taxi as icon
by Phil Patton
Courtesy of The Design Trust for Public Space
The taxicab is a symbol of New York to millions of tourists. It marks arrival and departure—the modern equivalent of a city gate. It is the space of entrance to the city. It frames the visitor’s first glances.

Great cities are symbolized by structures and spaces—bridges and domes and towers, rivers and boulevards and plazas. Think of the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s, the Golden Gate or the Brooklyn Bridge. But they are also symbolized by their subways, buses, and taxis. As much as by Big Ben, London is symbolized by its red double-decker busses, its red phone booths —and its black taxis. Just as much as it is represented by its piers or subways, by the same token, New York is symbolized by its taxis.

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That is why taxis figure among the most popular souvenirs of the city, along with models or images of the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty. The current Crown Victoria, as well as the old Caprice and Checker, are rendered in toys and models. So are taxis that never existed, such as a New York City VW Beetle taxi. There are taxi plates and taxi cookie jars.

Writers and artists have understood the cab’s power. Saul Steinberg appreciated the taxis of the 1940s and 1950s and drew and painted them for several New Yorker covers. He wrote: “The taxis, much bigger than they are now, were built precisely to be taxis: six, seven, even eight people could fit in them; there was a sliding panel in the roof, so that from inside you could see the tall skyscrapers and at night the moon —it was something beautiful, which, as often happens all of a sudden ended without anyone protesting.”

Writer Fran Lebowitz, who once owned a Checker, has declared it a quintessential New York artifact.

The New York taxi, like the New York taxi driver, has always played out as a tough guy —a Dodge, a Ford, a Chevrolet, a Checker. The rotund Chevrolet Caprice, often derided as “Shamu,” looked better as a yellow taxicab than in any other style. The aging Ford Crown Victoria is the last of the traditional big American rear wheel drive sedans and has won respect and grudging affection for its durability and endurance.

During the 1960s, a noted NASCAR driver came to Manhattan and spent a day driving a taxi. Afterwards, he declared the experience as harrowing and exhilarating as driving in a stock car race. It takes a tough car to make it in a tough town, is the rolling implication of the New York taxi. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.