Book Review: The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System
I have recently completed reading The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System, by Joseph B. Raskin. This book is devoted to the history of the New York City Subway and some of the numerous plans for expansion that never came to be (and, as a bonus, a bit about the Hudson & Manhattan’s plans as well).
When I had ordered it online, I had expected it to be primarily focused on the grand plans that city mayors, transit planners and others tend to create every-so-often to inspire votes and improvements. Instead, this book is organized by transit corridor, since most plans tend to include roughly the same unbuilt services over time which never manage to get built.
By organizing the book this way, the author is better able to track the complex political wranglings in each neighborhood that accompanied each grand plan. Battles for subway construction and service often occurred over decades with the same characters seeking some of the scarce funds for their pet projects. Thus, it rapidly becomes apparent how critical various personalities were in the shape of the current system and city, and how differently neighborhoods might have turned out. Important figures such as Jim Hylan, Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia are all present, often in pitched battles with local neighborhood interests and leadership.
The downside of this approach is that the reader can get bogged down in some of the copious details. Raskins did an incredibly impressive amount of research for this book, and it shows. The author pulls from a vast library of newspapers and meeting minutes to guide the narrative, but I occasionally found myself losing some of the bigger picture in the midst of politicians saying one thing and doing another.
To properly get the most out of this book, one needs to be fluent in both New York City geography and the basic history of the subway system. There are some maps and a cursory subway history, but these aren’t enough for someone who doesn’t have some familiarity with the subject matter (though, to be fair, this is a niche subject that probably doesn’t attract a wider audience).
As written, The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System is as much a social history of New York City governance and human geography as it is the unbuilt subway system. Being a municipal entity with immense impacts on city life, this is sensible. While I would have appreciated a more thorough overview of the major plans such as the IND Second System, I enjoyed this book and consider it worthy of inclusion in any subway enthusiast’s library. Raskins is detailed, passionate, and takes joy in what he is writing about, and it comes together in a nicely authored work.