The Race Underground

SOON TO BE A PBS “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE” DOCUMENTARY

AMAZON’S BEST NON-FICTION BOOKS OF 2014

THE WEEK: “ONE OF 18 BOOKS
TO READ IN 2014!”

Sam Roberts in The New York Times said, “Mr. Most weaves together the egos, political hurdles and other daunting challenges in a sweeping narrative of late-19th-century intrigue.” The Economist raved, “Doug Most’s meticulously researched history reveals that getting the subways built was more a collaborative than a competitive effort.” Kirkus Reviews said, “It’s a story of blizzards and fires, gas explosions and dynamite blasts, of trenches tortuously dug, of sewer and water pipes rerouted and cemeteries excavated, of political infighting, of turnstiles and ticket-taking, of ingenious solutions to staggering problems.”

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Greatest Subway Moments in Movie History

Posted on 02/25/16

This is pretty cool. New York Magazine’s Vulture website has compiled 20 great moments from the movies that take place on New York’s subways. Here is the link. I will save this list for when my book comes out as a PBS “American Experience” documentary, which is getting closer and more exciting.

Quick thoughts on Vulture’s list: Glad to see Pelham 123 high on the list, great movie, great subway scenes, a natural for a list like this. But since Vulture focuses only on New York subway scenes, I immediately thought of non-New York subway scenes. Here are a few classics.

The Fugitive fight scene with Harrison Ford.

I can’t find a clip from this, but the scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon rides the Red Line over the Longfellow Bridge. This scene is famous because it’s been cited as a gaffe, because the camera angles are not possible from the direction of the train. But still a memorable scene for Bostonians.

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Another great movie scene in a subway that became famous for not being accurate is No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner as a double agent in Washington, D.C.  The scene essentially made up subway stations in the Georgetown neighborhood, which anybody who lives in DC knows do not exist.

BaltimoreSubway_NoWayOut

 

Back to New York, however, and one of the scenes Vulture lists definitely goes down as one of the spookier ones I remember watching. It’s from Ghost. Remember this?

 

 

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The story of Steinway: Why a trolley from Brooklyn to Queens would return New York transit to its roots

Posted on 02/17/16

Mr-SteinwayIt would be called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX. And in his State of the City address, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for this 16-mile, $2.5-billion streetcar line that would run along the East River and connect Astoria, Queens, with Sunset Park in Brooklyn. (This story on the wonderful Awl website has the details.)

It immediately stirred up debate about whether that transit project, of all transit projects being discussed in New York City, is really the one that makes the most sense and would serve the most people.

I won’t get into that debate. But what’s undeniable is that a trolley to Queens would be a quaint reminder of where New York’s subway, which opened in 1897, has some of its roots laid. And those roots are in Queens. It’s one of my favorite stories in The Race Underground involving one of my favorite characters.

His birth name was Wilhelm Steinweg (that’s him above). He was born on March 5, 1835, the fourth of six children in a tiny German village called Seesen. The father of those children, Heinrich Steinweg, made pianos for a living and one day he dreamed of bringing all of his children into the family business. But when his third son, Charles, was at risk of going to war as Europe was awash in revolutions, Charles fled for New York, joined the piano-making industry there, and wrote home to his family that they should come, too, because the piano factories in the city were thriving.

And so they did. In the summer of 1850, the Steinweg family sailed into New York’s harbor, and not long after that the family name was anglicized into Steinway and a piano manufacturing behemoth was born. One of Charles’ brothers, William Steinway, helped the family grow its business with a manufacturing plant in Queens. It was William’s ability to juggle so many tasks, to disarm anyone he came in conflict with, and to convince politicians to give him what he wanted, that caught the attention of New York politicians in the late 1800s, as efforts ramped up to get a subway approved and built. William Steinway was named to head New York’s Rapid Transit Commission of 1891 and the next decade, his relationship with the brilliant engineer, William Barclay Parsons, and their efforts to bring New York a subway, became an enormous part of Steinway’s legacy.

And it all started in Queens. This is from the great Henry Z. Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian: A desire to remove employees from Manhattan’s teeming humanity, particularly organized labor and “the machinations of the anarchists and socialists,” inspired William to purchase 400 acres across the East River in a bucolic, sparsely-populated area of Astoria, New York. With space for much-needed expansion, William set about creating the company town of Steinway where the firm could cast its own piano frames and saw its own lumber. Steinway & Sons pianos are still manufactured at this location. William approached the development of Steinway with characteristic thoroughness, wading through rainy salt meadows in “great India rubber boots” inspecting property, overseeing street surveys, and assessing employee housing construction later advertised as “country homes with city comforts.” Diary entries reflect William’s pride in creating a company town where workers could own brick homes, drink fresh water, and stroll under shade trees on Steinway Avenue—still the main thoroughfare in this part of Queens. He donated land and built a public school, fire house, post office and churches to further his vision. A network of horse-car railroads, streetcars, trolleys, and ferries provided access to the settlement and brought in additional income. What would become North Beach Amusement Park offered “respectable people” an alternative to Coney Island and the chance to experience evening festivities illuminated by the novelty of electric lighting.

And finally, here is the Steinway family at their beautiful stone mansion in Astoria, Queens.

William Steinway and family at Steinway Mansion, 1881. Original photographer unknown, Astoria, New York. Richard Ranft Sr., William Steinway, Paula Steinway von Bernuth as a girl, Elizabeth Ranft Steinway, and unknown.

 

 

 

 

So whether or not the BQX is the best move for New York may be debatable. But what’s undeniable is that a street trolley in Queens would have a certain karma for Gothamites, who owe a great deal of transit debt to a businessman who started in Queens.

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Is sleeping on the subway really so bad?

Posted on 02/16/16

man-sleeping-train-flickr-david_shankbone

It’s happened to all of us. You’re sitting on the subway, it’s the end of a long day, the vibrations of the tracks are surprisingly soothing, your eyes start to dim and finally, zzzzzzzzzzzzz. You’re out.

Is sleeping on the subway really so bad?

Apparently in New York City it is. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has vowed no more subway snoozing! Half the crimes on the subway, he reports, are committed on people sleeping. “Subways are not for sleeping,” Bratton said at a recent news conference. “I know people have gotten out of work and are tired but we are going to start waking people up.”

That might mean waking up a lot of people.

Check this out from the New Yorker piece titled: “Let us Sleep on the Subways!” Where once there were lonely cars at lonely times, now the subways seem as packed at four in the morning as at five in the afternoon. Saturdays and Sundays, where once one could always find a space on the sideways banquette of the E train, one finds it now as mobbed as at any weekday rush hour. This is no illusion or impression, either. The numbers are daunting. In 2014, around 1.75 billion—that’s right, billion—riders used the trains, the largest number since 1948. Much of the growth from the previous year was concentrated, unsurprisingly, in the rapidly growing neighborhoods of Brooklyn—or, to put it in plain English, in the unending tsunami of hipsters travelling to and from what were once quaintly called the outer boroughs. A generation has mastered the trains. Where it used to be impressive if a non-native New Yorker could work a transfer hookup involving much more than the Times Square shuttle, now newcomers talk easily of changing for the Q and hopping on the M and even of cruising out on the Z. A new world.

For those who demand to be left alone to their sweet subway dreams, there is clearly only one solution left: Demand your subway install one of these on every subway train! Sleeper cars for everyone!

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