The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York
by Clifton Hood
A Political History of New York's Rapid Transit System
It has often been remarked that New York City politics is not quite like politics anywhere else.
That goes doubly for the politics behind New York City's vast transportation system. Yet if you want more than a light treatment of the personalities behind the building, equiping and management of that system, you're mostly on your own.
Clifton Hood has produced a political history of the subway which should be read by every student of New York history and every person who wants to understand better the workings of New York City politics today.
Hood's depiction of the growth of New York City transportation should alter the popular perception of rapid transit, particularly as it came to relate to modern New York City. In this age in which we talk of "greenfields" and "brownfields" and "suburban sprawl" we may be forgiven if we believe that the purpose of rapid transit was to concentrate the population along its routes, perhaps preserving the sylvan rural landscape elsewhere.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. The building of New York's subway and elevated system was to have been the ultimate step in dispersing New York's population.
Until the coming of the horsecar and public stage lines, working people basically had to live within walking distance of work. Public surface transportation helped this situation somewhat, but merely made it possible for even more people to make their livings in the dense core of the City. Even after tenement buildings replaced smaller structures, the piling of humanity on humanity didn't slacken--tenements were built in the backyards of existing tenements, depriving the original tenants the solace of a bit of grass or a tree or two, or some open playspace for their children.
When the elevated trains and then the subways came along, people were able to move to the suburbs and still work in the City--the suburbs that were then the little villages and farming communities of northern Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
Needless to say, there was money to be made in the development of such a vast territory. The original revolution creating New York City's transportation was originally a merchant's revolution, and it may not be surprising that such an opportunity attracted some of the genuine robber barons of the time, men such as Jay Gould and August Belmont, men who involved themselves in the building of the IRT then conspired, in classic monopoly capitalist fashion, to keep the Golden Goose all to themselves.
The understandable public outrage at these manipulations of the public good might have been assuaged by the entrance of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company into the picture and the signing of the Dual Contracts of 1913, which greatly expanded rapid transit under the management of two competitive systems, if not for the intervention of another colorful and powerful American figure, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. Using his media power, Hearst helped elevate John F. Hylan, a man whom the builder Robert Moses called "a decent political hack," to the office of Mayor.
In 722 Miles, Hood places Hylan in his proper place as the man who politicized the NYC transit system and, in so doing, set the stage for the long deterioration of the system which is only now being reversed.
Not only was Hylan the man who raised the five-cent fare (and by extension, the subway fare of any amount) to the status of holy grail, he also set in motion the building of the IND system and the destruction of the IRT and BMT as private companies.
There is more than politics in this book--Hood gives us an interesting rendition of the physical tribulations of the building of the first subway, as well as a description of the way the modern-day IRT Flushing Line transformed a large part of the borouigh of Queens from open meadow to urban landscape in one short leap.
Still, this is not a book for everyone. It is much more tuned for the serious scholar than the average reader: if the idea of reading what would have made an outstanding PhD thesis turns you off, perhaps you might look for a more popular but less important work.
I could quibble with some parts of Hood's work--perhaps he spends too much time on some peripheral issues while paying less attention to others of greater moment. I would have preferred that he give the formation of the BRT system, eventual competitor of Belmont's IRT, more attention than he did.
Also, there are some curious lapses in description or historical accuracy that seem more the result of bad editing than bad research.
These issues do not, however, dim Hood's achievement in producing the only modern work of its kind, a compelling and perceptive look at the way New York City politics have interacted with perhaps its most significant public work.