Before the 'A Train,' there were tunnels


September 06, 1993|By Jim Dwyer | Jim Dwyer,Newsday

I bring word today of a new civic treasure: Clifton Hood's history, "722 Miles." This book is not about mere tools such as tracks, machines and tunnels, but about the men who used them to till a small patch of earth and the city that grew, roaring, behind them.

For a reader mired in the static, ambition-free days of civic life in the 1990s, the history of an era of accomplishment is redeeming and bracing. Not only that, but the cast of characters is spectacular and the adventure excellent.

William Steinway, aching in all his joints from gout, rose in a rage from his sickbed in Queens when he heard that rascals Russell Sage and George Gould, son of robber baron Jay Gould, were going to win a contract to put up more of their terrible elevated lines around New York City, instead of the underground railway Steinway wanted. Old man Steinway wobbled into the transportation office and won the day, then died a few months later.

Elsewhere, a man who would accumulate a huge fortune in real-estate speculation arrived at a transportation commission meeting, threatening to tear the assembled commissioners limb from limb. Someone else shouted that the commissioners all were mentally ill. Why? It seems that the commissioners were going to hurt certain land values by not putting the subway in the right place. Under the bright lamp of reason, the commissioners changed their minds.

The tall Italian immigrant Salvatore Mazzella was proud to the day he died of all the white tiles he laid on the walls of the subway stations at $2.50 or so a day. Yet the lead-based tile

adhesive dripped into one of his eyes and blinded him.

Then we have a precis of the life and lineage of August Belmont, which in Mr. Hood's deft hands is a three-page marvel of biographical economy. Belmont posted the money for the construction of the first subway and would make a fortune from it, although he later judged the experience to be aggravation in the extreme. He was the son of August Schonberg, a German Jew and an agent for the House of Rothschild who arrived in New York by chance on his way to Cuba to protect the Rothschild sugar interests.

Instead, he changed his name, became an Episcopalian, capitalized on the financial panic by setting up a bank in 1837 and settled into a lavish life on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. He instructed his son to do likewise. August Jr. "lived like a prince" or better in seven homes. He created Belmont Park and was the matchmaker who shouted giddyap at his girl and boy horses until they produced Man o' War, the legendary thoroughbred, which is what he considered himself. "Belmont's foul temperament was his main failing," writes Mr. Hood. "The fat little banker was arrogant, pompous, mean-spirited and quick to anger. . . . Generally, however, Belmont felt no contempt for inferiors because he usually remained oblivious to their existence."

At a moment when serious consideration of New York history is unfashionable and chilling -- why bother with the past if we have no future? -- Mr. Hood's uproarious and scholarly work ought to shake New Yorkers right down to their complacent cores. He writes of an age when things got done, when a subway was built from City Hall to Harlem in under four years. Today, it takes that much time to repair an escalator.

The subway was launched by two private companies, using government money, to make sure that no one in politics was corrupted too much. Well, let's see: Between 1919 and 1940, the nickel subway fares grossed $514 million; of this, the city saw just $2 million, less than half of 1 percent of revenues, even though the taxpayers had funded a good portion of the initial construction costs and were laying out $10 million a year to cover the resulting debt. The rest of the money went to the stockholders of the two companies.

It pays to remember that the consolidated city of New York -- the five boroughs -- did not come into being until 1898, so government as we now know it did not exist at the turn of the 20th century.

Back then, big businessmen did not have to hire Sid Davidoff, the mayor's tennis partner, to carry their water: They often ran the very committees that decided their own economic fates. Steinway, for instance, was the man who invented Astoria, Queens, after his family's piano factory on 52nd Street and Park Avenue was shut down by strikes. He bought vast lots of real estate, developed them, and then was appointed to the city's transit commission to make sure everything went well. It did.

Charles Barney formed syndicates to buy up land around the subway routes. It helped that he was on the board and knew where they would be. Mr. Hood follows the strands in the political culture surrounding the subways -- the worries about too much government vs. too much private profit, too meager fares vs. too much greed -- packaged neatly in a city that was growing exponentially, that was, in the early years of the century, two-thirds foreign born.

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