In first three months of 1979 eight people were murdered on the New York Subway. In March of that year Mayor Koch held a City Hall news conference to declare war on “ghouls” who prey on subway riders. It was his “war on subway crime”. Crime was rife. In 1979, 250 crimes were reported every week on the city’s knackered 230-mile system of 459 subway stations. Fear ruled. Criminals were emboldened. On March 20 1979, Eric Washington, 16, of 3340 Bailey Avenue, and Darren Brown, 17, of 2744 Dewey Avenue, the Bronx, were arrested after they allegedly robbed a 33-year-old teacher of $200, using a comb wrapped with tape to simulate a gun. The incident occurred aboard a northbound IRT train as it pulled into station at Broadway and 238th Street at 1:20 P.M. Officers captured them near the station. In 1980, there were 35 rapes.
New Yorker Willy Spiller was there. No-one stole his camera. His photos appeared in the 1980s book Hell on Wheels.
In December 1982 Paul Theroux road the trains:
The subway is frightful looking. It has paint and signatures all over its aged face. It has been vandalized from end to end. It smells so hideous you want to put a clothespin on your nose, and it is so noisy the sound actually hurts. Is it dangerous? Ask anyone, and, without thinking, he will tell you there must be about two murders a day on the subway. ..
Three and a half million fares a day pass through it, and in 1981 the total number of murder victims on the subway amounted to 13. This figure does not include suicides (one a week) or ”space cases” – people who quite often get themselves jammed between the train and the platform.
The subway looks like a deathtrap. It’s not at all like the BART system in San Francisco, where people are constantly chattering, saying, ”I’m going to my father’s wedding,” or ”I’m looking after my Mom’s children,” or ”I’ve got a date with my fiancee’s boyfriend.” The New York subway is a serious matter – the rackety train, the silent passengers, the occasional scream.
No one speaks except to the person on his immediate right or left, and only then if they are very old friends or else married. Avoiding the stranger’s gaze is what the subway passenger does best. Most sit bolt upright, with fixed expressions, ready for anything. As a New York City subway passenger, you are J. Alfred Prufrock – you ”prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Those new to the subway have the strangest expressions, like my English friend who told me there was only one way to survive the subway: ”You have to look as if you’re the one with the meat cleaver. You have to go in with your eyes flashing.”
Not that the villains had it all their own way:
”Last May,” the first officer said, ”six guys attempted to murder someone at Forest Parkway, on the J line. It was a whole gang against this one guy. Then they tried to burn the station down with Molotov cocktails. We stopped that, too.”
Via Hell on Wheels by Willy Spiller.