The Subway System in the 1970s-80s
Welcome to the New York City Subway System. New York City during the 1970-1980’s was not the same city we know today. The streets of Manhattan were known as dark and dangerous; crime was at its peak. The New York City Subway System only added to the city’s darkness. The subway was known as filthy, noisy, dangerous, and tagged with graffiti. The filth, noise and graffiti did not appeal to the middle-class. Out of fear some people chose to avoid riding the subway, however, those who did not have a choice often feared being victims of a crime. As we look into the history of the subway system you will realize that it was not always known as a place infested with graffiti and crime.
During the mid-1800s, Manhattan became over populated and “by 1865, lower Manhattan had become one of the most dangerously congested placed on earth.” Albert Beach thought of an idea, since the streets were congested of cars, trollies, and horses there should be another form of transportation underground known as the Pneumatic Transit. Beach built the first underground railway in New York City. He put up $350,000 of his own money to build a tunnel to create the Pneumatic Transit. There was only one tunnel train that held twenty-two people which only went one block. The transit was not powered by electricity, instead it was a pneumatic subway system. The only people who rode this transit were the middle and upper class. These individuals only rode the train for its novelty, but people were not convinced that the transit was safe. As a result, the Pneumatic Transit was shut down in 1873 because of the lack of funds. Although this transit was not successful this paved the way for the subway system even though Beach’s tunnel train had nothing to do with the construction of the subway system that was to come.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, plans were being developed to construct a subway system that required 1.7 million cubic yards of earth. Workers had to relocate gas, electric and water lines. On October 27, 1904, the subway system was inaugurated by the New York City Mayor George McClellan. The subway was one of the fastest ways to get around the city and soon enough “the New York City subway… became the largest American system.” The New York City subway became the largest transit system in the U.S. This form of transportation was mainly used by those of the upper class, but eventually New York City became dependent on the subway system as a form to get around the city.
As people became more dependent on the subway it also made an impact in the city by opening doors to different job opportunities that were once not at people’s reach. As jobs began to disperse around different parts of New York “men and women once forced to live within walking distance of their jobs could now commute the length of Manhattan in less than half an hour.” The subway system made life easier for ordinary people who could not afford to buy a car. The subway system became heavily used and “within four years, nearly a million people a day were riding the subway and the city had embarked upon a massive expansion program, adding six hundred miles of track in ten years, giving New York the largest transit system in the world.” Dependent on the subway, New York had to install several hundreds of tracks, giving New Yorkers accessibility to take the subway in any part of the city. People would soon
After WWII, “new immigrants changed the character of the city. Puerto Ricans and African Americans moved to New York City neighborhoods while other races moved out.” These newcomers faced discrimination which made people of the higher class move out of their neighborhoods. Blockbusting accelerated because “real estate investors would tell people that they need to move before their property values dropped because of newcomers.” To prevent a drop in property value many families decided to sell and leave their homes. This concept is known as white flight where white middle and upper class families moved to the suburbs as a way to escape this new transformation that city was undergoing. Unfortunately, those left behind in urban communities faced urban decay since those of the higher class moved into the suburbs. Those of the lower class were unable to receive loans to buy homes due to redlining. The government drew “a map of which part of the city would be considered a good/safe investment.” Those directly affected by this map lived in slums. During the 1970s, the practice of red lining had a negative effect on the South Bronx where “some landlords restored in burning down the buildings they owned to get insurance money.” This led to the ruins of the South Bronx. As a means to revive the city, urban renewal projects destroyed neighborhoods forcing residents out of their homes. Many families were left without a home.
In the 1970s, crime began to skyrocket and urban decay continued to expand, and the subway began to experience crime like never before. Graffiti became a public expression of people’s creative minds and it also gave people the “opportunity to display skill and ambition on a citywide canvas.” Graffiti was a way to demonstrate the one’s artistic abilities throughout the city. It also became a way to display current societal problems through the use of murals. Although graffiti became a new form of art, “middle-class subway riders” thought that “graffiti represented what terrified them about the declining city.” New York City had been experiencing an increase in crime, population, and urban renewal. The decline of New York City was seen through the displacement of residents, red lining, urban renewal projects and lack of opportunities. Graffiti added to the decline of New York City because small crimes lead to bigger crimes. Eventually those smaller crimes led to bigger ones and “by the 1980s over 250 felonies were committed every week on the subway.”
Additionally, people from the middle class viewed graffiti as a form of crime which meant that the value of the city was being compromised. The author mentions that “uneasiness that white middle-class journalists and subway riders felt when they stared at graffiti accelerated their anxiety over urban decay and desegregation.” The rise of graffiti art on subway trains began to instill fear on the “white middle-class” riders. Transit Police Chief James Meehan “pointed out that people might ‘shrug off’ street crime in the Bronx, but that ‘if it occurs in a Bronx subway, people are frightened.’” Apparently, crime in the Bronx streets was “shrugged off”, but crime on the Bronx subway trains were unacceptable. The subway system was first heavily used by people of the upper class which meant that there were slim chances of crime occurring. Although the subway car would begin in the Bronx it would eventually end in the nicer parts of Manhattan where rich people depended on the subway to get to work. Rich people did not care for crime in the South Bronx, however when the crime occurred in the subway it directly affected them.
Furthermore, studies determined that the amount of crime occurring on subways and which gender and race was likely to fear being victimized the most. The study concluded that “2.6% of all felonies reported during 1984 in New York City occurred on the subways.” The same study that concluded that “females are significantly more worried about crime than are male riders.” Out of 767 women that were studied about 39% of those women feared about being victims of a crime while riding the subway. Fear to ride the subway varies based on the time those that ride like “early (7 p.m. to 9 p.m.), middle (9 p.m. to 12 a.m.) and late (12 a.m. to 2 a.m.) night riders are worried about crime.”Those individuals that rode the subway during the evening were at risk of being victimized.
To prevent citizens from being victimized and fearing the subway, the mayor instituted a new program that would decrease crime on subway trains by posting transit police officers and city officers on trains. In the spring of 1979:
“Mr. Koch instituted a major program that included the posting of uniformed transit police officers on all subway trains and in most stations during evening hours and the use of shorter trains to cut down on the number of empty cars and isolated passengers. City police officers were also ordered to patrol subway stations as part of their duties.”
Posting transit and city officer’s made people feel much safer while riding the subway. It also allowed criminals to think twice before acting. To prevent crimes from occurring as often, the mayor ensured to decrease the amount of empty cars to avoid passenger isolation. Having passengers isolated from other passengers was one of the reasons why some people were victimized over others. However, this program failed when hundreds of transit police officers lost their jobs. This program was “costing the city $350,000 a week in overtime.” As a result, the program was terminated because of the city’s budget. The subway transit system was left only with transit police officers. Once again this led to the spike of crime and subway riders continued to be victimized. A large portion of officers lost their jobs and “the force diminished by 25 percent”, and as a result this “probably emboldened the underground criminals and gave away a lot of turf. After such a retreat, it’s no easy task to reclaim the subways and create an atmosphere of safety.” In a sense, criminals began to take over the subway because there was a lack of authority. Subway riders continued to feel unsafe and uncomfortable riding the subway.
Since Mayor Koch’s program failed, crime became a constant occurrence. There is a story of a subway rider, Bernhard Goetz, who was waiting for the subway and was asked for $5 by young adults. When Mr. Goetz refused to give them $5 they began to harass him for the money, but he chose not be a victim. Instead, this person “pulled a .38-caliber revolver from his waistband and fired bullets into four of them…The gunman fled – after reportedly telling a conductor, ‘They tried to rip me off’ – and is being sought by the police.” This illustrates the anger and annoyance many subway riders were beginning to feel towards crime. These four young adults had more man power, but this subway rider did not seem afraid of the potential consequence of his actions, instead he chose to defense himself. Many people commented on the gunman’s decision, while some believed that he should have been arrested, others believed that he “took justice into his own hands.”
The subway paved the way for the disbursement of people into different neighborhoods because “before the subway system was built, thousands of people were crowded into tenements in Manhattan. But as the subway system grew, people were able to move out.” Prior to the subway system, people stayed in overcrowded tenements, but that all changed once subway stations increased. The increase of subway stations allowed people to move out of their tenements and into other neighborhoods that were not as crowded.
The subway system serves as part of New York City’s fast paste culture. Today the subway system is “one of the most extensive and heavily used, running more subway car (5,942), over a longer distance (230 route miles), to more stations (469) than any other system in the world.” This demonstrates the vast expansion the subway system has made over the years. New York City residents today heavily depend of the subway as a means to get to and from work. The reputation of the subway system has slightly changed over time as it is no longer infested with crime as seen throughout the 1970s-1980s.
 Ric Burns & James Sanders, New York: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 1999), 152.
 “New York City Subway Opens,” http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new york-city-subway-opens. (accessed November 16, 2016).
 Ric Burns & James Sanders, New York: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 1999), 257.
 Sara Fieldston, “Urban Renewal & Preservation” (presentation, New York City History Lecture, South Orange, NJ, December 1, 2016).
 Sara Fieldston, “Best of Times, Worst of Times” (presentation, New York City History Lecture, South Orange, NJ, December 6, 2016).
 NEAL, L.E. 2014. “Criminals and Culture Makers.” Dissent (00123846) 61, no.3: 15-19. Political Science Complete, EBSCOhost (accesses November 15, 2016). 16.
 Sara Fieldston, “Best of Times, Worst of Times” (presentation, New York City History Lecture, South Orange, NJ, December 6, 2016).
 Ibid. 17.
 Kenney, D J. Crime, Fear, and the New York City Subways – the Role of Citizen Action. United States, 1987. Print. 48.
 Ibid. 61.
 Ibid. 60.
 Ibid. 64.
 “NEW YORK WILL SPEND MORE MONEY TO FIGHT RISE IN SUBWAY CRIME.” New York Times Oct 22 1980, Late Edition (East Coast) ed. ProQuest. 5 Oct. 2016. 3.
 Scahnberg, Sydney H. 1984. “NEW YORK; A NEW MORALITY PLAY.” New York Times, Dec 29. http://search.proquest.com/docview/425267065?accountid=13793.
 “A Special Year to Build a Hole in the Ground,” Amsterdam News, November 10, 1979, A3.
 Shelves, Schmidt. Preventing Mass Transit Crime, New York, 1996. 119.
South Bronx Subway Stop
South Bronx Subway Stop
“A Special Year to Build a Hole in the Ground,” Amsterdam News, November 10, 1979, A3.
- The subway gave New Yorker’s the opportunity to explore different parts of New York rather than being home bound.
Fieldston, Sara. “Best of Times, Worst of Times.” Presentation in a New York City History Lecture, South Orange, NJ, December 6, 2016.
- This lecture explored New York City’s challenges such as fiscal problems, racial and the rise in crime. Residents of the South Bronx experienced the loss of their home because their landlord resorted to burning down burning to obtain insurance money.
Fieldston, Sara. “Urban Renewal & Preservation.” Presentation in a New York City History Lecture, South Orange, NJ, December 1, 2016.
- Lecture focused on the urban renewal of decayed cities by the destruction of urban areas. As a result, many residents were left without a home and forced to relocate.
Kenney, D J. Crime, Fear, and the New York City Subways – the Role of Citizen Action. United States, 1987. Print. 48.
- The most subway felonies occurred in NYC during the 1970s. There was a study concluded which indicated who was most likely to be victimized and it was done on the basis of race, gender, and economic status.
NEAL, L.E. 2014. “Criminals and Culture Makers.” Dissent (00123846) 61, no.3: 15-19. Political Science Complete, EBSCOhost (accesses November 15, 2016). 16.
- This article explores the idea that graffiti is a new form of art. Graffiti is a public display of an individuals talent.
“New York City Subway Opens,” http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new york-city-subway-opens. (accessed November 16, 2016).
- This news article talks about the grand opening of the NYC subway station in 1904. Over 28 original stations were opened leading up to the bigest transit system in America.
“NEW YORK WILL SPEND MORE MONEY TO FIGHT RISE IN SUBWAY CRIME.” New York Times Oct 22 1980, Late Edition (East Coast) ed. ProQuest. 5 Oct. 2016. 3.
- New York City mayor implemented a program to prevent a rise in crime in the subway system. The program failed when there was a budget cut of transit police force which caused crime to spike up.
Ric Burns, James Sanders and Lisa Ades. New York: An Illustrated History, New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 1999, 152.
- The NYC subway system became the largest transit in the U.S. AS a result, New Yorker’s became heavily dependent on the subway to get around.
Shelves, Schmidt. Preventing Mass Transit Crime, New York, 1996. Print. 119.
- This book discussed the prevention of mass transit crime in NYC. The author explores the different ways NYC could help subway riders from becoming victims.
Scahnberg, Sydney H. 1984. “NEW YORK; A NEW MORALITY PLAY.” New York Times, Dec 29. http://search.proquest.com/docview/425267065?accountid=13793.
This news article talks about criminal acts commitment while on the New York City subway system. It seems that crimes that occurred in the subway were a lot more dangerous than crime committed on the streets.