Take the A Train (or the F, the Q, the 1, the 7 ... )

What made New York City what it is today? When the Dutch East India Company set out to build New Amsterdam in the 17th century, it was not as a religious settlement but as a business center. Then Alexander Hamilton decided that New York City was not going to be the agrarian society envisioned by the founding gentleman farmers of Virginia, but an economic engine driving the nation's commerce and mercantilism. Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who served two nonconsecutive terms (1817-22, 1825-28), followed his lead--and built the Erie Canal. The canal was the very key to making New York's port the country's greatest, eclipsing Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia and Norfolk, and turning the city into a center for national commerce, as well as a gateway to the West. New York thus arguably owes its commercial success to one source: the ability to move goods and people from one place to another efficiently and en masse.

Enter the subway, which turns 100 this month. If anything truly revolutionized the way New Yorkers live, work and play, it's the subway. On any given weekday, 4.5 million people travel on the 6,400 cars that run along 722 miles of track beneath the city's five teeming boroughs. For all their complaints about it--the dirt! the crowding! the noise!--the subway remains nothing short of the miracle it was when the subway opened in 1904. To be sure, the stock of cars is aging, the PA system is garbled, the stations flood too easily and the trains slow to a crawl at the slightest hint of inclement weather. The infrastructure badly needs patch-ups and repairs. But it's impolite to count an old-timer's wrinkles on her birthday.

James Clifford Greller, a historian at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at New Jersey's Rutgers University and the author of several books on the New York City subway system, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker (who takes the M/R and transfers to the D to get to work) about how the subway helped make the Big Apple what it is today. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was the original impetus behind developing the subway?

James Clifford Greller: Existence on these streets, with the teeming masses, could not be borne any longer. Many areas were very diseased, new immigrants were huddled together. What was needed was the development of the outer boroughs to really occupy the workers, and the people needed to fill the jobs and facilities and services that Manhattan always had.

Was there any resistance to building it?

New York City had all the difficulties that we have today: NIMBY-ism existed even then. We had Tammany Hall we had corruption. But we also had a lot of very high-minded New Yorkers, people who really felt that this city must grow and had the best interests of the city at heart. At the same time electricity was invented. Being a very, very new science it was being very closely adapted for street railways. Then you have this invention of multiple-unit train control, where whole series of cars can run at the same time while piloted by the first-car motorman. [That] was an incredible thing. Now they had the tools in which they could run underground and not worry about soot ventilation. Then of course you have to pick the route. Just like today, everybody wants it to go somewhere else. It's very interesting to note that the first subway route was a public-private venture, where the city owned the subway and put up the money, some $50 million, which at the time was astronomical.

Is the initial economic impact at all quantifiable?

Around 1910, before the subway started going [to Brooklyn] it was nowhere near a million in population. Within about 10 years of the opening of the subway systems [there], the population goes beyond a million. If you look at the 1930s when it went out to Flushing, there's nothing out there. It's like prairie; it's like going out to Montana. If you look at it after the war, there's not one lot left. Basically, we built an empire based on public transit. This does not happen with the automobile. We did not see this with the maze of highway systems that went up. What we did see was the deterioration of the center core city to the growth of the suburbs. One of the things [about a] subway car, there's from 40 to 150 people in this car. I am now going to put every one of them in an automobile: You would have a line of automobiles that would stretch four to five blocks in length. But they all fit in one subway car, they all fit in one bus.

You see this 100-year-old behemoth as central to the city even today, then?

Everything the city of New York has depends on the growth of the subway system. I don't care what business you have. Go out and ask how many people took the train to work today. Probably it's about three quarters of them. The idea of public transit is essential, sensible and the key to a healthy city. The ability New York City had on the opening of the subway is that they could physically move 30,000 people from 125th Street to Wall Street in less than 15 minutes. That's incredible. No one was able to do that. When the subway system was able to pull this kind of volume, people said "You know, I think I am going to go live in the Bronx. I think I am going to live in upper Manhattan--96th Street doesn't look so far away when you think of it." It was a massive success, it was money spent in the right place. I would say that that $50 million probably brought the tune of trillions of dollars and are still producing trillions of dollars to this day.

More than a technological feat, the subway was also an aesthetic wonder.

They got the idea, really, from Budapest. You can't take the loop around anymore and see City Hall Station, which was probably the most artistic achievement of any of the stations with vaulted arches, a lighted glass ceiling. The subway museum wanted to make it part of their museum exhibit, and really should, but can't because of the terrorist threats and its location so close to the foot of City Hall--you can come out of the staircases and 20 feet later walk right up the steps of City Hall.

They tore out a lot of those mosaics in the 1960s and '70s, though.

Since that time in the '60s and '70s, when the subway was just seen as a hole in the ground, the effort of the New York City transit authority has been really to go back to that mosaic feature, because frankly, that's what subways are. That's the ironclad photograph of what a subway is to a New Yorker and anyone else who has seen movies. That idea is coming back and I am grateful for it because some of that tile work is done beautifully.

Well, what is New York about if it isn't tearing down and rebuilding?

New York City in the 1830s and 1850s, you couldn't ever live anywhere, it was always being torn down. Your home was being torn down for a store, a business, a building, a shop, and it kept marching and marching on. And it's still marching today. New York is still changing. Today we're looking at the West Side with great avarice. It's the new growth place. New York City has a real riotous past of tearing down everything. We do not have any of the elevated lines left in Manhattan. But the original subway route is still very much intact.

And more than a convenient mode of transportation, the subway has featured in movies and in pop tunes. It's part of the culture and it has its own internal culture. Why do you think that is?

The subway system is one of the great cultural factors. The subway system does two major important things that are still begging to be understood on the 100th anniversary. One is that public transit does do a great deal to really make the urban experience exciting. People can move about freely. The city was your huckleberry. This is a civilizing thing. It gets you to meet new people. You have to talk--the train stops, it doesn't move, you look at him, she looks at you, what's going on? And you start talking. As a person who lived most of my life in the city of New York, New Yorkers are the most helpful, the most generous, the most giving. And no one sees this more than when you ride the subway and say, "Can you tell me how to get to 14th Street?" Every New Yorker is their own personal authority on the transit system and the best way to get to DeKalb Avenue and the best way to get to Park Place. You are asking them for their brilliance and expertise.

Well, it hasn't always been paradise-under-earth. The subway had its problems in the 1980s.

We all had trouble in the '80s. When you lose a lot of riders to the highway, you're really going against the formula that saved this city and made this city. You've got a great formula--you got a great system; you can transfer to other lines; you can transfer to further commuter lines; you can get out of the city not moving a car. We have an oil shortage now. Where are people going to go? We have tolls on the bridges going up. There are people who live in New York who've never even thought about having a car. Let's think of the money they save. If I live in the suburbs, in order to get a goddam bagel, I have to get in a land locomotive, drive a mile, get a bagel and come back, rather than going downstairs or getting on a train or a bus!

What are your plans for the anniversary?

For the 100th anniversary they're going to run some of the vintage cars. It's a lot of fun. The first subway cars had beautiful interiors. They had wood interiors, they were pin-striped; they had cane seats. They had matting on the floor in the rain. They were very, very commodious. They were like luxurious railway cars. I still think that if somebody wants to get a thrill, [they should] take a ride from Bowling Green and ride up to Grand Central Station--that's the oldest link of the line really. To think that those cars are rocketing underneath Broadway and Lafayette Street the same way they did in 1905, 1906, 1910, 1918, 1920, 1925. Infrastructure like this holds. And it holds neighborhoods together. It does a lot more than just provide transportation. You know which newsstand is near what entrance. You know what bakery is near what entrance. It is the glue which holds everything together.