Tag Archives: Transportation

This Day in History 9/1: The First running US subway opens in Boston

Flying junction on the Tremont Street Subway a...

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It’s a system that’s younger than London’s, older than New York’s, and best known as the setting of a oft-sung folk ditty…

A ditty customarily sung under the influence.

On September 1, 1897, the Tremont Street Subway opened in Boston, the first fully functioning subway in the United States. Today, this original tunnel forms part of the Green Line of Boston’s subway system, or “T” as it is known locally.

Like its famous streets, Boston’s mass transit history was haphazard at best, with breaks and bends along the way. The Tremont Street line was, funny enough, not designed as a mass transit system. Rather, it was a way for city fathers to cut back on trolley lines on the surface. In fact, the first subway cars in Boston were trolleys, powered by overhead wires.

By 1947, the Tremont Line was folded into the Metropolitan Transit Authority or MTA—today known as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or MBTA. In order to increase fare revenue without updating equipment, the MTA instituted an “exit fare” of a nickel. Only by paying this fare could a rider leave the system and return to the surface.

This practice inadvertently spawned the Boston subway’s most famous legacy—“MTA” or as it is commonly known, “Charlie on the MTA.”

In 1949, Walter O’Brien ran as the Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston. One of his major campaign promises was to remove the exit fare system (a system so complicated that it required a nine-page booklet to explain it all). Unable to afford radio ad time, O’Brien enlisted local folk singers to write and sing campaign songs from a truck with a loudspeaker as it careened through Boston’s windy streets.

The best known of these campaign songs attacked the exit fare system with a curious predicament. Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes wrote “MTA” using the tunes of earlier ballads like “The Ship that Never Returned” and “The Wreck of the Old 97.” The song featured Charlie, an unfortunate Bostonian who boards a Boston subway car without the required exit fare. Since he can’t pay to get out, poor Charlie is doomed to spend his days on the subway as it speeds past station after station.

The song has since become legendary in Boston folklore—even if its original intent has been lost to younger generations. It’s been recorded numerous times and often been the basis of numerous sing-alongs in bars from Marblehead to the Cape. Even the MBTA got into the act, naming its electronic-based fare-collection system the “CharlieCard.”

Attached is the most famous recording of the song, by the Kingston Trio in 1959. They changed the name of the candidate to George O’Brien, since the aforementioned Walter was perceived by many as a Socialist—an obvious faux pas in the paranoid 50s.

I also included a modern rendition and a personal favorite, “Skinhead on the MBTA” by the Dropkick Murphys. It’s not for everyone, but who cares? Enjoy.


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Musings on the Buffet line: Las Vegas in the American Psyche

035Did you miss me? Be honest.

I must say I missed the Neighborhood, even from the sunny confines of Las Vegas.  I would’ve posted earlier had there not been a ghastly fee for internet access.  On the whole, I can’t complain–Mr. D would like to thank the nice folks at the MGM Grand Resort and Casino for their excellent attention.    Just as a note: stay away from Yoshe at the blackjack tables.  She can fleece you with a string of 21’s in no time flat.

No matter how many times I go, Las Vegas continues to amaze me.  It epitomizes the best and worst of American society.  I will have skeptics, but I truly believe that to understand the America of the early 21st century, look no further than a once-barren truck stop in the Mojave Desert, now one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.  If ever there was an America in miniature, this would be it.

Like early American cities, Las Vegas’ sprawl is due to the relentless drive of unbridled capitalism, in this case fueled by the gaming and tourism industry.  In an area where the original meadow (Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish) was long since swalled by the desert, there exists an explosive energy of constructive and destructive forces driven by innate passions and desires.  Much like the New York of the 20th Century, Las Vegas is driven by the future.  Modernity means bigger, taller, faster, more exciting resort destinations that take up every inch of available real estate.  The main drag, Las Vegas Boulevard, or “The Strip”, is now so choked with development that hotels must now reach higher and higher, eventually to dwarf the 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower, the tallest free-standing tower in the United States.

Another similarity to early America is both the use of unique design and imitation.  If visitors think that the faux-landscapes of New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas or the Venetian are simply elements unique to Las Vegas, they are sorely mistaken.  Nothing is more American than the imitation of elements from the European past: look at Washington’s neoclassical buildings if you don’t believe me.  Furthermore, sometimes design imitation is taken to new levels of innovation, such as the Luxor, an Egyptian-themed hotel shaped like a gigantic black pyramid.

Who inhabits these glass and steel monoliths?  Apparently, all of America and a good part of the rest of the world, too.  The “Oceans 11, 12, 13” movies have done much to spread the Vegas myth.  Las Vegas’ mystique is driven by a uniquely American mindset that anything is possible.  The biggest mistakes were telling “Bugsy” Siegel, Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn, or the Maloof brothers–all pioneers in the Vegas story–that it couldn’t be done.  The casinos, restaurants and nightclubs today are monuments to possibility.  The possibilities themselves are as American as the buildings–anyone can be treated like a king.  Anyone is one slot machine pull away from millionaire status.  This is where the small can feel like a big shot–at least until the plane ride home. 

Things aren’t always so rosy in Sin City.  It’s nickname is part of the mystique–and part of the problem.  In an America where more and more families are driven to vacation together, Las Vegas’ “adultness” can be very off-putting.  The city’s casual attitude toward malfeasance, vice, gluttony and general indulgence is not exactly fodder for family entertainment.  Countless times, I’ve seen a happy family walking down the strip, and seen Junior looking down in astonishment at the cards of undressed women advertising their “services.” Like I’ve said in previous posts, I’m no prude.  However, Vegas is not for families, enough said.

The downside of unbridled development is that you get what you pay for.  Las Vegas’ transportation infrastructure is woefully inadequate for the city–try driving south on the Strip between Treasure Island and the Bellagio and you’ll get my point.  As you go north into the city proper, tourist meccas often collide with appalling squalor, as I witnessed in the shantytown located just north of Charleston Boulevard, if memory serves.  Indulgence, especially Vegas indulgence, is ultimately self-destructive–doesn’t this sound like our own America and its consumer-driven culture.  As Las Vegas grows, it faces problems many American cities have already faced at least a century ago: crime, poverty, corruption, transportation, civic infrastructure, and environmental concerns.  Priority one is the last one: Las Vegas is in a desert, after all, and water is scarce.

Yet if you see it for what it is, then Las Vegas is certainly an enjoyable experience.  It’s a place I love to visit, though I doubt I could ever live there.  After all, who can subsist on half-price buffets and comped rooms all their life?  Well, not for lack of trying.

I’ll try to get a Flickr account going to show all the pictures from our trip.  For now, enjoy the view from our suite.  Awesome.

This was the view from our suite.  You can see New York-New York, the Monte Carlo, and the new CityCenter project, a joint effort of MGM-Mirage and Dubai World.  Jealous?

This was the view from our suite. You can see New York-New York, the Monte Carlo, and the new CityCenter project, a joint effort of MGM-Mirage and Dubai World. Jealous?


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