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Underground Movements

Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway

Sunny Stalter-Pace
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Underground Movements
    Book Description:

    For more than a century the New York City subway system has been a vital part of the city’s identity, even as judgments of its value have varied. It has been celebrated as the technological embodiment of the American melting pot and reviled as a blighted urban netherworld. Underground Movements explores the many meanings of the subway by looking back at the era when it first ascended to cultural prominence, from its opening in 1904 through the mid1960s. Sunny StalterPace analyzes a broad range of texts written during this period—news articles, modernist poetry, ethnic plays, migration narratives, as well as canonical works by authors such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Ralph Ellison—to illustrate the subway’s central importance as a site of abstract connection, both between different parts of the city and between city dwellers who ride the train together. Writers and artists took up questions that originated in the sphere of urban planning to explore how underground movement changed the ways people understand the city. Modern poets envisioned the subway as a space of literary innovation; playwrights and fiction writers used it to gauge the consequences of migration and immigration; and essayists found that it underscored the fragile relationship between urban development and memory. Even today, the symbolic associations forged by these early texts continue to influence understanding of the cultural significance of the subway and the city it connects.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-287-5
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-23)

    Stories about technology proliferate in contemporary culture. In online forums, in mass media, and in everyday conversation, Americans narrate their relation to the world through their machines: my smartphone makes me feel connected, perhaps too connected; my car offers freedom of movement and shields me from fellow commuters. Technologies do not inherently shape these new forms of sociability, though they do make some ways of relating easier than others. Instead, stories told about technologies model the new modes of interaction they bring about. Stories bestow cultural capital on some machines, allowing them to play a symbolic role in US culture...

    (pp. 24-51)

    Before the subway opened, New York’s newspapers took sides on the issue, sensing that it would come to define the city in a new way. Some touted the possibility of traveling from City Hall to Harlem in fifteen minutes. Joseph Pulitzer’sNew York Evening Worldmade the claim a battle cry of its own, calling it on April 5, 1893, “the definition of the term ‘Real Rapid Transit’” and repeatedly invoking it in editorials and features about subway construction (“To Harlem in Fifteen Minutes”).¹ Other publications, like theNew York Sun, concerned themselves with safety issues (“How We’ll Travel in...

    (pp. 52-77)

    In the previous chapter I discussed the development of habits and mental models that New Yorkers used to navigate subway space. I characterized the experience of the subway passenger as navigation between the immediate—and resolutely partial—ride and the larger, otherwise incomprehensible system. Newspaper articles of the early twentieth century concerned themselves with the novelty of this form of movement, imagining how visitors and residents might understand New York differently as they crossed it underground. Poems in this period took a different approach, imagining the subway in transcendental terms as a vehicle through which one could access the divine...

    (pp. 78-109)

    In the verse of Joyce Kilmer, Chester Firkins, and the other poets invested in the ideal of the subway sublime, the passenger’s orientation to the system parallels the believer’s relation to the divine: although neither person can perceive its object, each experiences flashes of wonder and peace that confirm its coherence. These middlebrow Catholic poets see the subway as a vehicle that counteracts the irreligious rationalism of their age; with its underground tunnels and complex pathways, the subway can be understood only through parallels and metaphors. By eschewing the transparency of the gear-and-girder world, the subway’s form nearly demands that...

    (pp. 110-139)

    The Bridgeends with a retrospective look at the Brooklyn Bridge, imagining that the interborough icon unifies the poem and, Hart Crane suggests, the country’s history. In order to gain that syncretic perspective, the poem has to abandon the subway car and the habit-driven working-class physicality that it found there. The fantasies of cultural connectivity that the poem locates in the Brooklyn Bridge were commonly ascribed to other nineteenth-century innovations like the telegraph and the long-distance telephone. According to Carolyn Marvin, scientific experts at the turn of the century believed that new media could bridge cultures without decentering them (192)....

    (pp. 140-165)

    In the early twentieth century, Jewish New Yorkers could assimilate to the broader understanding of white American culture (as nineteenth-century German Jews did) or maintain their cultural specificity in a manner more common among the eastern European immigrants who came to the United States around the turn of the century. Some early-arriving German Jews take pains to distinguish themselves from their working-class brethren, a distinction we can see from William Dean Howells’s novelA Hazard of New Fortunes(1890) to Alfred Uhry’s playThe Last Night of Ballyhoo(1996). In the early twentieth century, class bias within African American culture...

    (pp. 166-190)

    Since the 1950s New York City’s population has fallen and risen; its economy has gone through several cycles of boom and bust. The threat of crime, allied to the subway in the popular imagination from the 1960s onward, was counteracted through aggressive (some say too aggressive) policing in the 1980s and 1990s. Criminologist George Kelling and political scientist James Wilson’s “broken windows theory,” which posits that an environment of apathy toward minor crimes encourages more serious violations, had a major influence on the powers within the New York City Transit Authority and Transit Police. As Robert Huber of the Transit...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 191-204)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 205-224)
  13. Index
    (pp. 225-234)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 235-238)