Life underground | USA

The New York Subway: A-Train to hell?

From a symbol of prosperity to a lawless space: New York’s underground has changed with the city. A journey through its history

Several people are standing at a subway station in New York City. A subway train is just coming in. Various signs have been posted for orientation. (Exit, Down Town Express Trains)

Image from photo series “Hell on Wheels: Photographs from the New York Underground 1977-1984” 


Dark corridors, walls coated in rust and dirt, open cable shafts, mountains of rubbish, rats scurrying through the filthy tracks and around puddles of dubious content: When visitors to New York descend into the subway for the first time, they are often surprised at its decrepit state. The fact that a city as prosperous as New York City has such a run-down transit system certainly begs explanation. Yet it was not always like this. 

In its early years, the subway was considered a technological marvel and the pride of the city. However, it was by no means certain at first whether people would actually venture down into the subterranean realms. Ever since the first plans were drawn up at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an underground transport system sparked widespread scepticism.

Numerous famous entrepreneurs and politicians warned that the subway would be a huge flop. They predicted that hardly anyone would voluntarily enter such an unknown vehicle to catapulted through the dark tunnels at breakneck speed, surrounded by countless strangers. For many, the urban underground had a dangerous and dubious reputation. It was considered a haven of hidden powers, vice and crime, a place to be avoided at all costs.

“The Archbishop of New York blessed the first trains and declared their use godly”

As early as 1863, when the world's first underground railway opened in London, it is said that an angry pastor shouted at the passengers at the entrances that the underground system led straight to hell and that they should not go to meet the devil. To counter these fears, the New York subway's engineers and investors toiled hard to offer people with a different image of the urban underground, touting it as bright, clean, safe and ultra-modern.

Respected scientists were employed to conduct thorough testing and certify that the system was safe for health. The renowned architectural firm Heins & LaFarge, which had previously made a name for itself mainly with the construction of cathedrals and other sacred buildings, was appointed to design the opulent first stations.

The Archbishop of New York finally blessed the first trains and declared their use to be godly. Newspapers never tired of promoting the future subway as a new wonder of the world and a monument to progress that would overcome the city’s traffic chaos and overcrowding. 

This helped turn this infrastructure into a symbol of the dawn of a new age of prosperity and progress. Its opening day on 27 October 1904 was a sensation. More than 100,000 New Yorkers boarded the new transportation system that day. Their boisterous celebrations had to be broken up by the police.

Less than an hour after it went into operation, the system was already massively overloaded, giving passengers a foretaste of the future. The city filled up even more due to the steadily increasing number of commuters. And New York's iconic skyscrapers are also unthinkable without the subway: up to the present, the population density of the island of Manhattan doubles during the day. And all those people who work in the big buildings have to get there somehow. 

The initial euphoria of the passengers quickly gave way to disillusionment about the hardships they had to endure every day in the overcrowded carriages. Nevertheless, the subway opened up new freedoms for people. With its unbeatably cheap fare of five cents and round-the-clock service, it opened up new parts of their city to many and promoted Harlem's rise as a centre of African-American culture. 

“Petty criminals, homeless people and youth gangs populated the run-down stations”

If the subway experienced a heyday in the first half of the 20th century, it had passed its zenith by the mid-1960s at the latest. People had long since pinned their hopes on the car, while the subway was considered an expensive and high-maintenance relic of a bygone era.

When, in the course of the “white flight”, the white middle classes left not only the underground but also the city in droves and moved to the new suburbs sprouting everywhere, New York slid deeper and deeper into an economic crisis. In 1975, the collapse of tax revenues almost forced the city government to declare bankruptcy. This and a rapidly rising crime rate soon earned New York a reputation as a lawless and ungovernable metropolis.

Nowhere was this decline more evident than on the subway. Time and again, the technology broke down, and while security personnel were cut, petty criminals, homeless people and youth gangs increasingly populated the dilapidated stations and trains. If photographs of the time are to be believed, the subway must have conveyed an almost post-apocalyptic feeling.

The dilapidated and graffiti-covered trains became a byword for New York's crisis. In cinema, it became a symbol of the disintegration of the city's moral order. Successful films such as “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974), “Death Wish” (1974) or “The Warriors” (1979) showed the subway as a lawless territory ruled by gangs. While the fears of passengers in the first decades were primarily directed at the new technology, it was now primarily the fellow passengers from whom they had to protect themselves.  

In 1977, the “Guardian Angels” formed a vigilante group that patrolled day and night in uniform. When on 22 December 1984 the 37-year-old white electrical engineer Bernhard Goetz shot down four black passengers on a train under Manhattan, claiming to have acted in self-defence, he was celebrated as a heroic “Subway Vigilante”.

It was not until many years later that the economy recovered and also flushed more money into the coffers of the underground. Finally, repairs could be carried out. The fact that the crime rate began to fall in the city as well as on the subway from the beginning of the 1990s was also attributed by some to the controversial zero-tolerance policy of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

In the wake of the financial industry boom, New York became one of the leading global cities in the late 1990s. Likewise, the tourism industry ensured the city's economic rise, a trend that continues to this day. Passenger traffic in the tunnels beneath the city has grown steadily: by the time of the Corona pandemic outbreak in spring 2020, over ninety percent of New Yorkers were using the system regularly.

More than four million people spent an average of 43 minutes a day in them. Spending time in the urban underground has long since become a banal part of everyday life in New York. Nevertheless, given the overcrowding, the filth and the stench, some may sometimes feel reminded of hell.

Translated by Jess Smee