When news of the Underbelly Project’s subway station art show hit the Internet this weekend, subway lovers scrambled to adduce the site and quickly settled upon the South 4th Street subway shell. This is a six-track, IND station in South Williamsburg hidden from the public but identical to the station seen in the photos presented to the public by the Underbelly Project. To the uninitiated, this stop may sound like a phantom subway station. Isn’t the only 4th Street station at West 4th in Manhattan? What is this South 4th Street station? Where is it? And where do the trains that once serviced it go?
The answers — especially to the last question — are tricky. The South 4th Street subway station isn’t anything quite like the city’s other abandoned stations. It’s never seen revenue service before, and in fact, it doesn’t even have a rail track running through it. It exists in fragments — poured concrete, unfinished stairwells, no lighting, no through tunnels — and is a remnant of an era of larger plans. In a sense, it’s not an abandoned station because no trains ever served it nor could they. Rather, it is an abandoned dream.
The South 4th Street was to be a major transfer and connection point for the IND Second System. The shell was built into the ceiling of the Broadway stop on the IND Crosstown — a so-called provision statement — before the city even knew if funding for the remainder of the line would ever materialize. When World War II and the subsequent advent of the automobile age put a grinding halt to subway expansion, the South 4th Street shell remained just that. It is a testament to another era, behind false walls and closed-off staircases, and today, it apparently housings one of the largest street art exhibitions in New York City.
Today, a six-track station seems unimaginably wasteful. The MTA is building the Second Ave. Subway with only two tracks due to budgetary constraints, and the only other stations and tunnels with six tracks — Hoyt-Schermerhorn comes to mind — never make use of the full array of options. The two outer tracks at Hoyt-Schermerhorn lead into the Court St. stop which we know today as the Transit Museum. It too was part of the grandeur of the Second System and a planned Brooklyn extension for the 1930s edition of the Second Ave. Subway.
But back in 1929 and again in 1939 when the city was trying to build up its subway system, South 4th Street in South Williamsburg was to be a major intersection. The plans are aggressive: Both the Sixth Ave. and Eighth Ave. lines would have passed through this station, bound for multiple points east, south and north. The Second System, which I explored in depth in 2008, which have reimagined New York City, and the Second System’s Big Apple would be a more accessible one than ours is today.
According to proposals from the era, the city considered a variety of routes into Brooklyn and Queens, but the Manhattan connections were the same. The Sixth Ave. local would have run the route we know today, but from Second Ave., the trains would have continued east. In fact, the stub tunnels on the two middle tracks that extend eastward past the Second Ave. stop are a provision for the route that would have led through South 6th St. The other part would have swung the Eighth Ave. local up Worth St., past the current
Essex St. East Broadway stop, across the East River and to South 4th Street.
Eastward out of South 4th Street, the possibilities were twofold. In the 1929 plan, one set of tracks would have led down Stuyvesant Ave., crossing the IND Fulton St. Line at Utica Ave. — where another shell station and some unused mezzanines live — and continuing down Utica Ave. and to Marine Park. The other spur would have led up Myrtle Ave. where the line would split again. This time, one route would have allowed the Queens Boulevard line to connect to the Rockaways via Fresh Pond Road, 65th Place and 78th St. while the other branch would head out to the Rockaways, a branch eventually realized by a more modest extension of the Fulton St. Line. We used to dream big.
When the Great Depression hit, the city had to shelve the 1929 expansion plan, and ten years later with a six-track shell provision built along South 4th St., the latest iteration of the Second System was far more modest. The Manhattan plans remained the same, but the line east from South 4th Street would continue on only to Marine Park via Utica Ave. Even before revenue service — or full tunnels were dug — the six-track station was a relic of another era. (Plans for a Utica Ave. subway in 1969 involved extending the IRT instead of the IND.)
Today, we think small and build small. Once upon a time, New York left stations unbuilt as shells for future expansion. It was cheaper and easier to build a shell at the South 4th Street transfer point than it was to build around a preexisting subway station. Now, we build just a two-track extension along Second Ave. and scoff at the notion of a Second System-like expansion in the 2010s. Imagine this part of Williamsburg as a major transfer point from the G to Manhattan, from Queens and Brooklyn into Manhattan. It’s what could have been and never was, and all that’s left is an abandoned shell of a subway station and some crazy photos of the remnants of an era when we tried to plan ahead.