It might be New York City’s ‘summer of hell,’ but 14 photos show how much worse the subway system was in the 1970s

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Back then, New York City was known as “Fear City.”
source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Today, New Yorkers and commuters are in the grips of the “summer of hell.”

Mass delays are everywhere throughout various metro transit systems. So far, the MTA alone has seen fires, derailed trains, and dangerously overcrowded subway platforms.

And the situation is taking its toll on frustrated commuters.

But things could always be worse.

Just look at the 1970s, when the Big Apple seemed to be rotting from within.

Crime was everywhere and the city was struggling to deal with a major fiscal crisis.

The city’s subway system wasn’t faring much better. Crime, graffiti, and frequent mechanical breakdowns were mainstays of New York subways throughout the decade.

Photographer Erik Calonius snapped several shots of the bleak situation in April of 1973. These pictures, along with many others, can be viewed in the Flickr album of the U.S. National Archives.

These 14 photos allow us a glimpse into what it was like to ride the New York City subway system during this troubled time.


Riding the subway in 1970 only cost 30 cents — a dramatic hike from the previous fare of 15 cents. Fare increases usually caused ridership to plunge.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Sources: New York Daily News, NYC Subway


The fares may have been cheaper, but the subways were also dirtier and more dangerous back in the day. The 1970s also brought about the age of graffiti in the New York subway system.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: PBS Newshour


Modern-day graffiti spread to New York from Philadelphia in the earlier part of the decade. Trains completely covered in graffiti were called “masterpieces.”

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: New York Magazine, PBS Newshour


By tagging all five boroughs, graffiti writers could become known as “kings.”

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: New York Magazine


So many cars were spray-painted that New York City Mayor John Lindsay declared war on graffiti in 1972.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: New York Magazine


The subway system — and New York City as a whole — was also more crime-ridden. In 1975, visitors at New York City’s airports received pamphlets welcoming them to “Fear City.” The skull-emblazoned documents advised tourists “not to take the subways under any circumstances.”

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: The Guardian


In 1974, the New York Police Department had to end its overnight subway patrols “in order to have more officers to combat daytime crime,” according to the Village Voice.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: Village Voice


Robbery was so pervasive on the Lexington Avenue Express that it was nicknamed the “Mugger’s Express.”

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: Business Insider


In December of 1977, an operation to combat rampant crime on subways resulted in the arrest of 200 robbery suspects.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: NYC Subway


To discourage crime, the Transit Police closed the rear half of subway trains between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. in order to make cars easier to monitor.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Sources: New York Daily News


Despite attempts to prevent crime, robberies and attacks persisted throughout the decade. By 1979, there were over 250 felonies a week on the subway system.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: Village Voice


Throughout the decade, stagnating wages for transit workers and New York City’s fiscal crisis caused the threat of transit strikes to loom over the subway system.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: NYC Subway


During the 1970s, annual ridership plummeted from 1.3 billion trips to around 1 billion trips — a drop double to that of the city’s population drain. By January 1980, the system had decayed to the point that MTA chairman Richard Ravitch admitted he wouldn’t let his teenage son ride the subway at night.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: New York Post, Village Voice


Problems would continue to plague the subway throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. However, by 1993, the tide was changing. The New York Times reported in 1993 that subway crimes were down by 12.1%, matching the city’s overall drop in crime.

source
The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Source: The New York Times

Business Insider’s Kamelia Angelova wrote a previous version of this article.