TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) Actually, I know very little about David L. Gunn. But I know he's an exceptional man.
He became director of the New York City transit authority in 1984. He came to New York with a radical idea: Subways should be graffiti-free. And, at the time, it was almost laughable. Almost every subway car was covered with graffiti. The insides were covered with tags, spray-painted initials and street names of the vandals. The outside would be a giant 66-foot long canvas for cartoon-murals of every shape and size. Coffee table books were published featuring subway graffiti art.
The overall impression was that New York's subways were out of control. The graffiti was a symbol of lawlessness, of poor repair... a constant reminder that the bad guys were winning.
Gunn's plan of attack was that a 'clean sweep crew' would meet every subway train at the end of each run. During the 10 or 15 minutes that the train was in the terminal before it headed back on the road, they'd go car by car with mop and broom. The train would be taken out of service if there was any graffiti that the cleaners couldn't remove.
This was a big change. I remember seeing the car-cleaners for years at Coney Island, and was always amazed at how little work they did. Some wouldn't clean at all; they'd sit down in the subway car once the passengers got off and would catnap for a few minutes. Sometimes they'd be woken up by the conductor before the train was to head out again. Sometimes they'd be jolted awake by the train leaving the station. When you saw someone with a mop and bucket one stop up the line at West 8th Street, that undoubtedly was a catnapping car cleaner waiting for the next train back to the yard.
Gunn's plan was controversial. Unions thought his supervisors were heavy-handed. There were charges of police brutality when transit cops chased vandals out of train yards at night. Some were bitten by watchdogs. Some were cut on the barbed wire that now surrounded most terminals. One died from stepping on the electrified rail while trying to run.
But there was less graffiti in the subways. The new stainless-steel cars were easier to clean. Spraying a chemical solution caused spraypaint to dissolve and be washed away. The older cars were harder to keep clean. The R-6 cars were white, and were favorites of graffiti vandals. Clean sweep crews were given their own white spraypaint. They sprayed over any graffiti that couldn't be washed away after each run. One train was called 'snow white' because it was being touched-up almost each day. Eventually many older cars were painted red because that made them less appealing targets.
There were many benefits to clean subways. Overall maintenance improved, since other repairs were made as graffiti-covered trains were pulled out of service. That led to changes in union work rules that made it easier for small repairs to be made at terminals instead of train yards. Crime in the subways went down. It took a police presence to keep the vandals out.... many of them were also muggers and pick-pockets who no longer had a safe haven. Subway ridership increased. It had been declining, as the middle class opted for taxi cabs instead. Clean, better maintained, less crime-ridden subways brought many riders back.
David Gunn won his battle. New York City subways, to this day, are mostly graffiti free.
Gunn eventually led the Washington Metro, the Toronto Transit Authority, and Amtrak.
He is now retired, done in by political interests in Washington. When Congress didn't approve enough money for Amtrak's maintenance program in the northeast, he threatened to shut the railroad down. He was forced out of the railroad's presidency by a Board of Directors controlled by George W. Bush appointees. Sometimes even exceptional men aren't appreciated in our nation''s capital.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau