in 1968, for the M up to Sixth Ave. But for many workers in Lower Manhattan, it’s opened up large areas in Brooklyn and Queens for an easy commute downtown. Its looks are deceiving; its ridership low; but it’s not the worst of anything. Somehow, it’s there, and that’s something we can’t take for granted.

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[Canal Street station.]

I recently found myself exploring the voluminous image archives the Museum of the City of New York has made publicly available via their Collections website, and wow, is that a great way to get lost on the Internet for good chunk of time. They have, unsurprisingly, a good number of images showing subway construction and subway history, and I’m going to showcase some of my favorites in the coming weeks.

The week’s entry is a glimpse inside the Canal St. station from around 1980. I love the old signage with the QB and RR trains, the Jennifer Convertibles add and the general sense of decay that pervades the station. A similar photo from this set shows signage from the time when both of the BMT Nassau St. platforms were in service. The western most set of tracks is now no longer in use but remains visible from today’s J/M/Z platform. The garbage can in front of the sign in that one is a nice touch.

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Those crazy elevateds interfered with the automobile's progress. (Via CHPC)

Those crazy elevateds interfered with the automobile’s progress. (Via CHPC)

Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller shared this gem with the world via his Twitter account yesterday, and what you are seeing is a page from a 1937 children’s book that Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on City Planning to introduce young New Yorkers to the concepts of urban life. It’s a great glimpse back in time, but so many of the issues — crosswalk safety, adequate airport space, zoning concerns — persist today, over 75 years after the book made its first appearance.

My favorite page, of course, is the one about the Elevateds because it underscores how we’ve gotten to where we are today. The New York of the late 1930s had more transit routes than the New York of the early 2010s because of the elevated, but with those structures came noise, darkness on the ground and, of course, inconvenience for drivers. Even in 1937, as the illustration showed, cars deserved the space more than trains do.

Today, we’re afraid of elevated. The planned train connection to La Guardia Airport died at the hands of NIMBYs who couldn’t stomach the idea of an elevated extension through Astoria even though technology, such as sound dampeners, and design have improved immensely since the BMT built the Astoria line. Now, we know why as an entire generation of future city planners were raised on a book that underscores the evils, but not the benefits, of elevated train lines.

Postscript: I had apparently overlooked this, but the Tri-State Transportation Campaign beat us all to the punch. TSTC’s Joseph Cutrufo took a deeper dive into the book in a post last week and also noted things haven’t changed. He profiled the pages for bridges, omnibuses (the “most modern way”), roads and crossings.

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Too much basketball; too little time for a full post. So instead, I’ll bring a summer tradition back to Second Ave. Sagas. I run this piece each year as the temperatures soar, and although spring has been relatively cool, it’s getting hotter and stickier out. The heat is at its worst in the subways as we wait on sweltering platforms for trains to arrive. By and large, though, subway cars offer a cool reprieve the sweat-inducing stations. While newer rolling stock models have some AC quirks — it’s generally much cooler in the middle of the cars than it is at the ends underneath the air conditioner units — outside of the rare AC malfunction, the trains are kept temperate.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the subways, ceiling fans shuffling around stifling air were the norms. While platforms weren’t as heated by AC exhaust as they are today, traveling underground in the summer was never a pleasant experience. Today, as the temperatures climb toward July and August, the air conditioned train car is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

The R-17, shown here in operation as the Shuttle in 1982, was the first subway car outfitted with air condition. (Photo via Steve Zabel at

I’m a summer guy through and through though with sun light lasting well into the evening and the green grass of a baseball field always a welcome sight. Yet, the subways during the summer are utterly unbearable. When a train pulls up to an underground station in the summer, passengers rush in as much to board their train as to find some solace amidst the cool air of a subway car. With new rolling stock spread throughout the city, temperatures inside are far more tolerable than those outside.

The worst part of riding around New York City in the summer are the underground waits. With train cars spewing heat from industrial-strength air conditioners, the stations themselves see temperatures soar beyond tolerable levels. The stagnant air induces sweat at hours of the morning far too early for that kind of heat, and only the blessed air conditioning of the train cars makes a commute tolerable.

These days, we take our air conditioned subway cars for granted, but it wasn’t always like that. The MTA undertook its current air conditioning efforts in 1967, and the thought of a summer ride without AC lives on only in the memories of long-time New Yorkers. So as we sit on the cusp of summer and Transit turns on the AC, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine to a time when the New York City Transit Authority just couldn’t quite get air conditioning right.

Our journey begins in September of 1955, an odd time to test air conditioning as the heat is already dissipating by then. On a day that saw the outside temperature hit just 62 degrees, NYCTA ran a successful test of its first air conditioned subway car, an retrofitted R-15 car. As station temperatures hit 81 degrees and the mercury outside climbed to 87.5 in un-air conditioned cars, the test car saw temperatures fluctuate between 68 and 73 degrees. The authority proclaimed this one-day test a success, and plans to outfit the entire subway fleet at a cost of $700 per car were drawn up.

This optimism was short-lived. A year later, the NYCTA unveiled another test run of the air conditioned cars. Six R-17 cars equipped with loud speakers, air conditioned and in-route music provided, of course, by Muzak, made headlines as Transit officials again extolled the virtues of air conditioning. At the time, Transit planned to test these cars along various IRT routes but ran into early troubles.

The authority tried to test it on the Shuttle route, but the short trip did not provide for ample testing time. “The run between Times Square and Grand Central takes one minute,” wrote The Times, “apparently too brief a time to cool the hot subway air taken in during the stops of one and one-half to two minutes at the shuttle terminals.” Passengers complained as well of stale air and high humidity.

By 1962, the promise of air conditioning had failed to materialize, and the NYCTA declared the $300,000 experiment a failure. Even after the successful test runs, Transit found humidity levels well beyond acceptable. “As humidity built up and breathing became difficult,” The Times said in 1962, “passengers fled to the fan-ventilated cars…To add to passenger discomfort the cool air was dissipated when doors opened at stations, while the humidity remained unchanged.” While PATH announced air conditioning, NYCTA was left searching for solutions.

Five years later, the city struck air conditioning gold. After tinkering with the technology, Transit found a costly solution, and early test runs were again successful. This time, the humidity levels were kept in check, and railfans began to stalk the air conditioned cars, riding them along the F line from terminal to terminal to bask in the cool air. With a grant from the government and $15 million from the city, Transit finally promised to outfit its rolling stock with AC.

Even still, the going went slowly. By August of 1970, finding an air conditioned car was likened to finding a needle in a hay stack, and a 1973 proposal called for full air condition only by 1980. Throughout the 1980s, those struggles continued. At various points in the decade, air conditioning either didn’t work or was on the verge of breaking down. In 1983, while Transit officials alleged that 50 percent of cars were air conditioned, one rider found himself with AC during only 20 percent of his trips.

Today, with new rolling stock and a better maintenance program in place, the subways are blissfully air conditioned, a haven from the heat outside and in the station. I’m too young to remember those days of un-air conditioned trains, but I have vague recollections from the mid-to-late 1980s of stiflingly hot rides in graffiti-covered cars. Even if the new rolling stock can seem somewhat sterile at times, I’ll take that air conditioning as the mercury rises and summer settles in to stay for the next few months.

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A Q train, tagged. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

While waiting for a Manhattan-bound Q train this Saturday, a rare sight crossed the tracks on the opposite side. The Coney Island-bound train that pulled into 7th Ave. had been tagged. Twenty five years ago, a train with some graffiti on it wouldn’t have been newsworthy, but since a late 1980s/early 1990s effort to clean up the subway, trains on the tracks with tags are a rare sight indeed.

As I pondered this train that passed through, I thought back to the trains of my childhood. While the worst of the tagging and the days in which the authorities seemed to cede the subways to graffiti came before my earliest memories, I remember the colorful trains that served as canvases for prominent street artists and troublemaking hooligans alike. As a young child, I was captivated by the colors, but even then, I sensed it was part of the image of the subways that made them seem dangerous.

The war on graffiti though started when I was approaching my second birthday. The tipping point seemed to come on December 22, 1984 when Bernard Goetz shot a group of teenagers on the subway. Transit authority officials, who had long recognized the need to improve the public perception of the subways, had recently launched an aggressive campaign to clean up the subways, but the Goetz shooting, for better or worse, seemed to spur the city into action. At the time of the incident, approximately 80 percent of subway cars featured some graffiti inside the cars, and the outsides were still widely used as blank slates for the city’s spray painters.

Three years later, the tide had seemingly turned. A Straphangers report issued in 1987 found the TA inching toward a fleet with 75 percent of cars free of markings. The original car wash efforts were plagued with scandal, but by May of 1988, the MTA could proclaim a year-end target for a graffiti-free system.

A memento I picked up at a street fair in the late 1980s is a relic of another era. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

By the middle of 1989, the MTA commemorated a graffiti-free system, and since then, graffiti has been more of a curiosity than a problem. Throughout the 1990s, The Times, for one, continued to proclaim the return of graffiti (1991, 1996, 1999), but the transit authority remained aggressive in combatting the problem. Whenever a car was reported bombed or tagged, the TA would take it over service for a rigorous cleaning, and the graffiti would infrequently roll down the tracks.

By the mid-2000s, a new form of vandalism had taken root: scratchiti. Instead of spray paint, taggers were using etching tools and acid to mar windows and stainless steel surfaces. Since then, though, treatment — including scratch-resistant window shields — has minimized the problem. Nowadays, the cars are free from graffiti, and we remember a different era through full-color photos and coffee table books.

Graffiti and its glory days still strikes our imagination though. A post I wrote in 2009 discussion the debate over graffiti’s value as art vs. the act vandalism remains one of the highest-trafficked posts on the site, and a significant portion of the commentary on the history of graffiti has taken pains to make a distinction between the art of the late 1970s and the tagging for tagging’s sake that grew in popularity in the early 1980s. It’s also been a tough balancing act, but city officials have rightly refused to sanction graffiti in any form now or over the past three or four decades. Today, graffiti on subway cars and sanitation trucks is more a sign of a bygone era than anything else, and spying a tagged car on the tracks is nearly newsworthy in a way a clean car was twenty-five years ago.

Categories : Subway History
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Video: Dirty Old New York Subway

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Via Ned Merrill’s Obscure One-Sheet comes a 15-minute video of old movie clips from the subway that’s sure to captivate fans of New York City history and, of course, the subway system. Make a game of it and see how many movies (or subway stations) you can name as the images flicker by.

Categories : Subway History
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