Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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Take the A train

Whether you ride the rails or visit the Transit Museum, New York's subway is an icon in its own right

"This time" said Elliot Sander, "it's for real." You'd think he'd know. Sander was the executive director of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the man who runs the subways. And he was announcing, in 2007, the start of construction on the Second Avenue line, the city's first new subway route in more than 70 years.

New York City officials have had groundbreaking ceremonies on the Second Avenue line four times since the 1920s. Various proposals for use of the completed, but disused, sections of the tunnels have included a mushroom farm, wine cellar and the "the world's longest filing cabinet." Sometimes called “the line that time forgot,” legendary mayor Ed Koch once said he would bet on the mushrooms sooner than the new line.

The Second Avenue line has achieved mythic proportions in New York, and has been the fictional setting for plays and novels. It's the itchy missing limb of the city’s subway system.

To really understand its importance you have to first understand what the subways mean to New York. And one of the best places to do that is at the New York Transit Museum (Boerum Place & Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn; tel: 718- 694-1600; mta.info/mta/museum), the largest public transport museum in the US.

Just getting here gives a hint of how the city was built by the subway. The massive 5500-square-metre transit museum, is just five minutes from Wall Street — but across the moat of the Hudson River, in Brooklyn Heights. Before the first subway line was opened in 1904, the trip could have taken hours and, depending on river conditions, been impossible.

The museum itself is in an old subway station, complete with lovely tiling and clicking antique turnstiles. The dedicated subway exhibit, Moving the Millions (annual ridership tops a billion) features actual period cars as well as photos, maps, cartoons and more.

What becomes clear, as you walk through the exhibit, is that ever since the first subway opened in London, in 1863, a lot of cities have come to rely on public transit. But what makes New York different is that the city itself was built in large part by its public transit.

Rather than lines going to existing developments, in many cases the development followed the building of the lines. Its founders were convinced that not only would the line build the city, but it would help the US surpass Britain as a global power.

One way it would do that was by creating a level social playing field. From the start, the subway was used by everyone, as photos of early riders from all over the world attest. With the beacon of Ellis Island just offshore, and Manhattan a first stop for immigrants, the subway created a unifying and egalitarian skeleton for the city to grow.

Within a 15-minute ride, a newly arrived Italian could eat a home-cooked lunch just like mom used to make, visit his Polish girlfriend in "Little Warsaw," drop in on his cousin at the world's major stock exchange, grab a quick dumpling in Chinatown, hang around the stage door hoping to see a Broadway beauty (that his girlfriend would never know about), see a bear at the Central Park Zoo, and still make it back to Little Italy in time for another home-cooked meal.

It was the American dream, for the price of a cup of coffee. It inspired dreams, then helped make them happen.

Even today, New Yorkers of all stripes ride the subway. It is their pride. Many never bother to learn to drive. And they still like to play the "who did you see on the train today?" game.

One person I know has seen NY Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick, New York City Mayor Bloomberg (twice), four or five members of the cast of a major Broadway play together, dressed up, and Gloria Steinem wearing her usual big glasses and eating a bag of nuts. And that's just recently.

The subway helped New York secure its place in the 20th century, and it is well placed to help in the 21st as well — assuming it can manage the pesky flooding challenges that cropped up during Hurricane Irene. Meanwhile, as car culture becomes increasingly expensive, sprawling cities with poor public transit, like Los Angeles, might become increasingly untenable.

But, as Daniel L. Doctoroff, the city's former deputy mayor for economic development put it: "As goes the Second Avenue subway, so goes New York." And it's going just fine, thank you very much. It’s due to open in 2016. Either that, or look for the world’s mushroom market to soon be flooded by New York produce.

If you are interested, but don’t have the five minutes it takes to slip under the Hudson (What? Leave the island?) you can get a small taste of what is on offer at the Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex at Grand Central Station.

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