The never-completed and now-abandoned station at South 4th St. in Brooklyn should not be confused with the West 4th St. stop in Manhattan. (Photo via Etsy)
Alternately one of the more endearing or most annoying aspects of the New York City Subway system, post-unification, is the naming scheme for stations. The system has two stops in different boroughs that share the 7th Ave. designation, three stations called 86th St. and a whole bunch of Kings Highway and Ave. U stops. The list is endless, and the only way to tell them apart is by consulting a map or knowing the system’s ins and outs.
There are, of course, a few notable exceptions to the issues of dual names. The various 42nd St. stops all carry with them the designation of the nearby landmarks. We have Times Square-42nd St., 42nd St.-5th Ave./Bryan Park and 42nd St.-Grand Central. And then there is West Fourth Street and the numbered streets labeled East along the IRT White Plains Road line, specifically-named rarities in a system that largely assumes its riders know where they’re going.
This past weekend, that nomenclature was the subject of a question in The New York Times City Section’s FYI column. Asked a curious reader: “Most subway stops’ names use only the street number (42nd Street, for example). How come West Fourth Street and a few stops in the Bronx (like East 180th Street and East 149th Street) are given an east/west distinction?”
Mainly to avoid confusion.
Herb Schonhaut, manager in New York City Transit’s Office of Station Signage, said the Fourth Street station uses the word “West” to distinguish it from the planned but unbuilt “South” Fourth Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Mr. Schonhaut added that East 180th Street (on the No. 2 and 5 lines) and East 149th Street (No. 6 line) use “East” to contrast with similar stations to the west: 180th Street/Bronx Park (which closed in 1952) and 149th Street/Grand Concourse. East 143rd Street was distinguished from 143rd Street on the Third Avenue el, which shut down in 1955.
Now, the second part of this answer, I knew. When the subways were first built, the IRT, BMT and IND lines were competing systems, and it was not until 1940 that all three systems were placed under the control of the city. The three companies followed their own naming conventions, and we are still today stuck with this relic of the past.
The first part of the answer — about South Fourth St. — was news to me, and the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg did the heavy lifting on this intriguing station. The now-abandoned semi-station at South Fourth Street in Brooklyn was to be a part of the IND Second System, a great idea lost to the Great Depression. WGPA has more:
The proposed service to Williamsburg included two new lines: one connecting to the Sixth Avenue line and running beneath the East River from Houston Street; the second connecting to the Eighth Avenue line and running under the River from Grand Street in Manhattan (with the last stop at Columbia Street).
In Williamsburg, the north line was to run beneath Grand Street as far as Driggs, and then turn south to meet up with the second line, which was to run under Broadway and South Fourth Street (more detail here). All of this was to meet up with the Crosstown Line (aka the G train) at Broadway and South 4th. That was the South 4th Street station referred to in the Times article…From South Fourth Street, the lines continued east. In Bed Stuy, they were to branch off. The Utica Avenue would run to the south, eventually winding up in Sheepshead Bay. The Rockaway line would continue northeast along Myrtle and Central Avenues, and then turn south and run all the way to the Rockaways.
So the two Fourth Streets would have been a mere four stations apart, and the coverage of the subways between Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan would have been vastly improved. But, alas, the Second System was not to be. While some of the plans — a subway to the Rockaways, for instance — saw the light of the day, the ambitious expansion drive faltered before long, and the West Fourth St. name is a testament to an era in which the city dreamed big and came up small.