Review: Leonard on Hodges

Graham Russell Gao Hodges. Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. viii + 225 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-8554-9.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Anne E. Leonard, Library, New York City College of Technology

Published by [mailto][/mailto] (April, 2008)

The Cabbie in the Collective Imagination and on the Streets

Although taxis and their drivers are part of urban culture everywhere, and they are widely mythologized and celebrated in the popular imagination, taxis and hacks have a special relationship with one urban place in particular: New York City. Rather than debunking it, Graham Russell Gao Hodges celebrates the mythology of the cabdriver while also providing a history of political, economic, and social agents that have affected this industry. This book is meticulously researched, with careful attention given to the uneven progress of union organizing throughout the twentieth century and to depictions of cabbies in popular media and contemporary folklore.

Hodges organizes this book effectively; each chapter corresponds to roughly one or two decades of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The origins of the first automobile-powered taxi fleet stem from the efforts of one businessman, Harry N. Allen, who in 1907 launched the first fleet of gasoline-powered vehicles after experiencing the then-exorbitant charge of five dollars for a three-quarter mile hansom cab ride (equivalent fare for such a ride in New York City today would be about four dollars). Hodges meticulously recounts the tale of Allen's first fleet and its breakdown amid labor upheaval. Only a few years after the profession of cabbie was invented, popular media began to reflect many aspects of this new profession. Hodges recounts nearly one dozen early silent films (from 1916 to 1920, well before the Hays Code) that portrayed cabbies variously as heroes, criminals, and bootstrap successes.

The 1920s and 1930s are treated in successive and engrossing chapters. [...]