New York Stories and Tips

New York: Part IV: Transportation

Empire State Building By Night Photo, New York, New York

You can only stroll so far in New York before public transportation because necessity. We jumped online to plan our journey on the MTA website, which has a "Journey Planner" on the front page. On the downside, it didn’t work. So we found a subway map on the same website (www.mta.info/nyct/maps/submap.htm).

The subway lines were listed in both numeric and alphabetic order, along with being color-coded. It seemed to be in completely random order. There wasn’t an explanation for how to read the maps either. How hard could it possibly be? We had used subways in London, Prague, Chicago and Boston. Once down in the tunnels, these systems all made sense. Three wrong train choices later, we gave up on the New York subway. It seemed disjointed, and I was determined to find out why.

The first subway system was only 312 foot long and opened in 1869. It was demolished. But, after a blizzard in 1898 the need for underground transport became clear. Today, the subway has grown to 660 miles of track, with over 6,400 subway cars making their way across them (the largest fleet of subway cars in the world). Perhaps the system simply grew too fast? We began our investigation.

In 1898, besides having a blizzard, greater New York city spread through five counties (New York, King, Richmond, Queens and Westchester). Each county, town, city and village within this area already had established their own form of mass transit. Combining these was anything but cohesive, and, add in the "War of Currents" . Should electricity be supplied by a direct current or alternating current? Eventually 600 watt alternating current would win out. But then it became the battle of BRT versus IRT. These two private companies owned "subways", one in Manhattan, the other in Brooklyn, and guess which company wanted to expand into the others territory? That’s right, both of them.

By 1940 the city realized how much these private companies were profiting from their services so the city took them over -- and tried to smooth out the discrepancies. The IRT became the A Division with numbered lines and BRT (which had swallowed up IND) became B Division with alphabetical lines. Now the only problem was that each division had a different length of train car (47 foot long vs. 51 foot long). The city underwent a series of expanding track and widening of tunnels to accommodate the cars.

This explains some of the disjointed plan, but we tired of the subway quickly and found the closest corner to hail a taxi. The driver recognized us as tourists instantly. Natives simply hold up their hold, while we flapped our arms like a chicken trying to get a cabbies attention.

Cars had invaded New York streets by the late 1800s, just as they had across the nation. By 1899 there were 100 taxis on New York streets. It was in that same year when Henry Bliss gained fame -- as the first pedestrian to be hit and killed by a taxi. Well, we know how the New York taxi driver’s reputation got its start.

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Between 1900 and 1930 there was another building boom throughout New York. During this era the Flatiron Building, Low, Morgan and the Public Libraries, the New York Raquet Club, Woolworth and Chrysler Buildings, Pennsylvania Station and the Daily News Building were all completed. But, it would be the following year before New York’s most famous building opened to the public: The Empire State Building.

This Art Deco skyscraper is 102-stories (1,250 foot) tall. For more than 40 years it was New York’s tallest building. It took a year and 45 days to build, at a cost of $24.7 million (not including the cost of the land). During construction only five workers perished, though more than 30 people have lept off the building in suicides. There are 1,860 steps up to the 102nd floor, and 6,500 windows so that the 3,400 workers inside can get a good view. The building itself can only be used commercially as there are not enough bathrooms to convert it to residences.

Its located at 350 Fifth Ave (at West 34th Street), but to get a better view try from Rockefeller Plaza’s observation deck.

The completion of this landmark came just a year into the Great Depression. By 1930 there were 50 breadlines serving 50,000 meals a day on the Lower East side of Manhattan alone. By 1932 half of New York’s manufacturing plants had closed, and one in six was unemployed. Vacancy rates doubled and 1.6 million were on some form of government assistance.

It was into this complete social and economical collapse that New York’s "greatest" mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, entered in 1933. La Guardia (yes, of airport fame) was close friends with FDR who developed the Civil Works Administration as part of his "Great Deal". By 1935 La Guardia had captured one-seventh of CWA’s funding.

These economic struggles and social change also transformed Broadway. During the 1927-1928 season 264 productions had taken place. It dropped to 187 in 1930-1931, and only 72 in 1940-1941. 80% of Broadway actors were unemployed by 1948. Television now offered free entertainment and many of the former stage theatres now served as movie houses. Yet large-scale productions still debuted. Most were musicals, including "Porgy and Bess", "Oklahoma" and "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Actors, artists, writers and musicians would find their refuge in Greenwich Village. But, we’re skipping ahead. For now the eyes of New York are on one thing. Baseball. The city hosted three major league teams. The "Bronx Bombers" (Yankees) were in the World Series every year but two between 1947-1957. They played in the "House that Ruth built", and it was in this stadium that legends played: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the Dodgers played in an area called Pigtown on a former garbage dump which became Ebbetts Field. The had several name changes from the Trolley Dodgers to the Dodgers to Robins and back to the Dodgers, but mostly they were referred to as "Dem Bums" by their fans. They managed to get to the World Series once before heading to Los Angeles. The Brooklyn Dodger’s biggest claim to fame was signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 effectively breaking the color barrier.

As the 1950s rolled into the city, New York was the music center, boasting three major record labels (RCA, Decca and Columbia), had become a leading city in the fashion industry, and jumped into the arts scene with Abstract Expressionism and the city was over-run by tourists. The 1940s and 1950s are often referred to as New York’s "Golden Age".

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