What Lies Beneath

New York and Washington have their differences, but the greatest disparity (at least to someone who just moved from Manhattan) is in their subway systems.

No one will ever confuse New York and Washington. Despite a few similarities shared with most other big cities—a vast rich-poor gap, great museums—there’s really nothing in common. One is full of skyscrapers; the other is covered in squat concrete buildings. One is home to a panoply of companies and industries; the other is home to the federal government—and not much else. But having spent time in both as of late, were I forced to pick the one thing that best draws a line between our cultural and political capitals, I’d pick their subway systems.

Which seems strange, because at first glance this should be a common ground—after all, there are only seven cities in the country with significant underground rail systems. But the difference between the two is stark, and in ways that reflect back, oh so tellingly, on their respective urbs.

For one: the smell. For me, there’s nothing quite like waiting for the A train at the 59th Street station in late July; the concentrated ooze that has spent all year collecting between the rails, giving nourishment to rats the size of footballs—it’s positively gut-wrenching. And yet it is also the unfiltered odor of the urban environment; blind and dumb, I’d have no problem knowing I was in New York once I made it to the train station. The Metro, on the other hand, is like a freshly showered body: odorless, until I take a deep breath and notice the faintest hint of soap—or, in the subway’s case, recycled air. It’s pleasant, yet disturbing, at least to a New Yorker. Nothing in the public realm should be this clean. It’s unnatural, and it gives the entire city an anodyne sheen.

Subways are incredibly accurate social portraits; if someone goes to a city and all they do is ride the subway, they’ll learn all they need to know about how the place operates. New York’s subway is a great equalizer: everyone rides it, even the mayor. The 4, 5, and 6 trains headed north carry both upper-crust Upper East Siders and down-on-their-luck Spanish Harlemites. Yes, New York is far from even in its social structure. There are exclusive clubs and exclusive classes. But it’s impossible to avoid the mix of races and incomes that defines the city and, in turn, is reflected in its mass transit. The system’s history plays this out: Originally intended to move people around Manhattan, it brought mobility to everyone, and only in the 1920s, with the addition of the BMT and IND lines, did it expand to what were then the suburbs in order to carry middle-class workers in and out of the city. But, according to Clifton Hood’s magnificent history of the New York subways, 722 Miles, it still clung so tightly to the nickel fare—until 1948—that it almost went bankrupt in the mid-1960s.

The Metro, on the other hand, seems almost exclusively built for commuters coming from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs—indisputable when you consider how hard it is to get across the city without going through downtown. Predictably, there are long stretches of some lines where all I see are young, white faces. Though the city has a burgeoning black middle class, it is primarily the former for whom the city is shaped: the transitory, the eager, the poorly paid. The foot soldiers of the federal economy. Predictably, there are also stretches where all you see are African Americans—the result of one of our country’s most segregated cities.

At the same time, I rarely see the sort of obviously wealthy people I encounter on virtually any Manhattan subway car. These people live far from a Metro station, sequestered in the vast tracts of Northwest D.C. that opposed Metro construction in the late 1970s. ‘The widespread perception,’ wrote the New York Times in 1984, ‘was that the Georgetowners had a more basic fear: While out walking their poodles and Pomeranians, they would be confronted by suburban riffraff pouring up the subway steps.’ Instead, they drive, or use a car service; mass transit is for little people. The simple fact that Georgetown residents could defeat a Metro station with only the most thinly veiled racism speaks volumes about the city’s social structure. As Wayne Biddle writes in the February 2003 Harper’s, ‘Washington is still a fashionable apartheid city, with a narrow swath of Northwest containing most of the white people…there lingers a palpable unspoken notion in the neighborhoods between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues debouching into Montgomery County that the Third World is held at bay here.’ But don’t take Biddle’s word for it—ride the Metro and see for yourself.

Then there are the stations themselves. In New York there are subway fanatics, people who joyride the rails and study the myriad makes of subway cars—and then there are the subway station fanatics, whose arcane knowledge of the city’s 490 stations would shame a hardcore Trekkie. But there’s a method to their madness, or at least a justification: Each station has an amazing character, a history. In the corner of the Grand Central Station end of the 42nd Street Shuttle is a locked door, over which is written the word ‘Knickerbocker.’ Behind it is a staircase that once led to the Knickerbocker Hotel—which has since been demolished. Next time you’re on the 4,5, or 6 line, halfway between the 14th and 23rd Street stations, press your face up to the window and cup your hands over your eyes. The now-shuttered 18th Street station, graffiti’d and beautiful, is just one of many such ghost stations throughout the island.

There are no shuttered stations in Washington. In fact, there are no distinctive stations at all—the system, on the contrary, operates like a McDonald’s, maintaining service by keeping each station exactly the same. Inside, there are few clues that tell which way is which, and even veteran Metro riders find themselves at the wrong exit from time to time. The stations are immaculate; like so much else in Washington, they are cleaned by an army of low-wage workers who only come out after the city has gone to sleep.

But there is, nevertheless, an aesthetic dimension to the Metro: Like the World Trade Center or the Apollo program, it is a masterpiece of late Modernism, the result of a few thousand engineers dreaming the impossible dream, then finding the public funds to make it reality. Whether their dream meshed with the needs of the public is a different question, and one never addressed in the planning stages. The Metro is sheer and utilitarian, designed to serve a single purpose. As a result, unlike the New York subways, it is impervious to the musings of poets; hit songs will never be written about the Orange Line. It is pure efficiency.

And yet: Coming back from New York after Valentine’s Day, I entered Washington just as it was beginning to dig itself out of the two feet of snow that had fallen on cities from Washington to Boston over the previous few days. The New York subways had nevertheless been running throughout. But in Washington, the trains were still on a much-diminished schedule, running every half-hour and not serving above-ground stations. This was an improvement, I heard, from the day before, when the trains hardly ran at all. And it was marvelous, really—that here was a system whose limitations (closed at night, a relatively small number of stations) were supposed to improve its efficiency. And yet for all its clean cars and natty stations, it was far behind New York in actually getting riders where they need to go. And after spending an hour trying to get from Union Station to Capitol South, less than a mile by foot, there was no longer a question—I’ll take outsized rats any day.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen