The Race Underground

SOON TO BE A PBS “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE” DOCUMENTARY

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THE WEEK: “ONE OF 18 BOOKS
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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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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!

201003-sleeper-cars-canadian

 

 

 

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Boston’s Subway: From First to Worst!

Posted on 01/21/16

TrialRunOn September 1, 1897, America’s first subway opened in Boston, when a trolley disappeared underground at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets and stopped at a station at the corner of Boylston and Tremont. (At left is a picture of a trial run the day before.)

On January 14, 2016, the Boston subway system recorded a very different milestone: The National Transit Database released data that showed the MBTA had 219 “major mechanical failures” in the year 2014. That’s the worst rate of breakdowns among all transit systems nationwide, and it’s four times the national average. Yikes.

The Red Sox went worst to first to worst in three seasons. What are the odds the MBTA climbs to first next year?

As reported in The Boston GlobeMBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo questioned the national figures, saying that “there is no uniform practice for reporting mechanical failures” to the National Transit Database. “What one rail service provider considers a failure, another one may not,” he said. He also said the agency would continue efforts to keep old trains and equipment from failing by either repairing or replacing them.

Also from the Globe:

The T’s light rail lines — the Green Line and Mattapan-Ashmont trolley — ranked third worst in terms of major mechanical system failures per train mile traveled among 23 light rail systems nationally, according to the 2014 National Transit Database, which is maintained by the Federal Transit Administration. The T’s heavy rail lines — the Red, Orange, and Blue — ranked as the sixth worst among 15 heavy rail systems nationally, the figures show. The commuter rail system ranked fifth worst among 24 commuter rail systems nationally in 2014, the latest year for which data was available.

 

 

 

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