The Subway Belongs to Us

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1797 ... April 3, 2019
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The Subway Belongs to Us

Andy Battle

One evening in November, I left my job at Hunter College and descended to the platform at Sixty-Eighth Street, home to the number 6 train, which shambles down one of New York’s most notoriously crowded and poor-performing subway lines. For a hundred years, the Lexington Avenue line, colored a sort of forest green on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) familiar maps, has been the only subway serving Manhattan’s densely-packed east side. With the demolition of the Second and Third Avenue elevated lines in 1942 and 1955, it became the only train, period, serving that half of the island.

The ‘els’ were demolished with the expectation that the city would relieve the resulting congestion by constructing a Second... Avenue Subway -- a project first proposed in 1919, before anyone I know was alive. Work started on the Second Avenue Subway in 1972, in the waning days of New York’s unique brand of municipal social democracy. Three years later, the city’s legendary fiscal crisis erupted, and construction was halted as the city scrambled merely to keep the existing system from collapsing.

Thirty-two years and a political-economic revolution later, construction resumed on the half-dug tunnels, and in 2017, with meticulously choreographed fanfare, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cut the ribbon on the Second Avenue Subway, ninety-nine years after the first plans were drafted. Like all public projects in these shriveled times, though, the Second Avenue Subway bore the marks of the austerity regime under which it was conceived. Comprising just three stations, the line serves a twenty-four block stretch of the Upper East Side, one of the city’s more comfortable sections. Its major effect so far has been to jump-start real estate development, the sine qua non of all New York City politics, pushing up rents and lining the pockets of the big developers who fund the governor’s political campaigns. I used to think things like subways were built because there was a social "need" for them. That was before I learned what capitalism is and how it works.

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