Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler

(Photo by me - New York loves its subway so much, it gets its name in lights in Times Square!)

Hope everyone had a good Labor Day last week - I hadn't intended to, but I ended up taking the week off from blogging (obviously) since my parents came into town to visit. So I spent most of last week being a tourist with them - it was the only way I could justify taking the above photo, since usually I'm trying my hardest to blend in with the natives and whipping out your camera to take a picture in Times Square isn't Native New York behavior.

But, as I did with Wondrous Strange, I wanted to make this a bit of an illustrated post since today's book, Secret Subway, is all about the first subway built in New York City, well before the system that I ride every day was even imagined.

Sandler has researched all sorts of aspects of life in New York in the mid-to-late 1800s to give an in depth look at what life in the city that never sleeps was like, from crowded/dangerous/dirty streets to the corrupt politicians that had their fingers in all parts of city life. This gives us a great view of the environment Alfred Beach was working in to create his original idea for the subway, a luxurious ride underneath the hubbub of the surface streets.

If only that dream had continued to today!

(From Flickr user andy in nyc - the dingy and usually crowded station at Union Square, where I go to buy veggies at the Greenmarket every week. Note the lack of comfy couches and pianos, and how the platform is right next to the train tracks, as opposed to Beach's original plan for the waiting area to be separate from the boarding platform)

Though that's not to say all of our platforms are miserable

(From Flickr user wallyg The awesome art at the Museum of Natural History's stop. You can walk right from the subway platform into the museum!)

I was utterly enthralled by this book - it's such a fantastic story, even for those who aren't from the city. Beach's story is one that captures the imagination from the moment one first hears of it: how did a person build a subway in secret in one of the biggest cities in the world?

Apparently, Beach's subway is still beneath the streets - it was discovered when the current subway system was being expanded. I would love it if the MTA could get some of it out and put it on display in our transit museum. Then again, since we just had the ceiling collapse in a station built in 1903, I wonder if it really has survived?

Thoughts on the current state of NYC transit aside, Secret Subway is a fascinating look at forgotten New York history, a must read for history fans (for the look at transportation and politics in 19th century New York), transit buffs, and all of those who <3 NY.


Cindy Dobrez said...

I loved this book, and am glad to see your added photos. I missed the Natural History stop on my weekend of subway stops a few years ago. I can't wait to visit NYC again.

Angela said...

I'm having fun taking photos - though my dad thought I was strange. He doesn't get this whole "blogging" thing yet - heck, he doesn't get the internet at all.

My mom always admires the tilework in the stations, though she thinks they would "never" do such intricate work today. Then I point out the station artwork is mostly less than 10 years old. Sure it's focused more in the tourist-y areas (the station by my apartment is dark and dreary and all the tile work is probably the original from the 1930s), but there clearly are attempts to keep the stations looking as good as possible!

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