Remembering the Straphangers’ Revolt

F. Timothy Martin Oct 6, 2004

The Riders and the Rebirth of City Transit
Until October 30
The Municipal Art Society
457 Madison Avenue (At 51St St.)
Mon.- Sat., Except Thurs.
11am to 5pm
Admission is free

Review by F. Timothy Martin

Few New Yorkers wax nostalgic about the days when riding a subway meant risking your life. In the late 1970s, train delays were common, caused by frequent derailments and platform fires. Transit workers cowered behind token booth windows scarred with bullet holes, while riders put up with aging trains, broken turnstiles, rampant crime, and endless stretches of graffiti.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) responded by proposing fare hikes. But by 1981, the idea of paying more money to use a dysfunctional system led subway ridership levels to plunge lower than at any time in the previous 60 years.

Enter the Straphangers. Organizing workers, civic groups, and public officials, the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Straphangers Campaign intervened with a mission to improve the transit system. Now, the Urban Center Gallery of the Municipal Art Society is showing The Riders and the Rebirth of City Transit, an exhibit that celebrates this achievement with a retrospective on how riders and their advocates helped revive the subways.

Panels feature highlights of the campaign’s successes, including how riders saved Brooklyn’s Franklin Avenue Shuttle from abandonment, the defeat of an MTA-sponsored measure to rid subway stations of performers, and the reversal of the $1.4 billion Westway Highway project – much of whose funding went toward fixing the subway system instead. As a result of the Straphangers Campaign efforts during the past 25 years, mass transit use is now on a par with its highest levels ever.

Designed by Pratt Professor Jon Otis, the exhibit groups subway ads, leaflets and photos inside a space that more resembles a corporate job fair presentation than a gallery installation. A careful look at the panels, however, reveals a well-documented struggle to improve transit services and resist fare hikes at all costs. Seventies-era groove jams play along with a video taking viewers back in time to explain the history of the Straphangers Campaign. Activists, including staff attorney and guiding spirit Gene Russianoff, are caught on film as they pass out flyers at subway stations and petition MTA board meetings, holding signs with anti-MTA slogans.

There is a bit of showing off here. The exhibit gives viewers the feeling that the Straphangers are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. But one glance at the stark contrast between before and after photos of the B train demonstrates that they have reason to boast.

While conditions in subway cars and stations are better than the late 1970s, commuters must still contend with frequent flooding, threats to monthly pass discounts, and a speaker system rivaling the one used in Peanuts cartoons. Still, the exhibit leaves the impression that as long as these ills persist so too will the Straphangers.

The Riders and the Rebirth of City Transit will coincide with the centennial anniversary of the New York City subway system, which opened on Oct. 27, 1904.