Dreaming of the Second System: Where the subways should goBy
For nearly eight decades, the New York City Subway system has sat in stagnant. Since unification in 1940, the City has witnessed the birth of just a handful of new lines with even fewer planned. Yet, subway inertia wasn’t always the norm.
In 1929 and again in 1939, New York City planners dreamed big. Before cars came to dominate our transportation landscape, the city knew that extending the subway would truly complete the system and usher in unprecedented boom times for New York. Thus, along came the IND Second System.
Yesterday’s post on the uncompleted remnants of a Brooklyn subway stop hints at the scope of this ambitious plan. Today, we delve deeper into this vast civic undertaking. The city wanted 100 miles of new tracks connecting every borough to one another. The map at right (click to enlarge) is a work of subway art, and the plan is a beauty.
We start in Manhattan with the Second Ave. Subway. This line would serve not just the Upper East Side but Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. The train would start in Astoria and travel along the Crosstown route — better known as the G — to Hoyt/Schermhorn and through the Court St. stop. That stop is now the Transit Museum. Heading west to Manhattan and north up Second Ave., the line would venture up Lafayette Ave. in the Bronx to Harding Ave. Oh, what could have been.
Elsewhere in Manhattan, we see more downtown interborough connectors. Using the Chrystie Street Connection, these lines included a spur off of Sixth Ave. that would have traversed that South Fourth St. station on the way to Utica Ave. and the Floyd Bennett Airfield. We also see, in 1939, plans for a Morningside Ave. spur of the current BMT Broadway lines (N/Q/R/W), running under Central Park to W. 145th St.
In Brooklyn, the subways were to go places still unknown to the MTA’s fleet. The Culver Line — 2008’s F train — splits after Prospect Park. One spur heads to Coney Island while the other runs down Ft. Hamilton Parkway. One branch of that line terminates at 86th St. while another heads west to Staten Island. The Brooklyn-Staten Island subway was to cut across 65th St. en route to Staten Island. A stub of this tunnel lives on today.
With full service down Utica Ave., the 1939 plan also called for an extension of the Nostrand Ave. line to Voorhies Ave. Imagine how different these seemingly remote parts of New York would be had the Second System become a reality.
Nowhere is the failure of this ambitious plan more acute than in Queens. Name a problem with the Queens subways and the Second System answers. Subway to LaGuardia? No problem. Trips out to the edges of Queens County? Sure.
The 1939 plans included a Long Island City spur of the IRT traveling through Queens west of the Astoria Line. This new tracks then cut east along Horace Harding Boulevard to Marathon Parkway right near Nassau County. There is, of course, a transportation option there today, but the Long Island Expressway is no haven for straphangers. The victory of the cars here is one of the city’s biggest regrets.
From Brooklyn, the Fulton Line — today’s A and C trains — would spur to the Rockaways as they now do and northeast along Fulton St. to 229th St., nestling up to Nassau County. The Queens Boulevard line would have gone east along Hillside Ave. to Little Neck Road. Even the IRT’s Flushing line — now the 7 — would extend well past Main St. to Bell Boulevard on one spur and College Pt. Causeway on the other. It is a work of sheer beauty.
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This plan would have been ambitious. It would have been expensive, and it would have mobilized the city’s workforce. Parts became a reality, but the vast majority of it — and, in particular, the more revolutionary lines — remain on the drawing board. Perhaps the city needs someone to find the money and the will to push through an expansion project of this scope. Perhaps post-Robert Moses New York would not be able to sustain a singular project of this scale.
The Second System will, for as long as New Yorkers rely on the same old subway system, be that Holy Grail. The city was young; when the original 1929 plan was put forth, just three decades had past since the five boroughs became one. Ten years later, when the second Second System plan came out, the city felt alive, rejuvenated from the Great Depression. But war hit; economic troubles followed in the decades after; and the city spiraled out of control and away from great civic works.
Today, in 2008, we still dream but of tall buildings and small subway lines. We dream of one tiny slice of a pie, of three stops along one avenue in Manhattan. No longer do we dream of a great Second System, and New York is worse off for it.