- Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver
The noted Greek writer, Vassilios Vassilidis, author of Z, once observed that taxi drivers occupy an economic class all their own. Graham Russell Gao Hodges, in his new book, Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cab Driver, illustrates how Vassilidis’ insightful premise has manifested itself over the past hundred years in the locality of New York City. The social class of taxi drivers is at once liminal and fractious, not quite petit bourgeoisie, not quite working-class, sometimes upwardly mobile, and sometimes—historically speaking, but less true today—bordering on the criminal. Within their ranks, there are and have long been divisions among owner-drivers, fleet drivers, and lease drivers, and at different times in their history, strata that have included medallion (now yellow) cab drivers, livery drivers, and “gypsy” cabs. Woe upon the poor union organizer that has tried to recruit among such varied, and sometimes contentious, constituencies. More often than not, the result has been failure, violence, and strikes that [End Page 481] have produced few gains, with laws that have consolidated power usually away from the rank and file. As one transit workers’ union official termed them, taxi drivers are the “limping proletariat”.
Hodges has written an economical and engaging book that describes the evolution of the New York taxi driver’s world since the advent of the motorcar, demonstrating why New York’s taxi society is so chaotic, and how some regulations have had widespread, though unintended, consequences (most notably the medallion system). Other changes, such as the formation of the Taxi & Limousine Commission, consolidated power in the hands of the city, especially during the Giuliani years.
This slender volume almost exclusively draws on primary documents and for this reason, as well as its fine use of language, it is an excellent text for undergraduates as an introduction to social history, as well as more advanced scholars of labor history, unions, New York history, and transportation. Among these sources are some which may surprise those unfamiliar with the scope of taxi driver culture, including the many autobiographies and memoirs and the highly significant trade newspapers, such as Taxi Weekly, Taxicab Industry Monthly, and Taxi Age, the newspaper of owner-drivers.
Interspersed with Hodges’ account of the struggles and travails of the drivers is a secondary layer in which Hodges describes the history of taxi drivers in popular culture, including films (Taxi Driver, of course, but also Night on Earth and even Guadalcanal Diary), dramas such as Waiting for Lefty, and novels, depictions which are often more shadowy than realistic, especially in crime dramas and melodramas. In contrast to many of these stereotyped images—with the exception being television series like Taxi—as Hodges points out, the drivers themselves when writing their memoirs are often insightful, wise, and reflective. Hodges’ discussion of New York taxi drivers in popular culture is the most extraordinary and admirable part of this book, for it also demonstrates his acumen as a collector of significant and revealing primary documents, and it has great photographs accordingly.
I have done research on this topic before and have lamented the lack of a solid in-depth historical work, focusing on one city over time, that covers all the twists and turns of the labor relations and occupational life of taxi drivers and owners. This book meets those expectations and does so with economy and sophistication, and a genuine love of the subject matter that radiates from the attention to detail.
From a labor standpoint, one of the central narratives of taxi economics in New York City has been the slow but steady consolidation of ownership of the taxis themselves. Originally, while a few corporations dominated by owning large fleets, independent owner-drivers also comprised a majority of the drivers on the street. The number of corporations declined as periodically some went bankrupt, but control of the fleets was consolidated. The big story in terms of small business ownership is that the percent of...