The Subway in Our Collective Imagination, Before and After the Brooklyn Shooting

The shocking news of the subway shooting in Brooklyn briefly obliterated all other stories—and then oddly subsided, as though the blessedly good news that no one was killed somehow made the bad news that ten people had been shot less bad. Gun violence in America has risen to the point where anything short of a massacre seems like a mitzvah.

But there was what newspaper editors once called a “local angle” to the story as well. What, in plain English, does the latest shooting say about the future of the subway? “In New York, Subway Attack Adds to Fears That City Has Grown Dangerous,” an out-of-town headline ran, putting a small exclamation point on the lips of anyone who came of age in a time when “grown dangerous” in reference to New York and its subway would have seemed risible. In the wake of the mass shooting on an N Train in Sunset Park, though, it is a worry worth worrying about. If the streets are the neural network of the city, then the subway is its blood flow, its motion, keeping New York from becoming paralyzed. Given the vertiginous crash of ridership during and after the pandemic, and the crazily bad business model it made worse, the subway suddenly seems as unsustainable as Blockbuster Video or, still sadder, Barneys. Is the subway at last, after a century, down and irrecoverable?

The truth is that, statistically at least, even when it’s unsafe the subway is safe. Having, like most New Yorkers, ridden the trains nearly every day for forty-five years (Paris-posted years and pandemic months aside), I realize that I have—luckily, but not entirely atypically—never experienced any kind of violence on the subway. Of course, we all know people who have had frightening and dangerous experiences on the train, and disturbing stories of harassment and assault recur with increasing frequency. One bad experience is a bad experience enough. Statistically, though, most trips remain safe and, given the sheer volume of people using the system, remarkably so. With an estimated pre-pandemic ridership of roughly 1.7 billion passengers per year, hundreds of millions of rides have been uneventful—save for their unpleasantness, tedium, and the inability to find a seat or sometimes even a pole to grab.

But that doesn’t matter. Two subways always coexist in our imagination: the actual subway—filthy, malodorous, rodent-ridden, and all the rest, but always running—and the subway as it is thematized and made iconic, by movies and television and the tabloids. The two subways exist together, and we travel both at the same time, and some registry of New York moods can be arrived at by comparing the two. The New York City subway, to use a word that one would not immediately think applies to it, is exceptional for its sensitivity, its ability to reflect the crises and moods of the city. In this way, it is quite unlike the other great urban subway systems: the Paris Métro, which, in the years that I have been sporadically riding it, has changed only in the elimination of the first-class car, where inspectors used to lie in wait to catch second-class-ticket holders; and the London Tube, which seems to get smaller and, well, tubier through the years. The New York subway of today, by contrast, is unrecognizable when compared with the subway of the nineteen-seventies—stripped down, empty, loud, and lethal.

The subway of the seventies, where this straphanger came in, represented poetically, if one can use that word, the city of that time, which was torn between a renewed sense of artistic vitality and a new sense of complete defeat (“FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”). That thriving sense of artistic possibility and vocation is harder to recall, but was just as much a part of that time. Instead, the subway of the seventies was grimly defined in the popular imagination by the famous scene in the Charles Bronson revenge fantasy “Death Wish,” in which a liberal Manhattanite (well, a previously liberal Manhattanite) retaliates against muggers by shooting two dead in a train. It was shown, in a far more sophisticated way, in “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” a remarkably detailed 1974 police procedural about hostage-taking on a subway train, which perversely made plain the exquisitely complex engineering of the vast system at a time of its seeming collapse. The film was also accompanied by David Shire’s matchlessly evocative twelve-tone-technique score, doubtless the only occasion when the musical mechanics of Arnold Schoenberg were called on to dramatize the movement of the I.R.T.

The movie captured the city, and its subway, in a period of financial breakdown, but also a time of enormously rich possibility. It was an era when SoHo was not yet an upscale retail mall but still a thriving artistic village, where you would see the grim druids of Minimalism frowning as they paced the streets and dreamed of rusted steel curtains and wooden blocks. It was also a time of a broad musical efflorescence, famously at CBGB and the like, but maybe even more potently in the jazz clubs of the city. (The seventies were, as my colleague Whitney Balliett pointed out, an Indian summer of swing in Manhattan.) All of that got embodied by both the griminess of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and the beauty of the creative expression, that music, surrounding it.

Of course, the ultimate expression of seventies subway imagery and imagination was the growth of subway graffiti, one of the most extraordinary stories of self-organizing art ever told. In a few years, it went from self-advertising, rough-edged “tagging” to the genuine glories of what became the fluorescent, Alhambra-like “wild style” art of the Fabulous Five. It was an amazing efflorescent that still seeks its own poets. It produced probably the single greatest aphorism on the spirit of modern art, which the subway artist known as A-One shared with this writer: “A vandal is someone who throws a brick through a window; an artist is somebody who paints a picture on that window; a great artist is someone who paints a picture on a window and then throws a brick through it.”

In the eighties and nineties, which were more or less a continual arc of experience, it became apparent that the city was not, in fact, about to drop dead from bankruptcy. That truth was signalled by the arrival of a generation of young people into town, who would become quaintly known as yuppies. The city was supported by its own self-sustaining energies, and the subway in those decades had a bifurcated life. The M.T.A., for reasons that were understandable and appropriate, if philistine, went about removing graffiti and the absence of civic control it symbolized—thereby ending an art movement, but encouraging an ostensible renaissance in subway safety. It created what the sociologist Patrick Sharkey has described as a virtuous circle: the more people on the trains, the safer they seemed to become—a plus above all for those who had no choice but to ride.

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