Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
How the most diverse subway line in America forges a shared urban identity, according to a new book.
The 7 train is known for more than just rogue subway surfers. It’s a key line on the New York City public transit network, and arguably, the most diverse commute in the country. And this year, it marks its 100th year in operation.
Nicknamed the “International Express,” the 7 kicks off on Main Street, in Flushing, Queens; cuts through East Asian, Latino, South Asian, and other immigrant locales; and terminates in Hudson Yards, Manhattan. In 1999, the White House Millennium Council deemed it a National Millennium Trail for being a testament to the immigrant experience.
A new book by urban sociologists Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum sketches a fascinating portrait of this crucial arm of the subway and its riders. Tonnelat, who is from Paris, and Kornblum, who is a native New Yorker and has lived near the 7 his whole life, see the subway as a unique public space, ripe for ethnographic analysis. In segregated New York, public transit brings together folks from different races and ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and economic profiles in very close proximity on a routine basis. The 7 train, with its heavily immigrant riders, is just the most acute manifestation of that diversity—a microcosm of the city as a whole. Exploring how commuters on this train regard each other and themselves reveals a lot about the role of public transit in facilitating a shared urban identity.
CityLab caught up with Tonnelat and Kornblum for a conversation about International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train, the highlights of which are below.
The book includes your own research and interviews with 7 train riders, as well as detailed accounts by immigrant youth. Being in such close proximity with different folks creates friction, and often reinforces racial and ethnic stereotypes. But there’s also a sense of community created among the riders. Could you talk about that?
Kornblum: We selected people who were representative of the different ethnic and racial groups that lived around the 74th Street station, which is one of the busiest stations. We walked with them and we recorded what they’re saying to us from their doorstep, through the neighborhood, and to the station. When we heard them speaking in their neighborhoods, they always used [the pronouns] “we”or “I.” They said, “We, in the neighborhood, do this,” or “I do this in the neighborhood.” Then, we got on the train, and they said, “when you are on the subway, you do this, and you act this way. These are the things you have to be careful about.” They shifted into the language of the urban space.
It reflects an understanding of the ways they’re expected to behave [in that space] in order to advance the cause that everyone shares: getting to the place they’re going.
Tonnelat: [When people use “you,”] it betrays a series of do’s and don’ts that people have to practice on the subway. What we found is that these norms are basically a set of skills that people have to acquire to get along: like “civil inattention” [whereby strangers will acknowledge each other in subtle, but unimposing ways] or what we call “cooperative mobility”—the way that people move in a group without bumping into each other.
Behind these competencies that riders have to learn is a general assumption that everybody will behave. And that I think is the main assumption that community is built on.
You’ve dedicated a chapter to exploring how interactions between different genders play out on the train. What did you learn?
Tonnelat: Crowding is the big problem these days, and together with crowding comes the problem of sexual harassment of women by men. This question had arisen before in the history of the subway in New York City, especially at the beginning of their opening up the [subway], when it was also super-crowded.
We took that question seriously. We worked with Hollaback, which is a feminist organization trying to defend the rights of women to use public spaces without being harassed. They had gathered an amazing amount of reactions by women who’ve been groped or otherwise harassed on the train, and we used that testimony to understand: How do women react when their privacy is being violated? What we see basically, once again, [is] the train is a contested space for gender issues.
Kornblum: We also look, in detail, at the suggestions that have been given to women about how to handle unwanted attention. The organization whose material we worked with, Hollaback, have a position on this: Women should confront the person who is giving them a hard time or groping them. They should holler back.
We examined the statements of women in the blogosphere about this issue, and came to the conclusion that while it’s very good for women to holler back, they don’t always need to turn around and confront the person who they think it is. If they make it known that they don’t want the attention being given, instead of really getting in the face of this other person, that might add a modicum [of] safety in their interactions. Because what we want to try to do is avoid the escalation of violence here.
Stéphane and I also discuss the opposite possibility: that people of different genders and different gender identities can find attraction to each other in the train. So there’s a lot of other kinds of interactions, which are within the bounds of respect for each other’s self.
Interactions between riders of different ages is another thing you discuss at length.
Kornblum: Every school day between 2 and 3 o’ clock in the afternoon, you have a quarter of a million teenagers and younger kids who run onto the subway from school. And it really creates a kind of unusual social phenomenon. There’s a lot of kids behaving in different ways—sometimes, not so pleasant. A number of young people that worked with us in the seminar kept diaries of their experiences on the train over a period of four to five months.
Would you say that the subway space becomes, at those times, an extension of the school playground with its different social groups and dynamics?
Kornblum: That’s a very good analogy. While they’re there, they’re interacting; a lot of the times there can be shouting, yelling, disputes, jumping around. They’re energetic. Older people [on the train] can feel threatened or annoyed, or what have you. So there’s also a kind of conflict going on.
Tonnelat: [The groups of kids] are like islands in the middle of the subway, that interact with the rest of the train car. There are interesting differences between when the kids ride the train by themselves—in those cases, they’re very discreet—and when they ride in groups.
One of the young people cited in the book noted something very interesting: How a person swipes the Metrocard can divulge whether or not they live in the city. That anecdote highlights one of the main arguments you’re making in the book, that taking the subway helps newcomers assimilate and develop a common identity, not just as riders of a particular train line, but as New Yorkers. Could you talk about that?
Tonnelat: The competencies that people learn on the train are, in fact, urban competencies. They can be applied anywhere. That way, the subway opens up the city materially, through [access to different places around the city], but also socially.
Kornblum: You’ll meet people all over the world who will say, “Oh yeah, I used to live in New York. I used to ride the 7 train or 6 train. I used to get off [at] this station”—and they’ll tell you the station. They may have never succeeded in becoming Americans, or never wanted to, but they became New Yorkers, to the extent that they could use the transit system to get around.
From this entire endeavor, what did you learn about how immigrants use transit, and how transit agencies see their immigrant riders?
Tonnelat: The transit agency has a commitment to universalism and they don’t really make a difference between immigrants and non-immigrants. They do try to publish posters in languages most spoken in communities, when there are certain disruptions. So that’s a laudable effort on their part.
Kornblum: There’s a wonderful quote in the book from the former city councilman from Flushing, John Liu. He warns us not to romanticize the subway, and that for most people—especially low-income people of immigrant origin—getting on the subway every day, when it’s crowded, or when you have to get to work early in the morning, is not a romantic experience. He puts it in more salty language.
Tonnelat: But [this subway train] is the lifeline of the community.
Kornblum: And people recognize that. One of the biggest issues that Councilman John Liu had to deal with was frequent delays on the number 7 train as they’re trying to modernize the signal system.
Tonnelat: Something we don’t talk enough about in the book are the weekend disruptions. Those immigrant communities, a lot of them work on the weekends, and they rely on the trains. But the weekends are the time designated by the MTA to modernizing work on the line. And it has created some tension. It’s a difficult problem to deal with because this line surely needs modernization.
Kornblum: One of the chief engineers said once that working on the subway is like performing an operation on a man when he’s still working at a desk. So it’s never, ever, ever going to be an easy situation for the public, although there are ways that the MTA could do a better job. Another part of the book looks at how the riders of the subway are an integral part of the functioning of the subway. More and more, the city depends on them to police themselves and do things in an orderly way. The more competent they are, the more competent the MTA can help them be, the better off we all will be as citizens.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Tonnelat: Now, we’re in an interesting moment politically, in the U.S. but also in Europe and in many other cities. The question of tolerance vis-a-vis foreigners and immigrants [is] very high on the agenda. This book illustrates how so many different people from so many different backgrounds can get together, and basically run the subway system along with the MTA. I think it offers an antidote to some of the pessimistic views about the abilities of foreigners to integrate into the host country.
Second, most of the subways [in the world] are new today—they’re being built in developing cities in China and India. And they’re certainly being looked at as a new mode of integrating new urbanites into the cities, and helping the cities keep their diversity and size.
Kornblum: It’s the subway theory of urbanity.