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Hailing the History of New York's Yellow Cabs

Jul 8, 2007 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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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.

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