A Brief History

A Brief History

New York City…the grand metropolis of the United States, one of the largest cities in the world, is home to millions upon millions of people. Like many of the larger cities on the East Coast of North America, it has a history which extends back some four hundred years – not as extensive as the lengthy histories of the great cities of Europe, but more than enough to dwarf the respective ages of other cities of the New World.

The millions of people who live and work in the city are surrounded by the reminders of this history: from the towering buildings that dominate the skyline – the products of the last century – to the skewed streets and narrow avenues that tangle below 14th street, following the paths set by the original Dutch settlement of the 1600s. International financial institutions of the 21st century sit next door to pubs that have served clientele since before the Revolutionary War…and beneath the city streets, the world’s most extensive subway system courses through it all, like arteries pumping blood through the body.

The New York City subway system is the result of the work of several different independent companies. The first subway began construction in the late 19th century, following the lead of London, whose Underground Rail opened in the 1890s. The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) was the first subway line to open, on October 27, 1904. The IRT line ran from City Hall, at the lower tip of Manhattan, north to Grand Central Station, then west under Broadway, eventually terminating at the Bronx Zoo.

This form of public transportation was greeted with fervor and excitement by the public – on the first day of operation, over 150,000 people rode the rails, despite cries from detractors that the process was bad for the lungs, bad for the eyes, and bad for the soul in general. Few people noticed that an invisible line had been crossed. For what was once solely a matter for heroes of myth – journeying beneath the ground, traveling into the underworld and returning alive – was now commonplace.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the city had issued contracts to an additional subway company: The Brooklyn Manhattan Transit (BMT). The two corporations constructed and ran the rapid transit system in New York as a concession from a city that could not afford to build and operate such a system on its own. The BMT and the IRT fought against City Hall in many political battles throughout the early 20th century, especially during the administration of Mayor John F. Hylor in the 20s. Hylor wanted the subways to be constructed and run by the City government. He continually spoke out against private monopolization of the rapid transit system, and proposed an Independent Subway (IND) in 1925. The Ind opened with little fanfare in 1932, after Jimmie Walker, who was much more supportive of the private subway status quo, had replaced Hylor as Mayor.

Eventually, by the 1950s, the city of New York did subsume the IRY, BMT, and IND into one system, under the auspices of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is how the system is operated today. It is these byzantine beginnings that are often cited as the reasons behind the New York City subway’s odd, labyrinthine layout. The official stance is that since the system was laid out by three separate companies, there was little communication between planners, and little effort made to coordinate efforts, resulting in the twisting mass of stations and tunnels that lie beneath the streets. The real reason is far more complex.

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