The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway is a fascinating look at one of modern society’s most taken-for-granted features: public transit. Specifically, it’s a look at the events and people that helped create the public transit systems that would eventually become New York City’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. Doug Most’s prose can occasionally veer off the main rail of the story, but always with the purpose of making sure the reader understands the personalities and the politics that formed the United States in the late 1800s.
It’s particularly interesting to see names that have passed into near myth appear on the pages – names like Teddy Roosevelt, Boss Tweed, and Thomas Edison. You can also see the seeds of the 20th century sewn, as others – such as John F Kennedy’s grandfather – show up and either throw their support for a subway in their city or stand in the way and try to block what was seen as a public menace.
Doug Most is very clearly deeply interested in this period in history, and it shows in his prose as he paints the scene of two Northeast cities exploding with populations and scrambling to handle the sudden influx of people. His enthusiasm shines through so clearly that it’s hard not to become drawn in and read quickly in hopes of finding out which city would eventually go on to make history in the US. Which is particularly impressive, given that it is a matter of public record (and pride for that particular city).
Quite frankly, it’s also just fun to see all of this form, and try to match the images presented in the book up against one’s own experience getting around NYC and Boston. Times have changed drastically since these days.
The Race Underground is a great read for the summer (especially when you can find somewhere air conditioned to read it). You can find it in the Tufts Library catalog and order it from Tisch here. Fun fact: it’s a 90 day rental!
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