Only four years after the Civil War, in 1869, Alfred Ely-Beach made the first attempt at a subway system in New York City, a pneumatic tube mechanism, completed between Warren and Murray Streets along Broadway, known as the Beach Pneumatic Transit. Though it had a very ornate station, the project was really just a test for a proposed wider system, but it did manage 400,000 riders in its first year of operation in 1870. For many reasons, including the Panic of 1873 (I always confused this with the Panic of 1837 on those high school history exams!), the project did not go further and was essentially sealed off and forgotten, as real modern subway service began in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century. Today, the area of the Pneumatic Transit it lies beneath New York’s City Hall, a precursor of New York’s modern infrastructure, and one godfather of the pneumatic tube mail system, something a few still alive remember, memorialized in such postwar films such as Miracle on 34th Street.
I’m fascinated about the infrastructure of New York City, being ephemeral and historic, but even in it’s sometimes grittiness, always romantic. I loved reading The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, both a hero and anti-hero in the development of New York. In his many (sometimes held dually) official roles in New York, he was responsible for building among other things: Jones Beach State Park, a first-of-its kind, world class public beach, the Northern and Southern State Parkways on Long Island, and The Henry Hudson, The Triborough, Bronx-Whitesone and Throgs Neck Bridges. He also can be viewed as the main person responsible for destroying many neighborhoods in his quest for “progress,” demolishing the old beautiful Penn Station, and hastening the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers to California.
If you are interested in such infrastructural things of New York, not just transportation but anything from the steam heat in your radiator to how the sewers work, I strongly recommend reading The Works: Anatomy of a City, by Kate Ascher. My hard copy is ten years old, but I am sure still very relevant. It’s fascinating!
Of the more recent vintage “modern” New York infrastructure projects, the long-delayed Second Avenue subway construction is underway with arrival in December, 2016 (I’d wager on 2017), and steady progress has been made on the Third Water Tunnel. The tunnel began as a fifty-year effort in 1970, with an effort to bring a third method of water supply to New York. It is supposed to be completed in 2020! From 1970 to 2020, wow! Just think about all the technical change from 1970 to 2015, and what will happen in the next five years, and how the planners and engineers and sandhogs have adjusted in that time interval. Amazing.
From these grandiose plans and legendary accomplishments of Robert Moses, I thought about more personal concerns after recently reading about two proposed updates to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
LaGuardia, or LGA, will always have a soft spot in my heart. From the late 1980s, when I took the Pan AM shuttle from LGA to Boston from the throwback Marine Air Terminal at the wonderful student price of about $40 one-way, to my many, many work trips from there since the early 1990s: United and its Gershwin music, Delta, and many other carriers to places all over the United Stated and Canada, it conjures up very fond memories. And for those who still use the Marine Air Terminal for Delta’s shuttle service (formerly Boston and Washington-Reagan only; now Chicago and Reagan), it is the anti-thesis of the “zoo” found in many airports: short-lines, decent amenities, manageable amount of people, and great service.
Perhaps it was my love at the novelty of air travel (I went on exactly one plane flight before college), the naiveté of the whole travelling-for-work experience, or simply the transition from airline deregulation and the last gaps of a golden era of air travel, I have a fondness for LaGuardia alone among the tens of airports I have visited around the globe, even as the overall airline experience has deteriorated everywhere. (I covered some of customer service aspects of airlines previously here.)
If, as a New Yorker, you have travelled through LaGuardia airport like I have, going on thirty years now, you love that it is extremely close to Manhattan, smaller and easier to navigate than JFK or Newark, and has a fair amount of direct service to most of the eastern and central United States and Canada, with big cities and small cities in reach. While LaGuardia does not have an international terminal, it does handle a few flights to limited countries like Canada where US customs are conducted before the travelers flies to the US.
You may not love the lack of direct access from train or subway or the beaten-up nature of many parts of the airport, including the inevitable buckets placed alongside check-in counters to catch voluminous leaks in the ceiling. Only one year ago, the United States Vice-President Joe Biden recently referred to the airport as “in some third world country.” While many of his statements run the course from foolish to preposterous, he was dead-on there.
In addition the parking garage under construction at Terminal C, and the never-ending story about renovating the “B” Central terminal, however, two very interesting “infrastructure” projects are coming to the airport.
One project will allow “AirTrain” service to link the #7 Subway line at Willets Point (home of the Mets!) in Queens to provide direct access to LaGuardia. Note this Gothamist article depicts the huckster character from The Simpsons from the episode parodying The Music Man. JFK airport has had AirTrain service since 2003 and it’s second coming seems like a long overdue move for LGA.
AirTrain has been a vast improvement over prior mass transit train/bus options to JFK ( e.g. “Take the train to the plane” – love the outfits and hairdos in the second spot!), but still is lacking. If you’ve taken Heathrow Express from London’s Heathrow Airport to Central London is about fifteen minutes, you’ll know what I mean.
The other project proposes to end the “ban” of flights to and from the West Coast from LaGuardia’s only two runways (JFK has four runways). For thirty years, it has been formal policy for flights longer than 1,500 miles to be disallowed from LaGuardia. In effect since the 1950s, this plan was formalized in 1984, with the idea of restricting vacationers to JFK/Newark and LGA for business travelers. Thus flights to San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Vegas and other places were limited to the “big” airports, with Denver being an exception.
Map per the Wall Street Journal article noted:
Apparently, some exceptions have been also been made on Saturdays. I also recall, and perhaps this was also an exception, that I flew a direct flight from LGA to Calgary, Alberta a few years ago on Air Canada, a distance of 2,000 miles. Perhaps this was a test or a limited “run” due the oil boom? (It was a wonderful flight).
As the country and the world gets smaller, I can see a ton of benefit for West Coast and some expanded international flights (Dublin? London? Paris?) especially as LaGuardia is easier to get to for NYC workers and will get even easier with the AirTrain.
Yet, this will also bring hordes of new flyers and overrun the coziness and ease of use of LaGuardia, a key benefit of its charm now, even with the needed improvements and facelifts to come. And no doubt, as the article points out, eliminate some of the wonderful direct, point-point service to second and third-tier (but not third-rate) airports that comprise one of the many benefits for the cost in living in greater New York.
The decision for the West Coast flights is not final, and of course New York deserves to have nothing less than premier airport facilities for citizens and travellers given its status. But the romantic in me wants to remember and preserve some of those special LaGuardia moments, remembering the excitement and thrill of business travel in a large nut not overwhelming pond, even as the jaded and routine frequent-flier in me wants top-notch amenities and ease-of-use to wherever my next destination may be.