Long-time SAS readers know that I have a bit of a love affair with the New York City subway system’s abandoned nooks and crannies. I’m fascinated by the shuttered stations and the never-used shells. I’m impressed with the foresight of planners who built provisions for unfunded future expansion. I’m enthralled by the maps of the Second System, a dream unfulfilled that would have changed the city forever.
Every day, millions of New Yorkers commute through a subway system that has largely been static for decades. Although the Queens Boulevard connection opened a little over a decade ago and the Archer Ave. stations debuted back in 1988, the system has been largely as it is today since the mid-1930s. Yet, behind the facade of the subway map lies a handful of secrets. An abandoned station at 91st St. and Broadway flits past riders on the 1 train, and a redundant and closed platform at 18th St. and Park Ave. South can be seen from the downtown 6 train. Atop Broadway in South Williamsburg, a shell of a station never finished is host to both lost dreams and the Underbelly Art project. Near the Manhattan Bridge, a shuttered station plays host to the Masstransiscope.
We ride largely oblivious to these relics of another era and other plans. Maybe we know that the Second Ave. Subway has been a long time coming, but most don’t know that it was once designed to connect into the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yesterday, Jim O’Grady went inside the city’s lost subway stations and expansion plans. The team at WNYC produced an interactive map, and I’ve embedded the audio below. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the history of almosts under the streets of New York.
What strikes me most about O’Grady’s story are the way he and those he spoke with characterize the unrealized plans. “We built the subway into farmland on the assumption that people would live there and use them to get to work,” Moses Gates, an urban explorer who brought O’Grady into the tunnel underneath Nevins St., said. “We built a humongous shell station on the G line, or right off the G line, because there was going to be two other lines and two new tunnels under the East River that were going to converge there.”
Today, we can’t even gather the political will or money to build anything more than the barest of provisioning for a future station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. We can’t realize more than a few stations along Second Ave. We can’t envision a subway system stretching further out into or better connecting Queens and Brooklyn or one that better crosses the Bronx. Instead of living in the minds of planners, these dreams live only in fantasy maps found on various message boards throughout the Internet.
Costs, of course, are an issue. The increased construction costs coupled with the Great Depression and then later World War II and the rise of the automobile torpedoed the Second System plans before they could get off the ground. Today, we hear tell of inefficient capital building brought about by arduous work rules and NIMBY opposition. We are content with what we have when all around us are reminders of a past that could have been. Dream big, I say, because that’s how New York and its subway system became great in the first place. It’s fascinating to hear of South Fourth Street, but it would be even better to see a city with a line that passes through that station on its way east.