NYC Subway Map

The Subway: Urbanism, Infrastructure, and Social Life (In-Person)

Instructor: Andy Battle
Property is Theft
411 South 5th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

When the New York City subway opened in 1904, police had to call in reserves to tame the million-strong crowds clamoring to enter the tunnels. Within weeks, hurtling beneath the earth at speeds never before realized in a dense urban environment had become an utterly ordinary experience. For 120 years, the NYC subway, running 24 hours a day and ranking among the world’s largest, has maintained this blend of the quotidian and the extraordinary. When it was constructed, most New Yorkers lived on Manhattan Island while large swaths of the outer boroughs remained farmland. Within a decade, the subway, in making mobility accessible on a completely new scale, had exploded the old boundaries of settlement in New York, helping to trigger the spasm of urbanization that created modern New York City. Seemingly everything—the city’s size, politics, economics, and the singular texture of its everyday life—relies inextricably on this piece of infrastructure. Yet it often remains invisible, not just to our eyes but sometimes to our theories. How can we understand the subway in its full historical, sociological, and economic dimensions?

In this course, we will investigate these links between mobility and urbanization, social life and infrastructure, as exemplified by the New York City subway. What is mobility and what is it for? How and why was the subway built? What does it do to and for working people, their employers, real estate developers, the state? What was New York like before—and after—the subway? How did rapid transit enable the creation of a distinct urban environment, one that sets New York apart from most American cities? What did the emergence of the private automobile do to New York and New Yorkers? Why were no new subways built between 1940 and 2017? Does the subway encourage not just a particular urban form but a particular urban personality or subjectivity? Finally, students will discuss and consider the politics of the subway and urban mobility: Who should pay for the subway? What kind of life does the subway enable? What kind of life could it enable? To ask and maybe even answer these questions, we will rely on a variety of texts from authors like Clifton Hood, Robert Caro, Ann Norton Greene, Kafui Attoh, Deborah Cowen, Henri Lefebvre, André Gorz, John Urry, Stefan Höhne, Timothy Cresswell, Cindi Katz, Sunny Stalter-Pace, and more. We will also consider representations of the subway in film—The Warriors, Daybreak Express, The Taking of Pelham 123, Born in Flames, and more—and in the visual arts, whether through the painters of the Ashcan School, the photography of Bruce Davidson, and myriad other artists who have found in the subway a vehicle for expressing the kinds of lives we live and imagining the kinds of lives we want to live.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 12 — October 10, 2024
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Thursday, September 19th.


Registration Open

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