The More Things Change: The Subway, 1921 and Today

I started reading history books when I was in middle school. I was a history major in college. I still pretty much exclusively read history books (I get my fiction fix from movies; hit me up if you’re in the mood to talk Romanian New Wave). I find it thrilling to discover through lines between the past and the present. The past is not a perfect predictor of the future, but it’s a pretty damn good one.

The subway is no exception. We’re still grappling with many of the same basic questions New Yorkers have wrestled with for a century: how do we pay for it? Who is going to run it? Who controls whatever entity that runs it?

Which is why I was so excited to talk to W.K. Akers, who has a really unique perspective on this. While researching Westside, his upcoming novel set in old New York, Akers read through countless editions of the New York Times. He found the old articles so much fun he started a newsletter, called Strange Times, to document the weirdest stories he found.

Over the course of a year, Akers has gone through two months of Times articles, spanning January and February of 1921. “It's more like watching in slow motion,” Akers told me last week. “A guy got indicted in the middle of January, he was on trial in the middle of February, and for me that takes months. I'm very deep into this one very particular moment in history.”

That moment in history was an important time for the subway, one that echoes many of the same conversations we’re having today. OK, not all the transit-related stories from 1921 bear much relevance to today, like the time a New Jersey commuter rail train got stuck in a snowstorm for three hours, was rear-ended by the help train which shattered the rear windows letting cold air in, the conductors got out to argue over who was at fault for the accident, and the passengers resorted to ripping up and burning the seats to stay warm.

But a lot of them do.

So I caught up with Akers and we chatted about what was going on then, how it was covered, and how reading about history in slow motion has affected his perception of the present.

I’ve edited the interview slightly for clarity and brevity.

Aaron Gordon: Tell me what's going on with the subway in the winter of 1921.

W.K. Akers: So I did not do this on purpose, but it's a fascinating inflection point for transit in New York City, or as they called it at the time, "traction," the word they usually use to mean all sorts of public transit.

At this point, Brooklyn Rapid Transit is falling apart. The system was basically crippled after World War I, both because of the Malbone St accident which killed 93 people, maybe more, and I think was the biggest disaster in the history of the subway?

AG: Yeah that's right.

WA: And also inflation, which is having a really nasty impact on all of the mass transit providers in the city because at this point all of them are contractually obligated to provide service for a flat five-cent fare that was heavily baked into all their charters. And as the value of the nickel is going down, they're losing money. [During the eight-year span from 1914 to 1921, the value of a dollar nearly halved.]

So BRT is falling apart. In a couple of years it will be replaced by the BMT [Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit]. But right now, everything is sort of up in the air. Everybody's like, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to save the subway? The same thing people are talking about today they're talking about in 1921.

And it's a moment where there's a new governor, a guy named Nathan Miller, who's come in and basically his first or second week on the job he comes out really, really hard saying we need to completely overhaul the way the system works, we need to throw out all of the committees, and the different people who have been in charge of this up until now, and we need unified control under a state-run committee, and basically, it needs to be overseen by me.

Well that doesn't sound familiar at all.

Yeah, so this is nothing you and your readers will have any idea about.

The mayor, John Hylan, is fighting back, saying absolutely not. we're going to do everything to maintain city control of the subway if not expand it, and I'm going to do everything I can to protect the five cent fare.

Let's take a step back and talk about who owns what, and what the governance structure at the time is. As you alluded to, these are not government entities, they're kind of like public-private partnerships.

Yeah, that's absolutely right. It's a confusing system, especially looking at it from present day. But it's a remnant of all these different companies that built the tracks and which are overseen by the city, but are private companies, but are regulated very heavily by the city's Board of Estimate and also forces from Albany to make sure they're providing good service and everybody's playing fair. So it's a really complicated, messy system. It's not hard to see why it's starting to fall apart in this moment in 1921.

What's the narrative development here? Where's the blame going? Where's does the popular sentiment lie? Can you even describe that neatly?

The battle lines have been drawn pretty firmly. It's Governor Nathan Miller and the Republicans who are saying we need to simplify this, we need to possibly throw away the five cent fare, and basically just cut down on all of this mess and unify it under the control of Albany.

And then Mayor Hylan and the Democrats, and Tammany, I guess, are the ones saying absolutely not, we're going to stand on the side of the people of New York City, this has nothing to do with Albany, and we're going to do everything we can to protect the five cent fare and keep the city subway system for the people. They are accusing the Republicans of "a monstrous invasion of the Constitutional rights of the City of New York," is a quote that Hylan used in an article I saw today from February 28.

What's the governor's rationale for Albany control of the subway at this point?

They don't trust the city. They see the city as corrupt. They see Democrats particularly as historical guardians of corruption, which in New York City in a lot of ways they were. And they say the city is not going to be able to manage this in a responsible way. They're just going to waste taxpayer money and line their own pockets.

So you've gone through about two months' worth of news on this.

Yeah, and it's interesting because any decision on this stuff is months away. So each day, what I'm seeing in the paper is very granular back and forth debates about really particular topics. Like should there be a flat fare for transit from one end of the city to the other? Or should it be zonal based on how far you're going? Nobody has any idea quite what's going on. Plans are being tossed around.

This suggests to me that nothing is actually happening so they're just digging into details to find things to write about while they wait to see what actually happens.

Yeah, and tearing apart a plan that half exists. The governor made a speech three weeks ago or something, and they kind of got a plan, but they kind of don't have a plan, and everyone else is like, this half-plan is terrible. But it doesn't really exist, so it's like, what are they even talking about?

So the city is claiming they're on the populist side, that they want to retain control because it's the will of the people. Is that true?

I certainly believe that the popular sentiment was on the side of the five cent fare. I know from peeking ahead a little bit, because I do sometimes look for spoilers, I know that Hylan basically goes on to run for re-election in the fall of 1921 campaigning strictly on the fare of five cent fare, five cent fare, five cent fare, and he wins re-election. So I think that's all it took, was "subway's gonna cost a nickel, ya'll" and that's all anybody needs to hear.

There's a great line in that article I was reading of his today. He wrote this whole article where he said the state was going to see that "New York was looted and sacked like the conquered city of old" and he says that the companies who are running the subways are crying poor, they cannot possibly provide good service with a nickel fare. And he says that as evidence of this being not true, he points to crowding on the subway. He's like, it's so crowded! This must be so popular! Truly they have enough nickels to succeed.

Source: NYT

Which I thought was a really nice, head-scratching argument and not one that someone would try and make today, I don't think.

One of the things I bring up from time to time is that a lot of the subway's problems are rooted in two legacy issues: Robert Moses salting the mass transportation Earth, and the legal requirement to keep the fare at five cents for 48 years, so whoever was running the system could not adjust for inflation.

So it’s interesting to hear about one point at which this could have been changed, but wasn’t, and also to compare it to what's going on today, with the board delaying a vote to raise fares. We still haven't fundamentally resolved how to make these decisions in a way that’s best for the long-term health of the transit system.

As you know, people have such strong feelings about the subway because it's so important to almost everybody in the city. It's so easy to play on popular sentiment. It hits people in the pocketbook. And nobody ever wants to raise the fare ever because it's always extremely unpopular even when it's extremely important, the same way that no one wants to, say, shut down the L train because shit that's not gonna be popular at all, people are going to hate that. There was just no way to make people swallow a bitter pill, ever.

I know you're only reading one newspaper, but how has the coverage of transportation changed?

That's a great question. I haven't so much been reading the editorial pages—because I think they're kind of boring which is actually how I feel about the editorial pages now—but I've been trying to get from the news coverage when the Times is putting their thumbs on the scales. And they do seem to be coming down more on the Republican/Albany side. I'm not 100 percent sure on that, but they're giving the Governor a lot of space and they're re-printing his speeches in full.

But they're drilling down into every single point. It's front page news almost every day. That could just be because it’s a new governor and a new plan, but it does seem like it's getting massive play all the time.

[In a follow-up email, Akers added: “One other thought I had about the 1921 newspaper that you might find interesting—there is absolutely no impulse toward investigative reporting. Whatever the politicians say is dutifully reported, and aside from a possible questioning in the editorial page there is no effort to check them. So while they might report the nitty gritty of the traction question, they will never press the pols on the facts, or even try to make sure their readership understands the finer points of what's going on.”]

Can you tell me more about the deep dives they do?

So, yeah, here's a whole paragraph from this front-page news story that's just diving into how a proposed amendment to the new transit commission plan would affect the transit commission's ability to take on debt. And they've got paragraph after paragraph about how they would change the tax law to slightly affect the way the companies function. I don't think you'd see that on the front page of the Times today.

Wait, that's on the front page?

Yeah, well it's actually after the jump, but yeah it's on page two.

Wow, because that sounds really technical.

Can I just read you a very boring sentence?


"Home rule provisions are absolutely abrogated under another amendment relating to the powers of the transit commission."

They needed better editing.

Yeah, right? Oh my god, some of the writing in the 1921 Times is really horrifying. But anyway, they are not afraid to get way, way, way into the weeds which makes me think that people must have been really interested. Which is pretty cool. It's like all this stuff, every single detail, was hugely important.

It's especially interesting because the 1921 Times, as a rule, does not go into great depth about stuff. One of the reasons I like it a lot for my newsletter is that there's a lot of one-paragraph long news stories. Like, four sentences. "Here's a thing that happened!" and that's all. It's like four lines about: somebody got killed in a hold up! That's the whole thing! We don't know! We're not going to ask any questions about it!

So when they do really go into depth about political stuff, and it's usually state or city level political stuff, it's usually to do with the first two months of 1921 with traction or police graft.

There was a huge graft scandal brewing at the time with Hylan's name gets mentioned in a lot, which I think is part of the ammunition Albany is using to paint his administration as corrupt and unfit to be in charge of the subways. I found an article from January about how Hylan and his police commissioner were subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury about graft involving the NYPD auto squad. There was a scheme where auto squad cops were stealing cars and then returning them to police departments to claim the rewards. And there were suspicions it went all the way up to the commissioner and maybe the mayor.

How has taking such a deep dive into the subway from almost 100 years ago affected your perception of the subway and the MTA today?

I both feel immensely appreciative for the system we have and the fact that we have it at all, and I can't believe that, with these people in charge of it and this level of stalemate and anger and rage on both sides, that anything ever got built after that. And so much got built after this moment. There are so many lines that are about to be opened, so many tunnels about to be dug, and that's really cool.

Seeing how the subway has always been a total mess makes me very appreciative that anything at all ever got built. But then also I was on Wikipedia today reading about Hylan and there's a proposed future subway map that Hylan's administration put out, and it's so many lines all over Brooklyn and Queens, just a truly city-wide subway plan that never happened.

So I'm appreciative anything ever got built at all, and also like why didn't you bastards have your heads screwed on straighter, because god dammit, it could work a lot better.