Hailing the History of New York's Yellow Cabs

New York Taxi Cabs i i

hide captionToday, more than 12,000 licensed yellow cabs operate in Manhattan alone, but the fleet has had a tumultuous history since its birth in the early 20th century.

Chris Hondros/Newsmakers
New York Taxi Cabs

Today, more than 12,000 licensed yellow cabs operate in Manhattan alone, but the fleet has had a tumultuous history since its birth in the early 20th century.

Chris Hondros/Newsmakers

It's loud, pushy and always seeking tips, and it's as synonymous with New York City as Broadway and Times Square.

The New York City yellow cab keeps the Big Apple's lifeblood flowing, but for drivers behind the wheel, there's no more dangerous, lonely or interesting job in the city. Cabbies face daily hazards – drunks, stickup men, fare beaters – but they're also privy to street subculture and customers from all walks of life.

In his book Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, Graham Russell Gao Hodges — a former New York cabbie himself — traces the history of cabdrivers from 1907, when the first metered taxis arrived on New York streets, to the present.

Today, more than 12,000 licensed yellow cabs operate in Manhattan alone, but the fleet has been wracked by labor unrest, racial strife, ruthless competition and political maneuvering since it overtook horse-drawn hansom cabs in the early 20th century. Hodges captures the drivers behind the scenes — mainly lower-class immigrants and blacks — who spend their lives in one of the city's most nerve-wracking jobs.

For many drivers, the cab is a ticket to retirement. A small minority take possession of their cab's medallion — a tiny tin seal attached to the hood that authorizes drivers to operate. Medallions today cost up to a quarter million dollars. But these owner-drivers work in the same world as drivers for the large taxi fleets, and the competition has led to major problems unionizing the industry. Hodges draws on newspaper accounts and interviews with cabdrivers to tell this part of history.

During the 1907s and '80s many drivers abandoned their cabs forever as violent crime increased in the city. Bulletproof partitions went up, dividing passengers and drivers. Robberies rose rapidly, prompting racism among the fleet. Many "hackies" refused to stop for black passengers, switching on their off-duty lights.

Today, crime is down and a new generation of foreign-born drivers has taken over. Hailing a cab usually means service from an Indian, Pakistani, Russian, Haitian or African driver. But like their predecessors, they're a key component to New York's growth and important emissaries for its visitors.

Excerpt: 'Taxi!'

Book Cover: Taxi

Modern cab driving stems from a grudge. In early 1907, a thirty-year-old New York businessman named Harry N. Allen became incensed when a hansom cab driver charged Allen and his lady friend five dollars for a three-quarter-mile trip from a Manhattan restaurant to his home. Angered by this vehicular extortion, Allen vowed to create a new cab service. He recalled later: "I got to brooding over this nighthawk. I made up my mind to start a service in New York and charge so-much per mile." Word of Allen's plan circulated for months in advance. First reports appeared on March 27, 1907. Interviewed forty years later, Allen recalled how he went to France to scout out reliable, improved automobiles that were superior to the American versions derided as "smoke-wagons." In Europe, he secured over eight million dollars in underwriting funds from Lazarre Weiller, a French industrialist, and Davison Lulziell, an English railroad operator. Armed with foreign capital, he obtained a full financial package from his father, Charles C. Allen, a stockbroker, and his father's friends. Additional powerful backers included publisher William Randolph Hearst and political fixer Big Tim Sullivan. The police commissioner promised "moral" support. Hearst told Allen to ignore his critics because "they'll all be riding in your cabs sooner or later."

On October 1, 1907, Allen achieved revenge by orchestrating a parade of sixty-five shiny new red gasoline-powered French Darracq cabs, equipped with fare meters, down Fifth Avenue. Their destination was a hack stand in front of the brand new Plaza Hotel on Fifty-ninth Street, across from the southeast corner of Central Park. Each driver wore a uniform designed to emulate a West Point cadet's. Allen instructed his employees to interact courteously with passengers to defuse an issue that had been a matter of public ire for decades. Irritation over rudeness and rate gouging by cabbies was perennial. Underwritten by his European creditors and by public enthusiasm for the new vehicles, Allen's New York Taxicab Company prospered. At the end of the first year, he gave faithful drivers a gold watch and announced he was starting a pension fund. In 1908, he had seven hundred cabs on the streets. Such sports as millionaire Diamond Jim Brady, an early skeptic of Allen's plan, bought five hundred dollars worth of discount coupons for rides. Modern taxicab service and its celebrated drivers soon became a reality for New Yorkers, pushing horse-drawn hacks into the dustbin of history.²

Harry Allen's success was momentary. Although production demands outstripped supply by mid-1908, Allen encountered serious labor problems. That autumn the first major strike by taxicab drivers destroyed his empire. On October 8, 1908, even as he announced a pension plan and handed out gold watches to the faithful drivers, five hundred of them walked out in a wage dispute. The drivers demanded a flat salary of $2.50 per day and free gasoline, claiming that gas costs alone were over eighty cents per day. There were other grievances. On top of maintenance and fuel costs, Allen charged the drivers a quarter per day for uniform use and another dime to polish the car brass. These fees cut their daily earnings down to less than a dollar a day. Allen rejected these appeals, arguing that good drivers made over $112 a month after these deductions, which he claimed was an excellent living wage.

Taxi drivers joined with the Teamsters Union to combat Allen. Negotiations collapsed. Violence flared with the introduction of strikebreakers. In one incident, angry taxi drivers invaded Bellevue to search for a scab who had eluded them by jumping into the river and then swimming to the back of the hospital. Allen hired "special policemen" armed with guns to protect his cabs, but the striking hack men continued their assaults. Although the regular police strived to create order in the streets, strikers found Allen near the Plaza Hotel and hailed him with a barrage of stones. Infuriated taxi men threw rocks through the large plate glass windows of the Plaza, the Knickerbocker Hotel, and another hotel on the Upper West Side. City police officers rode in Allen's cabs to intimidate the rioters, who in turn lured scabs down dark streets and beat them. One man died after a beating on East Seventy-second Street on October 15. Hired strikebreakers inadvertently shot and killed a small boy in the street. Strikers burned cabs and pushed them into the East River. Allen then hired Waddell and Mahon, a strikebreaking firm, with orders to smash the strike. Strikers responded with a note promising to bomb his company unless the private army was removed. When Allen refused, strikers hurled a bomb into a lot where Allen stored his cabs, barely missing a number of pedestrians. The strikers continued to attack taxicabs; in one instance in Harlem, sympathizers beat up two of Waddell and Mahon's goons and terrified several female passengers.

On November 7, after a month of violence, the Teamsters Union suddenly halted the strike, abandoning its demands for recognition and accepting the New York Taxicab Company's requirement that the company be an "open shop," in which employment is not restricted to union members. The next day however, strikers voted unanimously to reject the agreement and continue the strike. Repudiating the negotiating committee, the strikers looked to other branches of the Teamsters Union for support. Within a few days, some drivers trickled back to work amid reports that the local's treasury was badly depleted. Angry negotiations between the company and the rank-and-file drivers went long into the nights. Out of money and disillusioned with the Teamsters, who had stopped supplying strike pay, workers returned on November 16, and it seemed as if Allen was triumphant. His victory ended soon after, when mounting legal costs stemming from the strike forced him out of the business.

Labor peace was short-lived. Within a month, over three thousand coach and cabdrivers represented by a new union, the Liberty Dawn Association, went on strike in opposition to open-shop demands from employers such as the Morris Seaman Company, which was organized in 1907. They were soon joined by the taxicab drivers, meaning that technological innovations had not separated the interests of transport workers. Waddell and Mahon's private army of over a thousand strikebreakers reappeared. The strike shut down all transportation from the big hotels and on the streets. The New York Times warned that the "inconvenience of the strike" would inspire much ill-feeling. Although strikers threw rocks at the special police, within days the strike dissipated. The coach and taxicab companies had to employ goons to halt the labor action, as these strikes from October through December 1908 showed the depth of unrest among cabdrivers.

Labor turbulence mirrored the extraordinary impact the new cabs had on the urban environment. Their appearance came after decades of searching for a reliable urban transport for the middle classes. Measuring the fare was not hard. Taximeters had appeared in Paris in 1869, and New York newspapers reported them at that time, but the innovation of gasoline-powered vehicles was new. One major reason for the rapid development of automobiles, as they became known, was public desire to replace horse-drawn vehicles. Many New Yorkers felt the replacement of horses was long overdue. Pedestrians had to be especially wary of horses. They considered horses to be unpredictable, smelly, and dangerous. Drivers knew the animals could not be reliably curbed and might run away, kick pedestrians, or be stolen. Horses required a professional stableman and usually an experienced driver. Inconvenience and cost meant that such transportation was out of reach for all but the wealthy. City life was hard on the animals. Scandals swirled around the condition of stables, which were prone to horrible fires that disrupted commerce and threatened homes. Horses were highly vulnerable to disease and had short work lives of about four years. A horse sometimes died in the street, and this required other horses to pull it away, packing the lanes. As business in Manhattan soared, horse-drawn vehicles created traffic jams. As express wagons pulled larger loads, owners used bigger animals, often teaming them in unreliable combinations. One scared horse could spook a whole team. Then there was the stench. Horse manure amounted to over a million pounds a day; huge piles of the stuff stored on the street corners for use as fertilizer caused a nasty odor that overwhelmed the efforts of sanitation men.

Despite the demand for a replacement for horse-drawn vehicles, initial reforms failed. Bicycles showed some promise and, after the invention of the safety bicycle in 1889, attracted women who enjoyed new freedom in the streets, though the bikes hardly satisfied the need of mass transportation. Although steam-powered automobiles promised cleaner means of transport, they failed to persuade urban consumers to abandon horses.

Horse-drawn hacks had taken passengers to destinations since the early nineteenth century. As the city spread rapidly up Manhattan Island and into Brooklyn in the antebellum years, New Yorkers no longer thought of their home as a "walking city." Horse-drawn and, later, steampowered omnibuses plowed down major avenues but were slow, crowded, and unreliable. Seeking to avoid congestion and disease and fearful of violence, New York's new middle class moved further up the island and spilled into nearby towns. Mass transport took two forms. Horse-drawn omnibuses and horse-drawn railroads flourished in the lower part of Manhattan. In the upper sections of the city, steam-powered railroad lines carried over a million commuter passengers per year to upper Manhattan and Westchester County by the Civil War. Passengers then changed at Grand Central Station to the horse-drawn omnibuses that carried them the rest of the way downtown. Designed to prevent congestion, this method in fact increased it, because New Yorkers readily took to another form of private transport. Carriages, restricted to a tiny elite in the colonial and early national periods, became a choice method of transport for the middle classes by the Civil War. In the streets, throngs of carts and express wagons mixed with the steam- and horse-powered railways to pose an extraordinary danger for pedestrians, and inside, the omnibuses and railcars presented a kind of "modern martyrdom," for female passengers, already wary of the exploring fingers of urban male toughs.

For those members of the middle class who could or would not afford a horse, carriage, and stable, hack drivers were plentiful. At first, most of these drivers were African Americans, who were licensed to drive by the city in the early nineteenth century. By the 1840s, as was the case with many semi-skilled and unskilled occupations, Irish immigrants pushed African Americans out of the trade. This early example of ethnic succession was more violent than later transitions, but it established a tradition of entering immigrant groups viewing hacking as a viable income and significant step up the ladder of economic mobility. Drivers toiled behind the wheel hoping that their sons could find better work. A second innovation was organizational. While African American drivers were primarily small entrepreneurs, the new Irish drivers did not own their rigs or horses and worked for wages for sizable fleets. The 1855 census counted 805 Irish coachmen and hack drivers, a figure that overshadowed 57 Germans and Anglo-Americans and scattered other nationalities. The Irish continued to dominate hacking and other street trades over the course of the nineteenth century.

By the Civil War, fleets of several hundred hacks operated in the city streets. The reputation of hackmen was dubious. In the 1880s, hacks and cabs that traveled the city streets at night were called "nighthawks" and were notorious for preying on their customers. Their bad reputation came from cheating fares and from servicing nocturnal vice. There were also controversies over business methods; disputes over monopolistic behavior around key hotel doors were chronic. New Yorkers were accustomed to payment methods, at least. Fares based upon distance were not new, having been employed since mid-century.

Gas power was not the first innovation in cabs. Previously, steampowered automobiles had failed to attract consumer interest. Electric cabs had showed some promise; since July of 1897, twelve electric hansom cabs (an early innovation combining speed and safety), had plied the city streets. Organized by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, these novelty cabs competed with horse-drawn hacks. Despite their technological innovation, called by Scientific American in a March 1909 article "one of the most significant facts of city transportation," electric cabs varied only slightly in performance and appearance from horse-drawn vehicles. Scientific Magazine preferred the electric cab because it was silent and odorless. Even though the Electric Vehicle Company expanded its New York fleet to sixty-two in 1898 and then to one hundred the next year, its overall success was short-lived. Electric cabs were cumbersome, were unable to move faster than fifteen miles per hour, and required a battery recharge every twenty-five miles that took eight hours to complete. This problem limited use of electric taxis to single rides and made cruising impossible. Changing a battery also required use of an overhead crane and a spacious garage. Replacing the pneumatic tires required taking off the entire wheel disk, which caused further delays. Despite the clean and silent operation, passenger comfort was minimal. Fares sat in an open seat in the front of the cab, while the driver perched overhead. The brakes were applied forward, which in emergency situations meant that the entire car might topple over. Not surprisingly, electric cabs did not catch on. One contemporary writer observed that many people took one ride but rarely returned for a second, preferring horse-drawn hacks. A fire settled the issue. In January 1907, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company went under when three hundred of its cabs burned in a garage fire.

In their infancy, gas-powered cabs were but slight improvements over their predecessors. Besides their uncertain safety, the two-cylinder cabs had other limitations. A common model known as the Maxwell was noisy and would not go more than five miles before grease fouled the spark plugs. Its cab lamps blew out any time a wind rose. There were similar problems with the Pierson cab. One veteran cabby recalled, "I had to wrap a blanket around my legs to keep warm. I used to wear goggles to keep the dust out of my eyes and, boy, when the sun was hot, it cut a hole through the top of the car and roasted a fellow alive." Still, the cabby, Emil Hendrickson, thought it was easier in the old days, when "a fellow got big tips and didn't have to push a hack for sixteen hours; when he didn't have to fracture his skull climbing over a cab in front of him; when the streets weren't crowded with trucks and cars." Hendrickson acknowledged that the Pierson was unreliable. On one occasion, the boss told him to get out the banana oil and shine the cab for a party of five. Over the Manhattan Bridge they went. At Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, the car stalled. Hendrickson and two of the gentlemen got out and pushed.

A water belt slapped one of them and turned his fancy white shirt red. The trip from Brooklyn to Riverside Drive took nine hours. When the "quality people" came out of their dinner, the bearings on the car burned out. A tow truck took until 3 a.m. to arrive. Even then, the boss charged the passengers twenty-five dollars. Hendrickson wrote that he would not have blamed them if they had refused to pay anything.

Hendrickson recalled outwitting one of the three traffic cops in town. He received a ticket when his Steamer cab began to smoke on a back road in Brooklyn. The policeman ticketed him because the smoke hid the license plate numbers. In court, Hendrickson pointed out that the smoke was steam, and that "it is white and it evaporates." Case dismissed. By the arrival of Allen's taxi drivers, the New York cabby had evolved into, as one observer put it, "an efficient race." Journalist Vince Thompson noted how the cabby displayed his considerable self-respect by bowling down the street and pushing aside other vehicles. Thompson regarded the world of hacking as "loose and lawless," and recommended that aspiring young men learn to drive cabs as a lesson in how to gain life goals ruthlessly and without rules. His complaints had the ring of truth. While the city aimed to license public hacks, thousands of other unlicensed drivers roamed the streets making up their own fares. Getting a license was no problem either. A man could "come out of Sing Sing [prison]," get "two greasy letters of recommendation," and obtain a license without the least background check. Thompson concluded that the "New York cabbie was the most slovenly in the world."

Thompson's acerbic descriptions were not unique. Writers frequently compared New York's taxi men unfavorably with their presumed relatives in London and with a similar system in Paris. Though the New York and London cabbies are cousins, their development was in fact quite different. London cabbies were organized into a company, much like a guild, that allowed them to protect their trade interests and fostered independent, even middle-class sensibilities. Before getting a license, the London cabby had to study the city terrain for several years and pass a rigorous examination that displayed his "knowledge" of the city's geography. Only then was the applicant allowed to get a license and purchase an expensive hack. His New York counterpart learned by on-the-job experiences and often drove shabby, poorly designed automobiles.

Though the quality of New York cabs has improved over the years, the differences in organization and preparation remain. There were other historical differences between the London and New York cabmen. First, the introduction of fleets in antebellum New York meant that the bulk of New York hack men were employees, not owners. The lowly, underpaid status of the New York driver insured casual, transient employment. Never masters of their destinies, New York's hack men developed a different culture than London's. Though New York City government regulation of hack men derived from English and Dutch law, patterns of immigrant succession in the trade meant that New York taxi men were more international in origins.

The collision of Anglo-American law and immigrant culture made hacking one of the most visible means of becoming American. As Harry Allen's dress code for his drivers indicates, middle-class and elite New Yorkers viewed hack men as service workers. As cabs became commonplace in the 1910s, they served as readily accessible urban transport for the city's middle class. The urban bourgeoisie used cabs primarily to get from home to work or to entertainment. That mundane quality allowed class attitudes prevalent in the home to be extended easily into the interior of a cab.

Taxi men, as we will see, resented such characterizations. Yet the job allowed any newcomer to get a start in New York City. When becoming American meant acculturation, hacking took on a mythic quality as an entry-level trade by which an immigrant could work toward the success of the next generation in the American economy and society. Much later, with the shift toward racialized identity politics and the return of nativism in the late twentieth century, cabdrivers were perceived as incapable of assimilation into American life.

Excerpted from Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, by Graham Russell Gao Hodges © 2007 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. No portion of this may be reproduced or distributed without permission of the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Taxi!
Taxi!

A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver

by Graham Russell Hodges

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