Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum's International Express
Reviewed by Dominique Jean-Louis
This summer has been a hard one for the MTA. In early June, a nursing student on his way to graduation, dressed in his cap and gown, missed the ceremony due to train delays that made him three hours late. Sympathetic (and similarly delayed) fellow passengers threw him an impromptu graduation, with one person pulling up a picture of a diploma to present to him on a cell phone. Another played classic graduation jam “Good Riddance” by Green Day on a speaker, while the other passengers looked on, smiling.
The following week, in an incident less heartwarming but more disturbing, an F train lost power while underground, trapping passengers for 45 minutes underground with no lights or air conditioning. With elderly and pregnant passengers forced to endure temperatures climbing above 100 degrees, and all the smells of a packed rush hour train, tensions and tempers flared. To add insult to injury, even as the train finally made it to the station, riders were forced to wait another ten minutes for the packed subway platform to clear before they were released, while onlookers took iPhone photos of their misery through the train’s steamed-up windows. At the end of the month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the struggling MTA.
The ongoing debate about subway service aside, these incidents are a sobering reminder of how much we all rely on an unspoken code of subway rider etiquette to preserve safety and calm, and how interactions between subway riders can go from ordinary to extraordinary when circumstances change. These are some of the same phenomena that inspired the recent book International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train, by French ethnographer Stéphane Tonnelat and CUNY sociologist William Kornblaum. The book intends to “explore how [subway] riders’ conduct affects the system’s operations and, in turn, how different aspects of the subway’s physical and social environment influence the riders’ attitudes and behavior.” Specifically, Tonnelat and Kornblum are interested in the 7 train that runs from the nearly-open Hudson Yards station to Flushing Queens. The 7 train runs through the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Flushing. As a line that represents so much of New York City’s immigrant diversity, it was named one of 16 National Millennium Trails in 2000, alongside 15 other long-distance trails of national significance like the Underground Railroad and the Iditarod.
The historical and contemporary importance of the borough of Queens is head-scratchingly under-represented in the scholarly world, and International Express is a welcome attempt to address that gap. Tonnelat and Kornblum use the ridership of the 7 train to examine the ways that subject riding and the “situational community” it creates tell us about the way that people understand the space they inhabit. While the book does an excellent job of describing the specificity of the 7 train -- who rides it, what are some of the interactions and intersections made possible by its route and clientele -- the reader is left wishing the authors provided more analysis, a more complete argument about what this singular train line tells us about New York, subway ridership, or interactions in public space. The authors reveal in the acknowledgments that this book had its origins in a proposed comparative study of the 7 train in New York and the 2 train in Paris, both important corridors for immigrant commutes in major global cities. The ambitious project was conceived by French social scientist Isaac Joseph, who passed away before the data collection in Paris could take place. His colleagues Tonnelat and Kornblum completed the New York leg of the project.
While the book, taken as a whole, is a bit lacking in cohesion, with the authors bouncing from methodology to methodology without always explaining their choices, some of the individual chapters stand out as stand-alone triumphs. Tonnelat and Kornblum offer a thoroughgoing exploration of the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue Station, which is referred to as “a social institution of Jackson Heights.” The station allows passengers to transfer to the E, F, M, and R trains here, and becomes an important hub of interactions with MTA employees, police, subway vendors, and panhandlers/performers. The authors offer vivid descriptions of these individuals, and investigate their intersecting needs and rhythms that give the 74th Street Station its character. Irene, the Egyptian coffee cart vendor, is so often mistaken as a Spanish-speaking Latina woman that she learns coffee-related Spanish phrases to keep the line moving during morning rush hour. Eduardo, a nut vendor, is candid about both his contempt for black customers and the reasoning behind his frequent catcalling of female passers-by. (In a particularly deft move, International Express contextualizes this with a firsthand account by one of their female ethnographers about her discomfort with his advances, and worry that it will interfere with her research.)
Relatedly, another important contribution the book makes is in underlining how gender shapes the experience of navigating the subway system. Not only do they dedicate a chapter to analyzing gender on the subway, pulling from both empirical evidence on sexual assault on the subways gathered by nonprofit Hollaback!, and the site’s active comments section, where women candidly share their experiences of subway assault, and find solidarity amongst one another in affirming their feelings about it after the fact. Bringing this deeply felt online interaction to the written page is mostly done quite well, and the writers follow up by filtering this system-wide issue through the specificity of the 7 train, noting that, when displayed, the MTA’s “a crowded train is no excuse for an improper touch” posters were not translated into Spanish or Chinese, which would be more relevant for the immigrant communities on the 7 train.
Chapter 7, which examines NYC teens on the 7 line, is one example where the methodology holds promise, but reads a bit underdeveloped. The team asked twelve high school students, many of them recently arrived immigrants, to keep a diary of their subway encounters. While the extended excerpts are a fascinating glimpse into the subway perceptions of teenagers, immigrants, and teenage immigrants, the author miss an opportunity to deeply analyze and contextualize the interactions these teens describe. They often make a quick comparison of the teens’ observation and concepts introduced by noted social scientists like Erving Goffman or Elijah Anderson, without sufficient explanation. While the book seems to be aimed at a non-scholarly audience, this kind of practice can be alienating to readers who are not familiar with such names and concepts.
In total, International Express is an interesting entry point into closer analysis of New York City subway culture, which leapfrogs from gender to generational to neighborhood identity, which makes it an interesting book to dive in and out of. Those looking for a more comprehensive or tightly structured narrative might not find this book as satisfying. But it certainly opens the door for individual train lines as units of analysis. One is left wondering what a study of the L train or G train, with similar ties to particular neighborhoods and communities, might look like. Enterprising social scientists and historians would do well to follow up with additional studies of how transportation in the city, and the social codes it creates, shape what it means to get around in New York.
Dominique Jean-Louis is a Ph.D candidate in U.S. History at NYU. Last year she was an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral History Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.