Riding the Second Avenue Subway With the Blogger Who Knows It Best
Benjamin Kabak, the creator of Second Avenue Sagas, rides the 2nd Avenue Subway at rush hour.
It was the usual blur of people inside the Times Square subway complex on Monday evening, maybe a little more bulbous and bumbling, wrapped up to fend off the sub-freezing weather. Through the bundled masses strode Benjamin Kabak, past the Record Mart, and down to the uptown platform of the BMT Broadway line.
“Surprised it’s not an Apple store yet,” Kabak said of the 56-year-old underground audio shop, “like in every other transportation hub.”
Kabak marched down the platform toward the back of the train, where he knew it would be less crowded. “There’s really a decent number of people here,” he said as he looked to the Q-train tracks, sounding impressed.
He stepped onto the next packed car that arrived, bound as thousands have been for the past week, for the Upper East Side. Kabak had just left his office at an international law firm, though he was not headed home like most everyone else on the Q. He was getting down to work. As the Q hit the bend just before 63rd Street station, Kabak remarked on the way the train slowed. Leaving the station, he noted how quiet the new tunnels are, since they were bored out individually, rather than the cut-and-cover trenches of a century ago. One passenger, overhearing, began a disquisition on the sorry state of infrastructure investments in New York.
The guy knew his stuff, but for the hundreds on the train, the thousands who ride it every day, and the millions in the city, almost no one knows as much about the Second Avenue Subway as Benjamin Kabak.
A decade ago, having just returned from college to an occasionally dull paralegal job, Kabak decided to start Second Avenue Sagas. Launched on a lark as a personal chronicle, it quickly evolved into one of the most authoritative sources around for transit news. Among its more than 100,000 monthly readers are many officials at the MTA (some of whom have been known to leak information to Kabak). Even Mayor de Blasio is said to read the site.
“I never really thought it would become what it’s become,” Kabak said. “I did learn that if you knew your stuff, that could draw an audience. Though now, with fake news and everything, I’m not so sure.”
Monday was only Kabak’s second ride on the new Q, the first having come on Saturday. He had been waiting years for this moment, but he missed the big black-tie grand opening — so certain was Kabak that the line would not open on time, he and his wife booked an impromptu New Year’s trip to Paris when cheap tickets came up.
“I really didn’t think they’d open on time, and really, up until mid-December, I don’t think they thought they would,” Kabak said. “Cuomo kept saying they would, and I guess that shows if we really, really set our mind to this, we can.”
When Kabak started, blogging was growing in popularity and seriousness (Gothatmist had turned three, Curbed was a year old, the Times would soon launch the now-shuttered City Room). Kabak, who was born on the Upper West Side 33 years ago, edited the Swarthmore Phoenix. With a new Democratic Congress backing the line, Kabak thought it a good time to indulge another of his hometown passions.
Then came the inevitable delays, cutbacks and overruns to the $4.45 billion extension, all of which Kabak chronicled in minute detail, while also branching out into other transportation issues, like the 7-train extension, congestion pricing, ferry service, and the L-pocalypse. “When most of the work is going on underground, there is only so much you can write about,” he said.
Stepping off at 96th Street, he still cannot help but contain a grin as he looks up, an experience many passengers share, though just as many plow ahead with their commutes. “For all the complaints and all the issues, it’s still pretty awesome, and I think people have to appreciate that,” Kabak said. “A lot of people never thought this day would come, I know my dad didn’t, and we have to take a moment to savor it. Though maybe that’s also part of the problem, that it’s so rare.”
While climbing to the mezzanine, taking in the Sarah Sze’s blue wall panels that are Kabak’s least favorite of the new art installation, an alarm briefly clanged in the distance. Kabak recognized it as a signal that something was not working in the station.
For all his excitement, Kabak still expresses frustration over the new line, specifically it’s astronomical cost. “I know someone has to be the most expensive, but why does it always have to be us?” he wonders. The trip to Paris was a painful reminder of this. “Their system is just as old, and while it doesn’t run 24-7, we never waited more than 3 or 4 minutes, even at 11:30 at night. They have some automated lines, some have platform-edge doors.” And they are getting much more for much less, as the Metro undertakes a massive suburban expansion. On a per mile basis, Paris’ costs around 15 to 20 cents for every dollar the MTA spent on the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway. And our next phase could cost 50 percent more.
Few things are more intensely debated on the blog than the obscene expense of infrastructure in the United States, and particularly New York. Kabak admits he does not have a satisfying solution — everything, from labor costs to regulations to competition amongst utilities, is a factor — but he firmly believes more New Yorkers must agitate over these costs the same way they do their healthcare and their taxes.
“I always knew the subways were an important part of the city when I was growing up, but since doing the blog, I’ve come to realize just how vital they are,” Kabak said. “The city seems to be in crisis when the subways are, and its healthiest when the subways are. The more each project saps funds, the less there is for other projects.”
For a time, Kabak thought he might shutter the blog once the line opened, since he has less and less time for it, between work and family. The day after the election, Kabak shut down another one of his very popular New York-centric outlets — the @NYTonit Twitter account — which lampoons the Gray Lady’s more purple stories — over his frustration with media’s election coverage. Second Avenue Sagas is likely to continue, if at a different pace. “As long as they’re still working on the line, and that’s going to be a while,” Kabak said.
As he headed back down to the platform to take the Q home to Park Slope (despite his intense focus on Second Avenue, he only ever comes up here to visit an aunt and uncle in Yorkville), the people clustering on the train caught Kabak’s eye.
“What’s so amazing about this is, I guess you don’t expect people still to be gawking on, what, day 9,” Kabak said, “but here they are, just sitting on the train, staring at their phones, waiting for it to leave as though it’s always been here.”
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