The story of the subway is the urtext of any book about New York…


Bleecker Street Station, image via Library of Congress

From The Nation:

When the ground was first broken in 1900 to build a subway under the crowded streets of New York, some 25,000 of the city’s residents gathered to watch the ceremonies and cheer: “To Harlem in 15 minutes!” Not that it would be easy—removing 3 million cubic yards of earth and laying rails under the city was a job that would take four years and thousands of workers, 54 of whom lost their lives during the construction.

When the subway finally opened, it was a day of civic celebration. The city’s factories gave workers a half-holiday, and every passenger was permitted to ride free of charge. Some 150,000 people did. Yet what was perhaps most remarkable was just how quickly New Yorkers adapted to this engineering miracle. One reporter for The New York Times observed that after their exploratory journey, people poured out of the stations and made their way quietly home, “having finished what will be to them the daily routine of the rest of their lives.”

The story of the subway, then, is one of an extraordinary achievement that came to be regarded as perfectly ordinary, and it is, in a way, the urtext of any book about New York. “It is a miracle that New York works at all,” wrote E.B. White in his famous paean to the city. “The whole thing is implausible.” Yet this sense of awe and mystique, even as it animates much writing about the city, can also make New York difficult to see clearly—especially in relation to the rest of American history.

“Capital of the World”, Kim Phillips-Fein, The Nation