Tuesday, February 7, 2012

If Bridget took the Omnibus and Harris Rode the Subway: Public Transportation on the Lower East Side

I first became involved in learning the story of New York City’s public transportation because I’m one of the five million commuters who ride the city’s subway every single day. Second, I’m an educator at the New York Transit Museum, the largest museum in the United States devoted to the story of urban transportation. At the Transit Museum I lead students through the turnstiles of transit history, from the birth of the subway in 1904 to the evolution of subways and buses both past and present. Without them, it’s fair to say that the United States would not be the great melting pot that it is today.

Navigating a snowy street c.1860

When looking at the story of public transportation and immigration there’s no better place to see this story unfold than 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side.When families like the Moores and the Gumpertz’s stepped onto the shores of Manhattan, they were forced to quickly adapt to the hustle and bustle of the Lower East Side with its “great conglomeration” of German and Irish immigrants. They also learned to attend to the daily business of home and family by darting through narrow dirt streets packed with horses, stage coaches, omnibuses, and elevated trains. Second only to walking, horses were the city’s main source of transportation. Yet when navigating the streets of the city in those early days, one would have to weave through constant gridlock, with no lanes, police officers or traffic signals to guide the vehicles. Omnibuses--large horse drawn carriages that ran along a fixed route--were overcrowded, bumpy, and slow. Even the advent of streetcars didn’t solve the problem: they were often impossible in inclement weather.                       

Lady: "For Pity's sake, how often do these cars run? I've been waiting here a week."
Satirical Conductor: "Have you ma'am? That's strange; I was by here three days ago and never noticed you!"
Streetcar humor, c.1874; Image Courtesy New York Public Library

The year before the Levines moved their family of five across the Williamsburg Bridge, they may have experienced one of the greatest novelties of the new century: a ride on New York’s first underground transit system, the subway. For four years, more than 70,000 laborers--many of them immigrants--had been digging and blasting their way through Manhattan to build the city’s first stations and tunnels. Perhaps Harris read Yiddish and English newspapers that depicted the triumphs and tribulations of constructing these tunnels. This city-wide drama featured the extraordinary feats of “sandhogs” (underground construction workers) who dug tunnels underneath the riverbed and constructed the 59th Street Power Station, which fueled the system with thousands of pounds of coal.
The early days of the New York City subway

Surely, the subway’s debut was a frequent topic of conversation at the pushcart market. It’s worth wondering if families like the Levines and Rogarshevskys would have ventured into the subway on opening day--October 27th 1904-- braving the dark tunnels on speedy subway cars, not realizing that these machines would change the way they lived, worked, and how they saw themselves as Americans and New Yorkers .

--Posted by Educator Rachel Serkin

1 comment:

  1. An Excellent integration of two very exciting museums!


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