I’m sitting in the back of a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, attending the first of a series of eight public hearings regarding proposed service and fare changes for New York public transportation.
Compared to the last public hearing that I attended in November, which addressed a proposed additional station on the Metro North that services the new Yankee Stadium, and at which I was one of about five non-MTA attendees, this place is packed and lively.
Hundreds of people must have registered to speak, but at the rate things are going, it looks like only a few dozen will be able to, and everyone I have heard so far has been a politician. The crowd is getting annoyed at that, and periodically shouts out for the public’s voice to be heard. Even with this frustration, people are still enthusiastically participatory, cheering and responding to salient points and challenges to the MTA’s plan. So far, the most vocal support seems to be for disabled residents who would be affected by a reduction in Access-A-Ride service.
The MTA (including its earlier manifestations) has a long history of mistreating and short-changing disabled passengers, as I discovered in my archival research. As I have blogged elsewhere, back during the Great Depression the NYCTA changed its policy and refused sight-impaired passengers from riding without the assistance of another rider or transit employee. In response, a movement promoting the usefulness of seeing-eye dogs arose, but was met with resistance from the transit authority, despite the fact that federal transportation law stated that assistance animals was a safe and prohibiting their use on trains was illegal.
Here’s a letter from the director of the Industrial Home for the Blind:
May 15, 1951
Chairman, Board of Transportation
New York City Transit System
250 Hudson Street
New York NY
I enclose herewith a clipping from page 1 of the Brooklyn Section of “Sunday’s News” together with acopy of our letter of even date to the Editor of “The News”, since it is possible that some of our friends in the transit system - and there are many - may have seen the clipping and rightfully may have taken offense. I enclose also copy of a General Release which had been sent to “The News” and, hence, I feel that a copy of it should be sent to you.
Incidentally, may we seize upon this opportunity to express to you and through you to the members of the transit system, particularly those engaged in the operations of the subways, our sincere appreciation for the countless kindnesses and consideration given to blind persons when they travel in the subways, which is daily.
Peter J. Salmon
The Industrial Home for the Blind
ENCLOSED ARTICLE, May 15, 1951:
Blind Say They Can Smell Way Through Subways
For the man from Mars who migh want to bring back a zippy description of the city’s subways, here’s a late finding:
The BMT “stinks.”
The IRT is a modern Tower of Babel.
The Independent Line has an Arctic touch.
The finding comes from the blind men of the Industrial Home for the Blind, 520 Gates Ave., Brooklyn, who can name a subway line by the smell of the paint and variations in noise. Smell, noise and temperature receive an expert analysis from the blind.
Aided by Relief Map
Their discoveries were made during instruction on cane technique and methods of traveling around Brookklyn and the other boroughs.
A bas-relief map, showing routes, stations and transfer points on subways, has been built by Winfield Rumsey, an instructor in the vocational institute of the home. It shows all the parks, bridges and islands of the city, with parks indicated by bits of felt and bridges by pieces of wood connecting boroughs.
Symbols Are Cleared
The blind men have received instructions in subway travel by feeling the map, which is 4 feet by eight.
Round, square and triangular-shaped tack heads indicate the IRT, INdependent line and BMT, respectively. Bald-headed pins show express stops.
Letter to mayor re: William Wiltchick, who wrote a guide to the subway for the blind, through the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind, published in braille. Dated August 12, 1948.
LETTER RE: TRAVELLING ALONE ON THE SUBWAY
November 1, 1938
Board of Transportation of Independent Subway
250 Hudson Street, New York
Since its opening about seven years ago I have been a constant patron of the Independent Subway, and have received unfailing courtesy from the guards and officials. I am without sight and travel without a guide.
On Sunday, October 30, I entered the subway at 163rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, and was about to deposit my nickel when the agent stepped out and very courteously but firmly informed me that there was a new rule made by the company prohibiting blind people from traveling alone.
If this is true I shall have to abandon the use of the subway which will mean great inconvenience and loss of time. I am an organist in a Lutheran Church in the Bronx on 206th Street and Bainbridge Avenue. The church is close to the subway exit which is very convenient for me. If I cannot use the subway it will mean traveling by a very roundabout way and two carfares.
Could I not be granted a permit whereby I could use the subway as heretofore? Please do not interpret this as a complaint against the agent. He was very polite.
I hope I may receive a favorable answer from you very soon.
John N. Burnham
442 West 164 Street
Here is the response:
REPLY TO BURNHAM:
This will acknowledge receipt of your letter of November 1st, 1938, requesting this Board to issue to you a permit which would contain a direction to the station Agents to allow you to travel over the City Subway, because you are blind.
I regret to inform you that under no circumstances is any request of this kind granted, as it would make the City liable in case of accident resulting in personal injury.
Very truly yours,
Wm. Jerome Daly,
Board of Transportation of the City of New York
Independent System Operation
I just came home from a day at the MTA Transit Museum archives, where I was reading correspondences between customers and municipal officials about “General Vandalism, Rowdyism and Correction of Same” in the subway. Â In 1956, almost a year after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and only a month before the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott ended, a lovely woman wrote this letter:
NEW YORK NOVEMBER 14, 1956
MANAGER OF THE COMPLAINT
DEPT. INTERBOR. 7TH AVE.SUBWAY
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I WISH TO ENTER A VERY VERY SERIOUS COMPLAINT ON THE 7TH.AVE. EXPRESS LAST EVENING WITH THOSE ROWDY NEGROES WHO MADE THEIR WAY IN DROVES INTO THE TRAIN AND I, ALONG WITH OTHER WHITE WOMEN AND SOME MEN WERE THROWN AND PUSHED AROUND LIKE A FOOT BALL, ENDANGERING THE LIVES OF HUMAN BEINGS.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â THERE WERE NO POLICEMEN OR GUARDS TO BE SEEN ON THE 72ND ST. PLATFORM TO PROTECT PEOPLE, AND I COULD NOT GET OUT AT 72ND BY NO MEANS, HAVING TO STAY IN TILL THE NEXT STOP, 96TH. STREET.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â IT WAS UNDOUBTEDLY THE DIRTY LOUZY BUNCH COMING FROM THAT TRADE SCHOOL ON 23RD.ST. AND CLAMMERED TO GET ON THE EXPRESS AT 72ND ST. IT WAS SO TERRIBLE I CRIED FROM NERVOUSNESS FOR HOURS AFTER I RETURNED HOME.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â THERE WERE SOME OF THEM WHO MUST HAVE GOTTEN IN ON 42ND ST. OR ABOVE THAT AND PULLED ON THE EMERGENCY LINE SO MUCH THAT IT HAD EVERONY IN THE TRAIN ON STITCHES THINKING THERE WAS SOMETHING THE MATTER. WHAT KIND OF PROTECTION ARE WE GETTING ON THAT 72ND ST. EXPRESS STATION BETWEEN THE HRS. OF 3PM AND 3:30 WITH THAT HORRIBLE BUNCH OF IDIOTS WHO ARE BEING EDUCATED TO ACT AS THEY DO. BOYS AND GIRLS. I NEVER WANT TO WITNESS SUCH A THING AGAIN AND SOMETHING MUST BE DONE ABOUT IT. WE HAVE TO PAY HIGH TAXES TO LIVE IN THIS AWFUL CITY, AND YET WE HAVE NO PRETECTION AGAINST SUCH ROWDISM.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â TRUST YOU WILL DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS
(Mrs) L Betz 17 Battery Park Placve N.M.
Here’s the NYCTA report about the letter and what came after it’s delivery:
NYC Transit Authority Police Department
Nov. 16, 1956
From: Chief, NYC Transit Police Department
To: Commanding Officer â€“ Dist. #1
Subject: Rowdy Negroes â€“ Lack of Police Protection
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1. The complainant, Mrs. Betz, was personally interviewed on November 23rd. She originally comes from Louisiana, and believes that the negroes in the city are getting too much education. Insofar as her allegations that a uniformed T.A. Patrolman was present at the time and did nothing, she stated that she personally did not see any such thing but that someone told her about it. It is true that she travels just about the same time that students are using this local train at 66th St., and that they change at 72nd St.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2. Lt. Pekerow, Public Safety Squad, was informed of this condition and made specific assignments to this area. The following is a resume of the J.A.B. cards that were issued:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Nov. 16 â€“ 2 JABs
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Nov. 19 â€“ 3 JABs
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Nov. 21 â€“ 2 JABs
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Nov. 27 â€“ 14 JABs
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Nov. 29 â€“ 2 JABs
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Dec. 3 â€“ 22 JABs
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 3. She was interviewed again on December 10th, and told of our efforts. However, she insisted that the condition is unchanged. It should be noted that in our discussions, she continually berated the City and the Negroes, and also led the undersigned to the conclusion that she would not be satisfied until there were no standees in the same care of the train with her.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 4. Ptl. Fulton who had the post on the day in question, was interviewed and knows nothing of the incident. He stated that nothing untoward occurred to attract his attention, although there were the usual crowds of students, and that no one approached him and told him of the incident. Ptl. Fulton is conscientious, intelligent, and could be reasonably expected to take proper police action in the event of such necessity.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 5. At present, two uniformed patrolmen are regularly assigned to this station, and this assignment will continue. The patrolmen have been specifically instructed to disperse the crowds of students not to permit them to loiter in any one vicinity of the platform, and to prevent any acts which would inconvenience other passengers.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 6. Lt. Pekerow will also continue to make daily assignments from his squad to this condition.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 7. This condition will be given continuing attention by the undersigned. Recommend that this report be filed.
Act. C.O., Dist. #1
It seems to me that the report immediately lays out the fact that she’s a racist from the South, implicitly warning the reader to take her complaint and all further interviews with a grain of salt.
I just fell asleep at work. Â I’m so tired, after staying up late working on a lecture for today. Â A friend invited me to speak about listening and the subway, and it was the first time I had presented on my dissertation material in lecture format. Â It was also the first time I had given a lecture based primarily on historical material. Â As a popular music scholar, I have been fortunate to have a bevy of multimedia examples with which to pepper my lecture, keeping students interested and breaking up the presentation of information into bite-sized segments no longer than 20 minutes each. Â But speaking about newspaper articles from 1904 was surprisingly difficult to do for 75 minutes.
I’m realizing that the archival element of my dissertation, which is coalescing into a historical account of the changing soundscape of the NYC subway system, is much better suited to writing than to speaking. Â This is something I will have to work with, as I expect to speak about it much more in the future.