‘The Race Underground’ nominated for prestigious Kirkus Prize

kirkus-prize-170x170Sure, it’s a cliche to say it’s an honor to just be nominated for something. So that makes me a cliche-monger, I guess, because it really is an honor for “The Race Underground” to be nominated for the very prestigious Kirkus Prize in non-fiction. I was thrilled to get a starred review from Kirkus when the book came out and so that review leads to the nomination (winners will be announced in October).

This is what Kirkus said in its review: It’s a story of blizzards and fires, accidental 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. Inventor Frank Sprague, who perfected the electric motor, financier August Belmont, crusading New York Mayor Abram Hewitt and engineer William Barclay Parsons also play prominent roles in this colorful Gilded Age saga.

An almost flawlessly conducted tour back to a time when major American cities dreamed big.

Whatever happens from here is icing. “The Race Underground” is competing against remarkable works of non-fiction, including a biography of Douglas MacArthur, a collection of Nora Ephron’s writings, a book about the founding of Intel, Adam Rogers’ “Proof: The Science of Booze,” and “The Literary Churchill” by Jonathan Rose, to name only a few. Heady company, for sure. Like I said, it’s an honor to be included.

The Race Underground book Doug Most


Tunnel of Love: A subway proposal

JERL8758.jpgYou may not think of a subway as being a romantic spot. What do you know! Maybe you would if you spent every day building one, alongside your girlfriend.

Adam Meagher, a city planner from Brooklyn, had been dating his girlfriend, Carolyn Grossman, also an urban planner, and decided there was no better place to propose than on the construction site of the Second Avenue subway, where they both have been working. So he dropped to a knee, a hundred feet below the Upper East Side, and held out a ring. The MTA has a bunch of great photos here.

The New York Post was there, naturally, and said it went down like this (there is sweet video in that link and that photo above is by photographer Stefan Jeremiah):

“Just like the Second Avenue subway has taken a long time, I’ve also been waiting a long time,” he said. “Will you marry me?”

“Oh my God, 100 percent.” she replied, embracing him. Then he placed the vintage diamond platinum ring, circa 1920s, on her finger, as everyone cheered.

“We love infrastructure and transit,” Meagher told the paper afterward. “It’s a beautiful, cathedral-like space.”

No argument from me. Naturally.

RIP Massimo Vignelli, father of the subway map

Massimo_Vignelli11The next time you ride on a subway, especially New York’s, but really anywhere, take a look at the subway map. That’s a piece of Massimo Vignelli’s legacy. And believe it or not, even a subway map could attract controversy.

From the New York Times obituary: Massimo Vignelli, an acclaimed graphic designer who gave shape to his spare, Modernist vision in book covers and shopping bags, furniture and corporate logos, even a church and a New York City subway map that enchanted aesthetes and baffled straphangers, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

How could a subway map be controversial? Vignelli’s stuck to a basic grid, of 45 and 90 degrees, and at the same time completely ignored any geographic and station location. It was counter-intuitive.

When Boston opened America’s first subway in 1897, no map was needed. The first leg of the system was barely 2 miles of track, from Arlington Street to Boylston Street to Park Street and back. The subway cars were distinguished by the sign on front explaining where they were going, by showing the final destination. Boston’s system would expand in the next few years, of course and today’s subway map is a rainbow of Green, Blue, Red, Orange, and the latest addition, Silver. And the MBTA recently held a subway map redesign competition. The response was overwhelming and you can see and click on the results here.

When New York opened America’s second subway in 1904, it was more than 20 miles of track. And today, the MTA is not about colors, like Boston, but letters and numbers, 1, 9, 2, 3, N, R, Q, J, B, C, and so on.

Of course, if you live in a city with a subway, when was the last time you used its map? Next time you’re riding, take a look at it. As with everything, there’s a story behind it.

Here is Kat Lawrence’s subway map submission to Boston’s MBTA:

Survey Map 2 lg

Before there was a New York MetroCard to celebrate. . .

metrpcdThe wonderful New York Transit Museum, where I’ll be visiting this summer to talk about “The Race Underground,” is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the MetroCard. As the museum notes, the card is carried by more than 7 million people, not too shabby. The museum’s MetroCard event will be Wednesday, May 21. My own event will come this summer, on July 23. Save the date!

For the MetroCard event, the museum writes: What makes a design iconic? Can something functional also be a work of art and an emblem of great design? This year marks the 20th anniversary of a design creation over 7 million people carry around in their pockets every day: the MetroCard. In this special program, members from the original design team,  contemporary artists, and the MTA come together for one night to consider questions of the MetroCard’s aesthetics, function, inspiration and ownership. 

But on October 27, 1904, the day the New York subway opened, there were no reusable cards or tokens. Instead you got a green IRT ticket, if you handed over five cents. In the first five hours after the subway opened, as I write in my final chapter, “111,881 passengers would pay to ride the subway, and it seemed like every last one of them was standing outside a station somewhere across the city.”

The scene was festive, with people donning their most festive clothes to celebrate the historic moment. As I write: “It looked like a riot, but felt like a carnival.”



How much did the earliest subways cost to ride?

FirstTrolleysOutOfSubwayThe MBTA has voted to raise fares and, no surprise, passengers won’t be happy. But maybe they can take comfort in knowing that raising fares and passenger complaints have been with the T since the 1880s, before America’s first subway opened in Boston on Sept. 1, 1897. (That picture to the left shows the subway’s first day.)

On Thursday, Martine Powers wrote in the Globe “The price of bus and subway tickets will rise by 10 cents, increasing to $1.60 and $2.10. The price of a combined bus-and-subway monthly pass will increase by $5 to $75, and a monthly bus pass will rise $2 to $50.” 

That’s not insignificant, for sure. But it’s a long way from the nickel fare that people paid back when Henry Melville Whitney of Brookline owned the West End Street Railway Company. Whitney consolidated seven railway companies into one gigantic operation in the late 1880s, and he made several key changes. He split the company into eight divisions, each responsible for managing its own passengers, routes, employees, horses, and cars, not unlike how the T operates today with its Red, Blue, Orange, Green and Silver lines. Routes were identified by colored signs, and signs were placed on cars saying what the final stop would be. Sound familiar?

Whitney’s biggest change was a flat fare of five cents for all rides and free transfers at certain stops. That nickel fare irked some riders who rode only a few stops and felt like they should not have to pay the same as someone who rode all the way in from West Roxbury or Brookline. As I write in The Race Underground, “But they were far outnumbered by the cheers from the increasing number of passengers coming to Boston from the suburbs, who were used to paying the most expensive fare.”


Incredible video of Second Avenue Subway project

Michael Hession, a filmmaker and photographer in Brooklyn, has produced this beautiful, haunting video of the construction going on beneath the streets of New York City for the Second Avenue Subway. It’s posted on Gizmodo.

What’s striking to me is the scale of it, you see up close the enormity of the project, and it reminds me of this picture below from my own book, “The Race Underground.” Hession summarizes the current project perfectly:

37 NY deep (3)

New York City’s new 2nd Avenue subway line is a construction project of truly monumental scale. Decades of planning and billions of dollars have led to the near-completion of Phase 1 of the tunnel running underneath Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Gizmodo was lucky enough to take a tour through a section of the caverns and passages that will soon be a bustling subway line.

Boring the two miles of Phase 1’s tunnels began in 2010, with the project scheduled to be completed in 2016. It will eventually carry around 200,000 riders between 63rd Street and 96th Street. All four phases of the line, once completed, will run from 125th Street all the way down to Hanover Square at the southern tip of Manhattan. This won’t wrap up for many years, however, as funding is procured on a phase-by-phase basis.

One thing to keep in mind about the Second Avenue Subway project. It’s being built by Parsons Brinckerhoff, the giant firm that was started by the brilliant engineer William Barclay Parsons back in the 1880s with his brother. Parsons designed the initial New York Subway that opened October 27, 1904, and the firm with his name on it has gone on to build canals (Cape Cod, Panama), tunnels (Big Dig in Boston), among other things. Quite a legacy. Parsons watched over the building of New York’s subway with incredible focus. This is a passage from “The Race Underground” when Parsons was watching over his workers on a summer day in 1901.

12 Parsons

On this June day, from the back of the flatbed carriage that came with them, the laborers took out a pump that was mounted on a petroleum barrel; carried out dozens of pieces of wrought iron pipe, some of them an inch in diameter, others two inches; and then wheeled out a small pile driver. Once they seemed to have everything positioned properly, they went to work. First, they lifted up a block

from the pavement as close to the street corner as possible. A few feet away, a worker took one of the sections of two-inch pipe and tapped it into the soil until it was securely standing up, at which point the pile driver was positioned over the pipe. Next, a pulley from the pile driver was raised over the pipe, a rope was connected to the pipe, and, when the signal was given, WHAM! A one-hundred-and-fifty-pound hammer drove down on top of the pipe and slammed it into the earth. When it disappeared, a worker reached down into the ground, unscrewed a cap from the top of the pipe, and took hold of another section and screwed it into the pipe.”

Young and old, my day with two generations

ja_21_03_13.tifDays like the one I had Wednesday make the book tour fun. They weren’t about selling lots of copies of “The Race Underground”, just spreading the word and talking about a project that was 5 years in the making.

I started my day early, reading and talking with a group of about 50-60 juniors at Newton North High School at 8 a.m. They were still waking up, but it’s cool because I was, too. They are studying American history and just finished the Gilded Age period, so the time period was right up their alley. As I figured, they seemed interested and curious, but when it came to asking questions, like a lot of teenagers, they went mum. But when I threw questions their way, they had all the answers. Their teacher, Kathryn Codd, was incredibly warm and welcoming to me, and arranged for us to use a great auditorium space. That school is something else, it’s like a college campus, so impressive. My high school in Barrington, R.I. was nice, this was another universe.

After my day at The Globe working on this Sunday’s new real estate section Address,  I raced to Dedham at 7 p.m. to another sparkling facility that opened around the same time as the new Newton North H.S. This was New Bridge on the Charles, a beautiful independent and assisted living facility. My audience here was a tad older than my morning crew, average age of about 80, and I had to wear a microphone to be heard. But unlike the teens, they had no shortage of questions for me. And what I loved about this audience is they were eager to share their own experiences riding wooden trolley cars in Boston or walking beneath the El in New York.

I started my day talking to teens and ended it talking to their grandparents. But my favorite observation of all: In the morning and the evening, both groups had to be politely reminded to (wait for it!) please turn off their cell phones!




My talk with Governor Michael Dukakis at the JFK Library


It was a drizzly evening, but that didn’t keep the crowd away. It was billed as a “conversation” about transportation between myself and Michael Dukakis at the John F. Kennedy Library Friday evening, April 4, and more than 350 people showed up. There is no doubt the former Massachusetts governor was the big draw. I was happy to tag along for the ride with the most famous Green Line rider in Boston!

We had emailed beforehand and he graciously praised my book, “The Race Underground” as a great read: I am about halfway through your book– somebody gave it to me as a gift– and it is one great read. I thought I knew something about Massachusetts history and its transit system, but nobody ever told me that a guy named Henry Whitney from Brookline not only played a key role in the whole thing but was responsible for turning Beacon St. in Brookline into a two hundred foot boulevard with a street car down the middle of it .

We met in the lobby of the JFK Library, where he was sitting with friends and his wife, Kitty. Both of them look terrific and he seemed genuinely excited about the event. As the crowd filed in, he regaled my wife, Mimi, and I with stories about personalities in his administration and what he loved most about the book (the details about Brookline, especially, since they live there).

Inside the auditorium, every seat was filled, thanks to wonderful promotion by The Boston Globe and the JFK Library. My parents had called to say they were sadly running late thanks to a flat tire while driving up from Rhode Island, so two seats were saved for them in the front row next to my wife and mother-in-law (my parents arrived a few minutes after Dukakis cracked a joke about them being from New York — proof of how closely he had read my book, right through the epilogue). Just before going on stage, I asked Gov. Dukakis if he’d indulge me in the silly trend of the day, a selfie, and he obliged, and then we took our seats on stage.

Amy Macdonald from the JFK Library introduced us, and then, as we’d agreed, I went first and talked about the back story behind the book. I spoke about some of the key characters, like brothers Henry and William Whitney, engineers Frank Sprague and William Barclay Parsons, piano manufacturing giant William Steinway, and others.

The governor went next and his first words were so gracious. He said he had no obligation to promote the book (true!) but then proceeded to say, “Buy this book! It’s a great read!” He then talked about what happened with transit in Massachusetts after World War II, especially highways and trains. He talked about riding the wooden trolley cars through Boston with Kitty, and about the political shenanigans he dealt with during his tenure in office. He often pointed at friends and former staff members of his in the audience. We went back and forth for about 45 minutes and ended with questions from the packed house, followed by a book signing at which both of us signed copies of the “The Race Underground” for a long line of people. They were happy to get my signature, but REALLY happy to get his.

And when we were done, I turned to him, shook his hand, said thank you for agreeing to do the event with me. And then I asked him to sign my book, too. Great evening. (And yes, that’s Mimi, left front row below.)