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Commuter crusader Gene Russianoff offers unexpected Rx to fix NYC

Gene Russianoff

Gene Russianoff Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Gene Russianoff

Gene Russianoff, 58, the staff lawyer and public face of the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign, lives with his wife, Pauline Toole, and their daughters, Jennie, 15 and Natalie, 13 in a Park Slope townhouse that they bought "seconds before it became impossible."

Q: We always ask, "what would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?" You must have a great suggestion on how to improve public transportation!

A: The most important thing NYC needs is better schools. I’m a parent before I’m anything else and while my family has been lucky, the majority of schools are not what they should be. Schools need more resources - smaller class size, arts and music teaching and better teacher training. NYPIRG is a college-directed organization and students who can lead, create and think are the future for solving all our problems, including transit problems. It's an ugly word these days, but we may need higher taxes for this. In exchange we should be able to demand some kind of accountability.

Q: What do you think about the Albany bill that would ban eating in the subway?

A: It’s not enforceable or practical. Is fried chicken not okay but Oreos from the newsstand permissible? Is there a constitutional difference between KFC and licorice? The MTA already has the arsenal it needs in the litter laws, but some responsibility rests with riders, too. If you see people littering, you should say something. We need to express community unhappiness with people who litter.

Q: How do you spend your 21-minute commute from Park Slope to City Hall on the R Train?

A: It's sacrosanct to me to read newspapers in the morning because it's the only time of day I'm not interrupted with phone calls. On the way back, I read short snippets of whatever novel I'm on in my book club. We just read "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes, which is all about how people remember themselves and how they really are, which I recommend. There's a great line in there – "history is the intersection of diminished memory and faulty documentation."

Q: And how do you want history to remember you?

A: As a good dad, a good advocate and a good husband.

Q: So are you a celebrity on the train? Do folks recognize you?

A: Every couple of days someone will say to me, "Aren't you that subway guy?" They always say something nice about our efforts to keep service reliable and the fare affordable. No one has ever said to me, "you're totally wrong about the fare." We have such a high fare box ratio here: The subways here are 75% funded by fares for the subways. That's very high.

Q: What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you on the subway?

A: When I lived in Manhattan in the '80s, there used to be a guy with a saxophone on the IRT who said he was a visitor from outer space and that he needed gas money to go back to his planet. Then he'd play the theme from "The Twilight Zone." One day he got in the car and looked at a man sitting there and said, "Louis! It's me – Irving! Don't you remember? We went to high school together!" Louis turned beet red.

Q: Are you down with all the musicians on the train altering the sonic environment?

A: Being on the platforms seems good to me, because you can walk away. You're a captive when you're on the train. But the reality is that it will continue. I have a totally arbitrary policy about giving money: I'll give to people who do things, such as play music, but not to people who just ask for money. Yet, we (The Straphangers Campaign) support the wifi-ing of the subway. I don't know if it's a consistent argument, as "Under the Boardwalk," beats someone screaming at a significant other or their boss on a cell phone. Maybe it's bowing to modern reality while grumbling about it.

Q: Tell us something you know about NYC that no one else does.

A: I used to be able to get from my office (at City Hall) to the water's edge by the World Trade Center completely underground through lobbies and underground corridors -- all free areas. It was great when it snowed and it rained. You can't do that any more.

Q: So what does a Sheepshead Bay boy miss most about old New York?

A: The easy access to public spaces in buildings: They're so much less inviting. City Hall is a prime example. I can remember as a kid eating my lunch on the front steps and now it's gated and you have to go through magnetic detectors. It's like a guarded plaza in Guatemala with a big "no trespassing" sign. (Former Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani began putting City Hall off limits even before 9/11. It's very sad when I have relatives visiting. I used to take them to see the friezes in lobby of The Woolworth Building. Now there's a sign that essentially says, "tourists keep out."

Q: What's the best investment a New Yorker can make?

A: An unlimited ride Metrocard. It's a key to the city! One reason New York has done better during this recession and the last one than other cities is people could go and shop wherever they wanted. Those cards are a great pride for the Straphangers Campaign because we had a lot to do with (creating) them. But they've gone from $64 (for a monthly card) in 1998 to $104. That's the kind of inflation you see in places like Venezuela. We're a pass-using family, incidentally:  My daughters have taken the trains alone since they were 10.



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