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How Gotham Saved Its Subways

from the magazine

How Gotham Saved Its Subways

Restoring order and making key investments brought the riders back. Summer 2016
New York
Infrastructure and energy

At 10:20 PM on Sunday, September 2, 1990, 22-year-old Utah resident Brian Watkins, accompanied by his parents, brother, and sister-in-law, entered the New York City subway system in midtown Manhattan, intent on a short D-train trip uptown for dinner at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. They never got there. A group of teenagers surrounded Watkins and his family on the subway platform. They attacked Watkins’s parents, slashing his father’s pants open and hitting and kicking his mother. When Brian and his brother tried to defend them, the muggers plunged a knife into Brian’s chest, killing him. The murderers then fled to the nearby Roseland Ballroom, using money they had stolen from the Watkins family to buy tickets.

Watkins’s killing made national headlines. Time ran a cover story on “The Rotting of the Big Apple,” with its soon-to-be-famous image of the I ❤ NY logo with the heart split asunder. The event “summoned forth horror and soul-searching in a city that has already known too much of both,” People noted. Coming in the first year of David Dinkins’s mayoralty, the murder would help propel Rudolph Giuliani into the mayor’s office three years later, as Democratic voters turned to a Republican prosecutor to get a seemingly ungovernable city under control.

Yet Watkins’s death was not so unusual. His was the 18th killing in New York’s subways in 1990, and eight more would follow by the end of the year. The year before, underground assailants killed 20 people. Indeed, such violence was familiar already in 1981, when 14 lost their lives in the subways. Many considered these deaths an inevitable part of living in the big city. In 1985, for example, the New York Times blithely reported that the subways were safe enough, at least “for those who avoided the most dangerous stations, the ones with all the ramps and posts and connecting passageways in Midtown.”

By contrast, more than three decades later, New York really does have a safe subway system. Last year saw two subway murders, the same as the year before. Over the past 11 years, 26 people have been killed waiting for or riding on trains—matching the number killed just in 1990, the year of Watkins’s death. Today, few would worry that it might be unsafe to ride a train at 10:20 PM on the weekend. Trains at that time of night are packed with passengers.

Policing played a huge role in making Gotham’s subways safe, as it did in reducing crime throughout the city. In fact, the New York crime turnaround began in the subways, and what the police discovered about violence underground would prove essential to the broader battle for the city’s streets. The police could not have done it alone, though: in the decade before 1990, New York was already taking the first halting, yet critical, steps toward saving its subway system.

When I was eight years old, I used to ride the subway by myself,” recalls Ray Kelly, New York’s police commissioner under Dinkins and later again under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That was just after World War II, when subway crime was negligible. Kelly remembers, too, the “feeling of danger and disorder” that set in during the early 1970s.

By then, the whole system seemed to be crumbling into ruin, as budget-crunched state and city officials slashed maintenance costs. In 1974, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city subways, even stopped doing routine track inspections in an effort to save money—thus ensuring derailments, which began happening regularly. The trains were ever more decrepit, with 10 percent of the cars out of service every day, resulting in constant delays. “It was horrendous,” says David Gunn, who headed the subway system from 1984 to 1990. “The thing was a physical wreck,” he adds, with “each car breaking down every week.” In a recent speech to a Chicago audience, Tom Wright, president of New York’s Regional Plan Association, observed: “For folks who weren’t in New York back then, it’s hard to imagine today what the system was like. I was a kid in New York. Cars derailed on a daily basis, caught fire; you’d pull into the station and the doors wouldn’t open. Of course, everything was covered with graffiti.”

Violent crime began its seemingly inexorable rise. As late as the mid-1960s, subway murder was rare; during one stretch, only two people died over more than a year. In 1973, however, nine were killed. A year later, reacting to public alarm at higher violence, New York mayor Abe Beame decided to close the rear cars of subway trains, seeking to keep riders nearer to the conductor’s car, and presumably safer. Ceding space to robbers and killers proved an ineffective crime-fighting strategy, and the body count climbed. Most victims, like Watkins, were civilians, including Eric Kaminsky, a 22-year-old music student stabbed to death waiting for a train in Manhattan, and 32-year-old Jose Hugo Martinez, pushed to death from a platform in Queens. Transit workers and police lost their lives as well: in 1979, clerks Venezea Pendergast and Regina Reicherter burned to death when teens firebombed their Broad Channel (Queens) token booth; in separate incidents in 1980, transit cops Joseph Keegan and Seraphin Calabrese were murdered with their own guns at the busy Columbus Circle station when trying to apprehend lawbreakers.

By the time Bernhard Goetz made national headlines in 1984 for shooting four teenagers whom he claimed were menacing him on a Manhattan subway train, the public was on his side: a grand jury at first refused to indict him for attempted murder. Yet the growing outrage didn’t translate into safety gains. Gunn remembers another token-booth clerk killed when he was in charge—Mona Pierre, burned to death in 1988, in the third robbery attempt at her Bushwick station that year.

New Yorkers started shunning the subways. Between 1970 and 1980, annual ridership fell from nearly 1.3 billion trips to just over 1 billion, a percentage drop more than double the city’s 10 percent population loss. With no safe way to get around a dense city via public transportation, the New Yorkers who stayed began using their cars more, increasing congestion and pollution in a city getting harsher by the day. Richard Ravitch, who chaired the MTA from 1979 until 1983, recalls telling a reporter in 1980 that he wouldn’t let his 12-year-old son ride the trains at night; he came home to the preteen complaining, “You humiliated me.”

Even as subway violence intensified, the city and state had been putting conditions in place that would later prove crucial in the fight against crime. In 1984, Gunn and his boss, MTA chief Bob Kiley, made the decision to go after graffiti, which they saw as a symptom of the city’s disorder. For years, Mayor Ed Koch had urged transit bosses to clean graffiti from their trains. In 1981, the MTA had even deployed two guard dogs to scare potential taggers away from a train yard. New York also launched a public-service campaign, telling would-be train defacers to “make your mark in society, not on it.” The MTA repainted some train cars white, Gunn says, but “it was a stupid idea.” Transit officials would mix the clean white cars with dirty cars on the same train, so “you would have a pair of clean cars in the middle. You might as well have a sign that says, ‘Paint me next.’ ”

In 1979, two clerks burned to death when teens firebombed their Broad Channel (Queens) token booth.

Kiley and Gunn nevertheless sensed an opportunity. In the early 1980s, MTA chairman Ravitch had won over the city’s business community to support new taxes to fund investment in the MTA—investments that were necessary to regain control over the subway system. Badly needed new train cars were now coming online. Yet, notes Gunn, there were no plans to keep the new cars clean. “They were just going to send the new fleet out and it would be covered with graffiti.”

Subway managers came up with a strategy: start with just two lines—the Number 4 and the Number 7—and clean the trains on those lines. And then keep them clean, washing and repainting to get rid of any new graffiti before trains could go out again, even at the expense of delays. This sent a clear message to vandals: spraying trains would no longer be worth the effort, since the MTA would never let customers see new graffiti. “It took 40 cans of paint and as much as 12 hours to complete a mural,” the New York Times reported a graffiti expert as saying. “Now it is hard even to snap a photograph before the work is cleaned off.”

Police also began cracking down on the vandals. Steve Mona was a “train buff growing up,” he says. He took the police exam and fortuitously “wound up in transit” in 1985, and soon had a new beat: keep tabs on the subways and see which graffiti tags appeared most frequently. “I would stop kids, and ask, ‘What does that say? Who is Jon156?’ ” He also started subscribing to graffiti zines. The city’s transit police (a separate force from the NYPD until 1995) eventually learned who was responsible for a disproportionate amount of the tagging and went after those people. “The narcotics mentality of ‘grab everyone, shake the net’ ” didn’t work in this context, Mona says. Instead, the vandal squad that he headed “would stake out homes, art shows,” looking for specific targets.

As Mona explains, the MTA’s new interest in combating graffiti made the police effort more effective. The district attorney’s office now had a graffiti victim, willing to testify: the MTA regularly sent witnesses to court, tallying up the damage from vandals so that prosecutors could pursue felony charges. “We had a built-in complainant,” Mona says. “The court could not look away from it.”

The law-enforcement goal was not to put small-time graffiti “artists” behind bars for years. In fact, the police and the MTA established a restitution program for taggers. “I guess you could say we’re making our mark in society instead of on society,” quipped one 19-year-old vandal, repeating the line from Koch’s PR campaign as he spent a day scrubbing subway cars. “I guess it’s fair that we pay for what we’ve done.” Often, Mona says, visits to vandals’ parents’ houses were enough to get the tagging stopped. “Parents would say, ‘My kid does graffiti only at home,’ ” but officers would find notebooks in the house with tags identical to those found in the subways. Still, hard-core recidivists did face real prison time. By 1990, many said, “That’s it for me,” according to Mona. “They found out this was a kind of badge-of-honor scrutiny you didn’t want.”

The culture surrounding graffiti changed, too. Mona spoke to high school groups; at first, the kids would reject the idea that graffiti was a crime. After he explained that their parents would have trouble buying groceries in vandalized neighborhoods because no one would want to open stores there, however, “two-thirds of the class would get it.”

By 1989, the trains were clean. These days, they’re so clean that people will go up to police officers and say, “This train car has graffiti on it,” says Vincent Coogan, the current assistant chief of the transit police. No one would have done that back in the 1970s or early 1980s, when graffiti was everywhere.

As the MTA worked to solve its graffiti problem, it also began to improve the transit system. Slowly, and with an infusion of state cash, workers repaired tracks, stations, and turnstiles. Service grew more reliable, and people started to use the system again, albeit slowly. Annual ridership rose, in the 1980s, by 19 million. That represented a modest increase of 2 percent, but the hemorrhaging had stopped.

In the 1970s and 1980s, trains were defaced with graffiti, frequently out of service, and dangerous to ride. (FERDINANDO SCIANNA/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

The newly clean and better-functioning trains set the stage for the fight against violent subway crime. As Joseph Fox, chief of the NYPD’s transit bureau, observes: “It’s a simple correlation”; the defaced trains and dilapidated system gave “the appearance that no one was in charge.” This demoralized not only the public but also the police. When he started at the NYPD in 1981, Fox says, “there was really no focus” on violence. “Nobody was giving us direction.”

The turnaround in the transit system accelerated in 1990, the year that William J. Bratton came to New York to head the transit cops, armed with sensible ideas from criminologist George Kelling. At the time, Kelling recalls, Kiley and Gunn, fresh from their graffiti victory, wanted to make the subway a safer, more welcoming place. They were frustrated by disorderly behavior such as aggressive panhandling, turnstile-jumping, and public urination—and frustrated, too, that the police seemed uninterested in doing anything about it. “The police would say, ‘We tried this and this, it didn’t work,’ ” says Kelling, “and Kiley blew up. He said, ‘We just invested $8 billion’ in new train cars and tracks. He was just sick. He couldn’t get any answers.”

Kelling was worried that the police, without the right strategy, would resort to “dirty work”—overly aggressive and perhaps illegal action to kick undesirable people out of the subways. Bratton and Kelling, who was consulting with the transit police, made clear that the cops would take the moral high ground, focusing on reducing illegal behavior underground and not on conditions. Homelessness was not a crime; jumping over a turnstile to avoid paying fare was. Going after illegal disorderly acts—what came to be known as Broken Windows or quality-of-life policing—would improve the lives of all New Yorkers who had to ride the trains to get around the city.

But before the laws against disorder could be enforced again, the public had to be warned. Every day, 250,000 people were beating the fare, Kelling notes, and “there were not 250,000 criminals—good people had got into bad habits.” They thought that the ride was not worth the money or they had gotten used to broken turnstiles, frequently disabled by thieves trying to take the valuable tokens. “You don’t want to arrest people, but the thing is to get them to stop,” says Kelling. The MTA launched a PR campaign to “warn people, educate people,” he adds.

The transit police had an advantage that aboveground cops usually lacked: you had to pay to get into the subway. That meant that the police could stop lawbreakers at subway entry points, whenever fare-beaters broke New York’s theft-of-services law. The transit system has its own set of rules, including prohibiting walking between cars or taking up two seats, and breaking these rules will invite police attention. And then police made an important discovery: the fare-beaters and other bad actors were disproportionately criminals wanted for other crimes, often violent ones, and they often carried weapons. (The muggers who killed Brian Watkins had entered the system illegally, by not paying their fare.) Stopping turnstile-jumpers, in other words, helped prevent bigger crimes. “By cracking down on fare evasion, we have been able to stop serious criminals carrying weapons at the turnstiles before they get on the subways and wreak havoc,” Bratton told Newsday in 1991.

Toward the end of Bratton’s first year as transit police chief, misdemeanor arrests were up by 80 percent—and felonies began to fall. In 1990, transit riders were victims of 17,497 felonies—murders, robberies, rapes, assaults, and thefts. Two years later, the number had dropped to 12,199. As proactive policing continued, the subways got safer and safer. By 2000, felonies had plunged to 4,263, and in 2015, the figure was 2,502. New Yorkers once endured 48 felonies a day in the transit system; now, it’s fewer than seven. The last time that more than two people were murdered in one year on the subways was 2007, when four lost their lives.

New York’s subway system now has more users than at any time since just after World War II, when Ray Kelly was riding the trains as a child. New Yorkers, visitors, and workers take nearly 1.8 billion annual trips—nearly double the number who did so in 1980. New York wouldn’t be able to cope with its record population of 8.5 million people—a 21 percent rise since 1980—without a safe, operable subway system. But then, New York’s population wouldn’t have reached its record level without that improved system.

People now feel so safe on the subways that they’ll sit with a $600 piece of electronic equipment on their lap. “Snatches and runs are 50 percent of grand larcenies,” says transit police chief Fox. He adds that half of the theft victims are asleep. Plainclothes cops patrol the subways based on reported crimes, looking for suspicious behavior: people who wait for a few trains to go by, perhaps looking for a potential victim sitting near the door with an iPhone, or riding a train from Grand Central Station to Union Square and then back again. Women are reporting more subway sexual assaults, particularly groping and grinding. That’s likely due to several factors: more crowded trains, victims and witnesses getting cell-phone pictures of assailants, and a greater willingness on the part of victims to come forward. Further, with the most violent crimes down, officers now have more time to go after lesser offenses. The NYPD puts “wanted” posters up now for people who have allegedly committed lewd behavior; only violent criminals would have merited such treatment three decades ago. Just as people felt helpless in reporting graffiti to the police three decades ago, who, back in those days, would have bothered to report that an underground pervert groped her, knowing that the cops would likely never catch him? In focus groups of the time, Kelling points out, women would complain about being “insulted.” He suspects now that they may have been referring to groping and didn’t want to say so outright.

Technology plays a key role in keeping transit safe. It’s hard to commit a crime today without someone catching it on camera. In early June, for instance, two Brooklyn teens allegedly beat up an elderly lady following a verbal dispute, and police arrested them after their mothers saw a video of the incident and reported it. The technology-driven MetroCard also means no valuable tokens to steal from booth clerks.

New York’s subways face one threat that they didn’t have to confront to the same degree in the 1970s and 1980s: terrorism. Kelly notes that 40 percent of global terror plots targeting Western cities involve transit systems, including the July 2005 London bus and Tube bombings, which killed 52 people. He can rattle off the names of terrorists who have unsuccessfully plotted against New York since 9/11. These include Queens resident Najibullah Zazi, born in Afghanistan, who plotted with two coconspirators in 2009 to suicide-bomb the subway. After undergoing training in Pakistan, Zazi drove from Colorado to New York with explosive charges. The FBI and the NYPD thwarted him as he made his final preparations to bomb crowded trains during the week of the 9/11 anniversary. The fact that the subways are a closed system makes them a prime target for terrorists—but it also helps in counterterrorism, just as it helped in the fight against crime. Cops can search patrons’ bags before they enter, and the cops who watch for fare-beaters also know how to keep an eye out for “hostile surveillance”—potential terrorists who may be plotting, planning, or waiting to carry out an attack.

Technology plays a key role in transit safety. It’s hard to commit a crime today without someone catching it on camera.

The relentless need to police the transit system for criminals—and their guns and knives—hasn’t changed. In May, a criminal stabbed Efrain Guaman in Brooklyn, stealing his phone and badly injuring him; the attack was one of a spate of slashings and stabbings over the past year. In 2015, the NYPD took 40 illegal handguns and 597 knives out of the hands of fare-beaters, weapons seizures that likely prevented other crimes. When cops nabbed 26-year-old Trevale McCall in the Bronx after he tried to jump the turnstile, they allegedly found a loaded nine-millimeter handgun in his bag. It turned out that McCall was also wanted for questioning in a murder case. In May, an officer in a Greenwich Village subway station arrested Anibal Vargas for “manipulating the turnstile” in an attempt to ride for free. Vargas, who had been living under an assumed name for 26 years, was wanted for an attempted murder in Massachusetts in 1990. The only transit murder of 2016, so far, stemmed from fare-beating. In March, police say, Herbert Burgess was illegally selling MetroCard “swipes” when he fought with a woman, perhaps trying to snatch money from her. The woman’s father stabbed Burgess to death. Though swipe-selling is not by itself a violent crime, it causes serious damage, constituting a big part of the $17 million in annual costs that the MTA incurs in vandalism and fraud at its MetroCard machines.

With crime near record lows in the city, cops and prosecutors feel growing pressure to ease up. Last year, New York’s city council floated the idea of decriminalizing fare-beating. But more than 70 percent of the nearly 85,000 people caught beating the fare last year weren’t even arrested; they were summoned to appear in court on misdemeanor charges. The other 30 percent were arrested because they were “transit recidivists”—that is, they had been caught jumping the turnstile before or had outstanding warrants or were on parole or probation already—or were breaking other laws at the same time. Under a policy recently implemented by Bratton, now in his second stint as NYPD commissioner, anyone caught beating the fare who can’t produce identification can call someone to bring his ID to the police station. An unknown number of people get off with warnings. Of course, the NYPD doesn’t get everything right. Mona retired in the mid-2000s because he sensed that falling crime was leading to pressure on cops to make more arrests and issue more summonses. But New York City isn’t throwing mischievous schoolkids in jail for sneaking rides on the subway.

With crime under control, the subways are more crowded than ever, giving New York a different challenge: how to fit everyone in. Kelling notes that people now stand on the far ends of train platforms, looking at their iPhones, and women often stand alone. They would never have done that in the old days, he says. “They would have been targets.” Now, they’re just hoping to squeeze on to the next train.

Top Photo: A gleaming car illustrates how far the transit system has come from the squalid conditions of decades ago. (DAVID M. GROSSMAN/THE IMAGE WORKS)

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