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Beneath the Heights:

            A Story of How the Tunnels Transformed its People                     

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Spreading through the solid bedrock are the veins of New York’s circulatory system. Throbbing with life, the City’s pulse trembles the foundations of century-old buildings. Perhaps the sudden tremble is the outcry of the men who died while constructing the stronghold of their City. Maybe it is the vibrant story of its tunnels, the century-worth of people who decorated and embellished miles of its countless tiles. Stations are the relics of the people who used them. Entire neighborhoods have come and gone, leaving a timeless record on the eternal walls of those same tunnels.

Two years ago, the City was celebrating the centennial of its Subway system. Suddenly, entire books were published on the history of this omnipresent Underworld, revealing the long-forgotten secrets and stories of the people who built it. Scholarly research articles and websites sprung up across the World Wide Web in an attempt to remember and pay respects to those who gave their lives deep beneath our feet. Of great interest came the first line, The Interborough Rapid Transit Subway, built to connect the four corners of Manhattan. Revolutionizing transportation across all parts of Manhattan, the IRT became synonymous with the technical marvels promising to revolutionize the way people lived. (Fischler) Most importantly, the new transportation system transformed long-formed neighborhoods and its people, opening doors to the previously unreachable places, bringing both comfort and new racial battles. IRT, in a way, lifted the “Iron Curtain” that for so long isolated and sustained entire cultures thriving in all corners of Manhattan. (Bobrick)

Thousands were employed to build the new system, digging house-deep trenches on every block of the City. Proceeding Northward using the long-tested “cut and cover” technique, engineers found themselves befuddled facing the sharp-sloped hills of Washington Heights and Inwood. Building a tunnel using that technique, through the treacherously rocky and hilly terrain of Uptown Manhattan, would have resulted in a rollercoaster ride mimicking the unfathomable land. From the result of the engineering solution to this problem came the most stunning and majestic series of stations that became the flagship of the entire IRT and later, the entire New York City subway system. A trip down to the 191t Street Station in Washington Heights can be as haunting and as mesmerizing of an experience as taking a plunge into the living museum of our City. Royal Arches bearing the weight of the city above overhang the marble platforms, reminiscent of the Victorian stations of over two centuries old. Every inch of the underground edifice is soaked with the history of people who once, like me, took the train from the same platform. (Cudahy) On careful inspection, dwindling mosaic art, and tile sculptures are reflective of the old newcomers to the neighborhood. Those recent Hispanic immigrants have established their presence deep enough so as to leave their permanent markings on the timeless walls of the Great Tunnel. (Stookey)

The IRT: First New York City Subway line. Showing Manhattan and Bronx. Photo Credit of nycsubway.org, Mike Rivest.

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Washington Heights, however, from the first means of public transportation, has been the center of its development. Because of its northern location, it was always the main waypoint in connecting the North and the South. Countless depots from the first horse-pulled cars to the modern bus terminals have been raised on the summits of Washington Heights and Inwood. Walking up the narrow streets of Washington Heights, one will without a doubt notice the tightly packed, skyward Bus Terminals scattered around George Washington Bridge, opening doors to the rest of America. It is through here that the new immigrants arrive, bringing their culture, hopes and future. They were just like those, over a hundred years ago, arriving from Ellis Island in the Trolley Cars.

Trolleys became the hype of the day as their service became the first means of public transportation that connected the Northern and Southern tips of Manhattan. Beginning as horse-drawn cars, with the advent of electricity, it became a competitive and proliferating business in Manhattan. J. G Brill, Saint Louis Car Company, Company of Philadelphia desperately tried to grab a piece of what at that time became the most profitable, large scale business in New York. It was not until 1898 that the local Third Avenue Railway Company took permanent control of the street cars in Washington Heights by establishing the Kingsbridge Car Barn in the heart of the neighborhood. The majestic, towering structure stood as the symbol of the Transportation Capital – Washington Heights. The deep red brick edifice, designed by Romeo Tomassek and Isaac Hopper, located on 218th street, was visible from almost every part of the neighborhood, towering close the highest point of the entire Manhattan Island. (Renner)

A Busy Trolley Track in Washington Heights.
Photo Credit of washington-heights.us

As the last trolley pulled into the Barn in 1948, the entire era of transportation was finally gone. Only the threatening shadow of the massive building reminded the residents of their undeniable past. For thousands, the trolleys were a vehicle to freedom, escaping their world and the anxiety of Ellis Island; these former wonders of technology had been Godsends to the new blood in the community. The building remained abandoned for over fifty years, its windows broken, internals vandalized and it was finally razed after numerous disputes and debates against it. It is true that it remained the last relic of New York’s first public transportation and for long it was a standing landmark of Washington Heights. (Ellis, Wong) Erasing history, however, seems to be the route most often taken in overcrowded and tight-spaced neighborhoods, where residential housing is the first priority. No one will see the Kingsbridge Barn or any of the cars, but the last surviving reminder is still hidden beneath the concrete of the block roads and highways. When the concrete is worn enough, rails start to appear as flat parallel protrusions in the middle of the road. It is only after rain when the wet metal reflects the penetrating sunlight; suddenly, the ghostly track dominates the landscape and can be seen swiveling far below the horizon into the distant past.

Photo Credit of www.washington-heights.us

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Washington Heights has been a very prestigious neighborhood for the most part of the first half of the 20th century. A fair share of that prestige is due to the rapid interconnect network that spanned across the length of the entire Island. Long before the trolley transportation went out of use, the modern subway construction was long underway. The relics of the first system, the IRT, remain in the array of stations in the upper portion of Manhattan. The difficulty of their construction and use is due to many factors, the primary of which is the unique geography of Washington Heights. Because the track had to be kept level, the deepest stations were placed as far as ten stories deep at over 180 feet. Because of the immense support required in such stations, the purpose of their massive and glorious appearance becomes obvious. (Fischler) Strong arches and high ceilings became a trademark of the uptown stations, several of which adopted it. It is along the same Fort George Tunnel that the most tragic accident of subway construction occurred. Ten people had tragically perished during the excavation and development of the Fort George tunnel, the most tragic of the three subway construction accidents that occurred. Sadly, the very little memory that remains is still captured on the walls of the 168th Street Station. The artwork that presides on the wall is one of the many embedded in the uptown and Bronx stations by Wopo Holup, a famous artist who has decorated countless New York subway stations. “Flight” is the name of the three-dimensional emboss in the wall tiling of the station. A flock of birds are screaming to the sky on the white background of polished tiles. Wolo Holup, a New York artist who has been in decorating the subway since 1977, has expressed her gratitude to the thousands of workers who built our transportation system and those who perished while doing so. (Stookey)

"Flight", an eternal memory. By Wope Holup.
Photo Credit of Robbie Rosenfeld

Due to the initial effort by the William Barclay Parsons, the first subway line had to be as functional as it would be aesthetically appealing. The momentum of this decision has carried itself through decades of change, desperation and reconstruction. Most importantly, the art and aesthetic aura of the station has maintained the outlook of the community above. Through the changing times and migrating neighborhoods, the artwork and omnipresence of its people was never more prominent than that of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Hispanic heritage has found home to be reflected upon the walls of 191st Station. As you stroll down the stairs from different levels, the depth to which you descent isolates you from all of extraneous sound, and leaves you one on one with “La Primavera,” a large scale mosaic by an artist who has moved from Puerto Rico, Raul Colon. (Stookey) The mosaic possesses light-hearted, exuberant feelings of a Puerto Rican spring, portraying the favorite pastimes, children playing and adults enjoying the arriving warmth. Complimentary to the large scale piece are the small murals and mosaics scattered around the 191st station. The small murals aid in creating an aura of ethnicity, which even at two hundred feet below ground is as palpable as it is above.

Primavera: The Central piece of the 191st Station
Photo Credit of Robbie Rosenfeld. www.nycsubway.org

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Being a central part of every resident’s life, transportation inevitably became a part of larger-scale disputes and disagreements. Racial tensions of the early and late 20th century have not passed unnoticed and ineffective to the transportation system. During the early age of trolleys, cases of racial discrimination had not been uncommon. Many successfull cases however had taken place, lead by Elizabeth Jennings, an African American schoolteacher, who had been put off one of the trolleys.

During the 1990s, the “skip-stop” policy on “1” and “9” trains had been a hot issue in regard to discrimination against blue-collar Hispanics and African Americans residing in Washington Heights and East Harlem. MTA’s policy has benefited the white middle-class workers that resided at the border of Bronx and Upstate New York. Because of the skip-stop, the trains behaved like expresses, skipping most of the uptown Manhattan District, commuting white workers from upper Bronx to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan. This “skip-stop” phenomenon had been poorly understood; it was neither explained to poor Washington Heights denizens, who have been late to work innumerably since the policy was institutionalized. Anger towards this discriminatory policy had become breeding grounds to heating up the battle between municipal organization and the people who were manipulated. After signing over one thousand individual petitions, MTA has finally agreed to put a stop to the “skip-stop” policy in uptown Manhattan.

Deep beneath the City, life thrives as vigorously as above. Through the century of change and transformation, one thing has remained unchanged. Transportation and the change it brings to the people above is equally affected and molded by the communities that use it. The deep underworld of the 191st Station is a static piece of architectural marvel, yet its walls are a face of its people: art and aesthetic beauty they carry with them from wherever they may come.

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By Igor Labutov


Cudahy, Brian J. Under the Sidewalks of New York - The story of the
greatest subway system in the world
. 2nd ed. : Fordham University
Press, 1995.

Ellis, Wong, Edward Robb , Jeanyee. The Epic of New York City. :
Kodansha America, 1997.

Fischler, Stan. Uptown, Downtown: A trip through time on New
York's subways
. : Hawthorn Books, 1976.

Bobrick, Benson. Labyrinths of Iron: A history of the world's
subways - Subways in history, myth, art, technology, and war.
3rd ed.:
Henry Holt and Company, 1994.

Renner, James. "Trolleys of Washington Heights and Inwood."
Washington Heights and Inwood Online. Nov 2003. Washington
Heights Community. 2 Apr. 2006 <http://www.washington-heights.us/history/archives/trolleys_of_washington_heights_and_

Stookey, Lee. Subway Ceramics: a history and iconography of mosaic
and bas relief signs and plaques in the New York City subway system.

2nd ed. : Henry Holt and Company, 1994.




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