Vandal Squad on This American Life

Liveblogging the MTA Public Hearings

Public Hearing Number One

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.

blogger's row
Next to me is Benjamin Kabak, the author of, who is writing a very similar post.

Waiting to get into the hearing
After waiting in line about an hour, along with approximately 500 people, I eventually made my way into the hall, which seats a few hundred people, after being filtered through a security checkpoint almost as rigorous as one would find at an airport.

Press at the MTA Public Hearing
The press is almost as abundant as the mobilized groups representing riders of many of the buses that potentially will be cut.

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.

the last public hearing
The last public hearing, back in November.

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.

Smelling the Way Through Subways

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

Dear Sir:-

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.

Faithfully yours,
Peter J. Salmon
Executive Director
The Industrial Home for the Blind


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.

Vision Impairment and the New York Subway

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.

November 1, 1938

Board of Transportation of Independent Subway
250 Hudson Street, New York

Dear Sirs:
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.
Yours truly
John N. Burnham
442 West 164 Street

Here is the response:


Dear Sir:-
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

Post-Lecture, Pre-Turkey Exhaustion

I just fell asleep at work.  I’m so tired, after staying up late working on a lecture for today.   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.  It was also the first time I had given a lecture based primarily on historical material.  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.  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.  This is something I will have to work with, as I expect to speak about it much more in the future.