The No. 7 ‘International Express’ Rolls Into History

It rises from the depths of downtown Flushing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The red train — the No. 7 train — then takes its thirty minute journey past the Unisphere at Flushing Meadows-Corona park, through a multitude of nations in the communities of Queens. In Long Island City it descends below the East River to the United Nations and winds its way to Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue and, finally, the crossroads of the world at Times Square.
It has been called the “International Express” because of its pivotal role in helping build the neighborhoods of immigrants from all over the world during its seventy-plus years of service. But last week this clattering workhorse of Roosevelt Ave. was recognized by the White House as a national treasure. It was one of 15 sites around the country placed on the National Millennium Trail.
That puts this “little train that could” on the same federal designation list as the Oregon Trail, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Mississippi River trail from New Orleans to Minneapolis and the Underground Railroad used by the enslaved African-Americans fleeing the south.
With an average of 400,000 riders a day, the No. 7 line’s Queens terminus at Main Street is the busiest station outside Manhattan. Of the City’s 20 subway lines, it is the 10th busiest. It has received other distinctions in recent years also — the Straphangers Campaign, has voted it as the City’s cleanest line and it currently ranks as one of the City’s most reliable on-time lines.

To Ilana Harlow, the folk arts program director of the Queens Council on the Arts, the No. 7 line is quite literally a moving experience — both physically and emotionally. Harlow, a Ph.D. from Indiana University, is passionate about the train and she prepared a colorful brochure that outlines the varied neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves of food and clothing that dot the 18 stations along the train’s route in Queens. Going past Irish neighborhoods in Woodside, through Indian, Columbian, Thai sections in Jackson Heights, to Korean and Chinese sections in Flushing, the train traverses a virtual smorgasbord of the world. “It has always reflected the pioneering spirit of our City’s immigrants,” Harlow says, pointing out that when the line was built in the early 1920s, it was built by the sweat of Irish, German and Italian immigrants. Most of the communities that now line the No. 7 train route were nothing more than farms and vacant land before the train started to run. The train opened up the Borough to a wave of immigrants seeking a new life outside of the teeming tenements of Manhattan. These neighborhoods sprouted up along the route of the train and they today make Queens the most ethnically diverse place on earth.
The train’s work-a-day schedule carries thousands of people to work, but it has also played a unique role for playtime activities also. It was the train to tomorrow when it brought millions of people to the 1939-40 World’s Fair and millions more in 1964-65 for the second World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. It is the transportation to the U.S. Tennis Open and to the Mets at Shea.
The Millennium Trail designation is part of a national initiative led by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to preserve and publicize national treasures for the new millennium. A marker will be placed on the No. 7 line to formalize the designation but it is not clear as of now where it will be affixed. Officials at the federal Dept. of Transportation deny that the designation has anything to do with Mrs. Clinton’s possible run for the U.S. Senate in New York.
Harlow, who was responsible for placing the No. 7 line application, said she hopes that people will have a greater appreciation of the train’s role in our nation’s history — “it is a living heritage trail,” she said.

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