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Every now and then, due, at times, to the never-ending rehabilitation of the Culver Viaduct or other track work in the vicinity, the F train in Brooklyn runs express between Jay St.-MetroTech and some station farther south. The transit cognoscenti know to look out for glimpses of a ghost station once that F train nears or leaves Jay St., and over the weekend, as the F went express, an eagle-eyed observer could catch the the abandoned lower level at Bergen St.
As ghost stations go, the Bergen St. lower level is hardly a secret. Multiple doors that are often kept unlocked dot the upper level at Bergen St., and the 1999 fire at that station earned headlines. For those in Brooklyn fighting for the restoration of the F express service, the Bergen St. station may or may not be the lynchpin. Trains can bypass the Bergen St. station, but as you can barely see from the video I shot over the weekend, there’s not much there. The station is an abandoned mess of darkness, and the MTA has used parts of it for storage. Yet, it’s future is as intriguing as its mere existence, a shadow of subway past.
The idea behind the F express service is one I have explored at length in the past, and it’s one that has garnered recent attention. The MTA apparently has a report on the idea sitting in a proverbial drawer, and this report has possibly been sitting in this drawer for three years. Yet, no one has seen the report, and politicians have again been agitating for F express service. The idea is an obvious one: The MTA could use dormant and pre-existing infrastructure — in this case, express tracks along the Culver Line to improve service to those more remote areas of Brooklyn. For some commuters, rides could be shortened by 5-10 minutes.
But there is a rub; there is always a rub. As currently configured, F express service would lead to reduced service for some of the F’s busiest Brooklyn stations. Carroll St., Smith-9th Sts., 4th-9th Sts., and 15th St.-Prospect Park, to name a few, would see less frequent F train service, and the ridership from those stations far outpaces the number of riders who would gain a few minutes from the express service. If the MTA can’t rehabilitate the lower level at Bergen St. to permit passenger service — an undertaking that would be quite expensive, according to 2012 comments from one Transit official, another 11,000 riders would see F service slashed. Simply put, based on current load guidelines, the MTA cannot add F express service while maintaining local service frequencies that handle customer demand.
So why not, you may ask, just run more F local trains? It seems like a simple solution, but it’s not quite that easy. Most importantly, the MTA would need additional Manhattan and East River capacity to run more F trains, and based on various F service patterns — interlining with the G in Brooklyn, the M in Manhattan and the E in Queens — the route cannot support additional trains. Second, the MTA doesn’t have the rolling stock to add F express trains. That’s a more solvable, albeit an expensive one, for a solution that seems to create more problems than it solves. Of course, with an additional East River crossing — perhaps a Phase 5 of the Second Ave. Subway were we all to live that long — the problem would be resolved, but now we’re talking in decades rather than years.
Word is that the MTA’s own studies on the F express plan show little to no net travel gains from the F express plan, but the idea is a political hot potato that the agency isn’t comfortable quashing quite yet. So the idea percolates every few months or years as that idea that will save Midwood from its schleppy F train service. I can’t blame anyone from hoping, but that lower level at Bergen St. seems more like a taunt that a promise of future service. Every now and then, we get a glimpse of a different plan, but it remains out of reach, perhaps for good reason.
What’s a swimming pool doing in an abandoned Paris Metro station? (Via Oxo Architects)
Throughout New York City, ghost subway stations serve as a reminder of the past. We spy fleeting glimpses of 91st St. underneath Broadway between 86th and 96th, and eagle-eyed riders of the 6 train know where to look to see the forgotten columns of the 18th Street station. Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope is a vivid reminder of the Myrtle Ave. subway station, but the MTA won’t even officially acknowledge the existence of the South 4th St. shell above the G train’s Broadway stop.
Even as the allure of the past draws us to these abandoned or never-used subway stations, over the years, various groups have proposed more practical uses. The old Court St. subway station in Brooklyn, for instance, hosts the Transit Museum, and on-again, off-again efforts to turn City Hall into a Transit Museum annex died at the hands of security concerns even before the 9/11 attacks. Today, it is home to regular Transit Museum tours and serves as an attraction for those who ride the 6 train through the loop south of the current Brooklyn Bridge station.
Every now and then, some plans emerge to make use of abandon subway stops, and those plans generally consist of fanciful renderings that go nowhere. We can talk about underground theater space and art galleries or restaurants, but throughout the world, abandoned subway stations continue to be just that. They remain forever abandoned.
The latest attempt comes from a Paris mayoral hopeful. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, currently polling second in her campaign, recently garnered worldwide headlines with her fanciful proposals to turn the Paris Metro’s ghost stations into something a little more lively. In conjunction with
Amusingly enough, OXO’s appeal to such romantically Parisian uses of the Metro rests on an analogy with New York. On their website, they write, “At a time when New-York is talking about the ‘Lowline’, why couldn’t Paris profit from its underground potential and invent new functions for these abandoned places?” The Lowline, of course, remains an idea, unfunded and unsupported by the transit agency that owns its planned space. Still, though, as OXO notes, “More than a century after the opening of Paris’ underground network, these places could show they’re still able to offer new urban experiments.”
So just what does NKM and the architects have in mind? They summarize: “To swim in the metro seems like a crazy dream, but it could soon come true! Turning a former metro station into a swimming-pool or a gymnasium could be a way to compensate for the lack of sports and leisure facilities in some areas. A theatre on a disused platform could be an amazing venue for artists, choregraphers or dancers to perform, in an outstanding yet familiar setting. Why not open a night club in the Arsenal station? Close to La Bastille, a vibrant neighboorhod, it is the perfect location to party in the heart of Paris without the risk of disturbing the neighbors.”
The Paris Metro nightclub. (Via OXO Architects)
NKM has explained her thinking on the proposals. For those of you, like me, who cannot read French, she has said she wants to convert seven of the 11 Paris Metro ghost stations into community spots. She herself went exploring two decades ago because “it was too tempting,” and she notes that “magical” atmosphere underground. I understand her sentiments entirely.
It’s hard not to find these ideas appealing even if the odds of them becoming a reality are slim. We dream of past station we never saw in service, and we dream of ways to bring back what was once built for productive uses. The City Hall station in New York remains something amazing to see while others flash by in the blink of an eye. Maybe one day, the public can appreciate abandoned infrastructure; today, we’ll just enjoy these renderings instead.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope. It’s one of Arts for Transit’s more intriguing installations as it is a zoetrope in an abandoned subway station. Visible from the Manhattan-bound B and Q trains just north of De Kalb Ave., the art installation shows a series of moving images as the train passes by. Originally installed in the early 1980s, it was meticulously restored in 2009, but graffiti artists attacked. By mid-2013, it was again dark. Now, thanks to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal we know why.
Over the weekend, Ted Mann unveiled his tale of the restoration of the Masstransiscope. Apparently, vandals had taken advantage of the Superstorm Sandy shutdown to wreck havoc on Brand’s art. After the storm, Arts for Transit workers found that some of the 57 metal panels had been torn down while portions of the 228 still images had been tagged. Over the past year, the art has been meticulously restored, and last Wednesday, the Masstransiscope for again visible to Q and B train riders, many of whom are surprised by the moving images.
As part of the latest refurb, Brand has reduced the lighting requirements from two fluorescent bulbs per panel to one, and going forward, MTA employees and Arts for Transit officials are going to explore ways to better seal off the Myrtle Ave. station, the Masstransiscope’s home. As Bill Matheson, a Transit line manager, said, “Hopefully we won’t have to do it again before I retire.” [Wall Street Journal]
While I’ve burned a lot of pixels on the QueensWay recently, the city’s other rails-to-park project is slowly inching forward. The LowLine, an ambitious plan to bring natural light underground in order to turn the Essex St. Trolley Terminal into a park, has garnered a lot of attention as a creative idea. Not surprisingly, I’ve been very skeptical about a plan that involves during unused transit infrastructure into a green space, but the organizers have assured me that there is no real transit use for it in 2013.
Lately, in between fundraisers and Kickstarters, the LowLine has developed a following of politicos. Last month, Manhattan representatives urged the EDC and MTA to work out a transfer of the space. The letter claimed that the Delancey Underground park “could generate at least $15-$30 million in economic benefit to the city by way of increased sales, hotel and real estate taxes and incremental land value,” and a Who’s Who of New York politicians, including our two senators, members of Congress, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Dan Squadron and Council Members Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, all appended their names to the effort.
And yet, the money needed is very problematic. While the founders have been able to fundraise minimal amounts to put together prototypes and other exhibits, Kim Velsey in The Observer highlighted the considerable obstacles that remain. Construction could cost anywhere from $42-$70 million, and annual maintenance would run around $2.4-$4 million. Even the most popular parks in New York can’t cover their expenses from concession revenues.
The park proposal has had more staying power than I ever imagined it would, but I still grow uneasy about turning over transit infrastructure to anything other than transit. It’s exceedingly difficult to find money and the will to build new transit spaces in New York City. Reserving pre-existing ones for future uses should be a priority. The LowLine is a creatively futuristic idea, but can it ever be anything more than that?
The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley terminal as seen in its younger and more vulnerable years.
The Low Line — the ambitious and futuristic plan to send sunlight into an underground trolley terminal while turning the space into a park — is the project that just won’t die. For the better part of three years, we’ve heard about the efforts to convince the city to support this project at the expense of transit space. The Wall Street Journal in particular seems to be in the pocket of the Low Line’s proponents, and the paper has run yet another glowing article about the park plan with nary a nod to potential transit uses for the old Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal.
The latest piece of pro-park prose comes to us from Gabrielle Hamilton. She calls the Low Line plan a “startlingly vivid apparition of an evanescent and vanished city.” Even though it’s been six decades since the trolley terminal was still in use, turning it into a hyper-gentrified, hyper-yuppified park that is designed to be intentionally imitative of Chelsea’s High Line is somehow evocative of the grittier New York from the 1970s and 1980s. Along with this nostalgia for a much worse time in the city’s history, Hamilton writes of the Low Line as though it’s definitely happening and nothing can stop it. In her words, she writes of the impact the Low Line plans made upon a first viewing:
It was living in a walk-up, with a decades-defunct buzzer. Friends hollering up from the street and you throwing the key down in a balled-up sock. In the sweltering summers you hung out on the fire escape, took cold showers in the tub in the kitchen and reached your wet hand through the curtain to turn off the burner under your hissing stove-top pot of Café Bustelo…
It may not have been like 30 years ago, when the cool kids who would shape the future met each other Monday nights at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A or, later, sobering up with blintzes and coffee at the Kiev as dawn broke. But [Dan] Barasch, 36—the computer-game-playing ultra smartie, who’d worked at Google and also for New York City government and who can speak in easy, fluid paragraphs about “silos of knowledge” and “curating global intelligence”—had met [James] Ramsey, 35, here in New York, through a friend. Their work reflects the politics and aesthetics of their generation’s sensibility, which is all about being green, recycling, repurposing and community building through technology. But the connection to my generation—and to all New Yorkers, both permanent and transient—is that Ramsey and Barasch’s inclination toward technology, green space and community stands tall, but not so tall as to cast in shadow their dedication to art, the urban and the gritty…
Ramsey and Barasch’s vision of the Lowline has become anything but fiction. There’s been a Kickstarter campaign backed by 3,000 supporters. The $150,000 they raised online financed a full-scale model, with working remote skylights and parabolic dishes, which the duo and their dedicated team exhibited for a month…There’s been legal vetting; a budget and a business plan; and endorsements from community board #3, the City Council, the State Assembly and the New York State Senate. What they most need now—apart from the $55 million it will take to build—is for the MTA to let them have the space. It may take another 5 years, or 10, but the Lowline, with its even spread of political, financial and community support, is poised to become the New Yorkiest thing to happen to New York City since the Double-Dutch tournament at the Apollo Theatre.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard such an over-the-top adulation of the Low Line from The Journal. Earlier this year, in the Real Estate, Journal writers spoke of enhanced property values the park could bring, again ignoring any potential transit uses. The Journal has decided the Low Line shall exist, and exist it shall.
But those hurdles Hamilton mentions aren’t insignificant. She speaks of $55 million as though it’s a drop in the bucket, but it is exactly the opposite. Barasch and Ramsey won’t be able to fund that total through Kickstarter, and if we cast a glance across town, even the High Line raised only $44 million from donors for its first two sections. Will the city fork over the dough for the Low Line? Should it?
Meanwhile, getting the MTA on board won’t be easy either. There is no real reason for the agency to give up on valuable transit space. True, it has sat unused for longer than it was in use, but as Cap’n Transit explored last year, it could and should be in use again. Until we know for sure there are no transit uses for the space and until the MTA is adequately compensated for the terminal, it will remain in this limbo of past ghosts and future promises.
A few years ago, the Low Line had the ears of some higher-ups at the MTA, but those higher-ups have long since moved on and out. The Low Line gets press because it’s a unique idea, but ultimately, we don’t even know if it’s a sustainable or realistic idea. The MTA would have to go through an RFP process for the space, and build-out and maintenance costs won’t decrease. It’s not going to be five years or ten, as Hamilton imagines, and it probably shouldn’t be ever.
A glimpse at the lower level at Nevins St. This 1905 original has never seen train service. (Photo courtesy of NYCSubway.org/David Justiniano)
When the MTA recommissioned the old South Ferry loop last week, New York saw a subway station once closed for good returned to service. In the history of the city’s subways, this is a rare occurrence with only a few stations once lost to time returned to service. Throughout the city, the abandoned or half-built and never-completed stations flash by like ghosts from another era. Stare hard enough into the dark and stations at 91st St. and Broadway or 18th St. and Park Ave. South materialize out of the tunnels.
Elsewhere, parts of a system never realized remain hidden from view, poking their heads out now and then before receding into the shadows of history. The South 4th Street station shell above the northern end of Broadway on the G’s IND Crosstown line had its moment in the sun two and a half years ago when street artists turned it into their Underbelly canvas. That shell is part of a series of provisions for IND Second System lines at various stations throughout the city, and while the hints exist for those who know where to look, they’re largely out of sight and out of mind.
At another station in Brooklyn, an intriguing abandoned/never-used platform exists underneath Nevins St. and runs for some distance nearly to the Pacific St. platform along 4th Ave. at the current Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center station. Unlike the South 4th St. shell, this one has wall tiling and completed tunnels, and various nearby stations — DeKalb Ave., in particular — were constructed with its usage in mind. Today, it exists off of the Nevins St. underpass and remains forever unused, a remnant of a time when the city planned ahead even it wasn’t quite sure of where those plans might lead.
Various explorers, sanctioned and not, have ventured into the Nevins St. area. Before a rehab of the upper levels, the lower level was visible from the cross-under, but the existing platform areas have since been sealed off. Still, the photos available show finished tile and mosaic work and track beds. LTV Squad has a series of photos showing the extended tunneling and water damage to the current area.
The history of the station, as Joseph Brennan has explored, hints at the politics behind early subway construction. The lower level at Nevins St. was not, in fact, part of the original plans, and the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners ordered a redesign amidst ongoing construction in April of 1905. Six months later, work started on the lower level, and it never came to use. Brennan explains:
The purpose of Nevins St lower was to allow two connections on the Brooklyn-bound local track that crossed under the other tracks. North of Nevins St, there could be a track coming from the Manhattan Bridge line (De Kalb Ave station) joining the Brooklyn-bound track. South of Nevins St, there could be a track diverging off the Brooklyn-bound track into a subway in Lafayette Ave. Running the other way, provisions were made for both the same connections in the wall alongside the main level local track…
The subway was opened in May 1908 to Atlantic Ave. The extension beyond was added in the Dual System plan in 1913, and was opened in April 1919. The provisions of 1905 for future construction were…:
3 West of Nevins St: Lower level trackway under main tracks to north edge of construction, and upper level removable wall. For two tracks off a Manhattan Bridge route. The BMT De Kalb Ave station was built as if this had still not been ruled out: its main track level is at the level of the IRT lower level, for the outbound track connection, and its upper mezzanine level has no structure blocking the path of a track off the IRT main level.
4 East of Nevins St: Lower level trackway under main tracks to east edge of construction, and upper level trace of provision for an opening in the side wall. For a Lafayette Ave subway. Such a subway was actually built for the IND system later.
5 West end of Atlantic Ave station: Upper level outbound local curve south into 4 Ave, and lower level crossing under main tracks to a ramp up to main level inbound local. Both are now obscured. The upper level curve is still visible in the wall of the Atlantic Ave station side platform, as extended northward in 1964. The lower level is hidden, and the ramp up is covered by the present westbound local track (2 3 trains) built 1962-1963.
Today, history sits beneath our feet at Nevins St., invisible to nearly everyone as thousands of passengers pass through the station each day. I’m always struck by the planning — or the over-planning — of the original builders of the subway. These days, we pare back our subway expansion plans from two stations to one, from four tracks to two. But a hundred years ago, construction was halted for six months to build provisioning never actually put into place.
These days, the BMT uses the connection over the Manhattan Bridge via DeKalb, and of course, it extends to Atlantic Ave. and beyond via tunnels that mirror the Nevins St. plans. That routing though swings north of and around the Nevins St. station. The IND, via the G, utilizes the Lafayette Ave. route and cuts through part of the tunnels constructed around Nevins St. Subway planners built the lower level at Nevins St. for a purpose, and though that purpose came to pass, trains forever bypass the station. All that remains is an intriguing abandoned station out of sight and out of mind.
The Grand St. half of the G train’s Metropolitan Ave. stop is currently closed to passengers.
The G train as it winds its way through Williamsburg is chock full of urban underground surprises. The South 4th St. shell sits uncompleted, unacknowledged and adorned with graffiti above the northern end of the Broadway stop, and a few blocks up Union Ave., the Metropolitan Ave. – Lorimer St. stop contains its own little secret. Thanks to an anonymous Second Ave. Sagas tipster, we can take a close look inside an area long closed to the public.
The secret to this station lies in its name. Before the IND Crosstown line and BMT Canarsie line combined to create today’s Metropolitan Ave./Lorimer St. complex, the IND stop was called Metropolitan Ave./Grand St. with entrances along Union Ave. at both intersections. The station featured one of the overbuilt full-length mezzanines that is a hallmark of the IND stations throughout the city. Much of that mezzanine is now blocked off by the police station, some crew quarters and, well, an abandoned entrance.
On the G train platform, evidence of the old name is visible in the tiling, and a shuttered staircase at the southern end of the platform leads upward to the now-closed Grand St. exit. My tipster, encountering an open grate a few months ago, did some exploring, and the photos show the station as it was before renovation in 2000-2001 changed the color scheme.
A transfer sign and staircases await passengers that will not be arriving any time soon.
We see a sloped ramp and station entrances in pretty good shape. Temporary walls mark the employees-only areas, and access to the platforms is gated off. All in all, there are publicly available and open parts of the system in much worse condition than this spot.
So what to do with it? Earlier today, I mused on the role passageways play in the subway system, and here is a functional one — albeit with some work to be done — sitting there without use. Considering the population growth in the area over the years since it was last in use, it’s a spot the MTA should consider reactivating.
The G train, meanwhile, is drawing some public support. The Riders Alliance — a group for which I sit on the board — along with local politicians is hosting a rally for the G this weekend. They’re not arguing for the reopening of this entrance, but they’re asking for increased G train frequency and out-of-system transfers between the G and J/Z in Williamsburg and the G and Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center. “As the neighborhoods surrounding the G train continue to grow, it’s vital that their lifeline grow with them,” State Senator Daniel Squadron said.
WNYC's interactive map provides a glimpse into the lost ambitions of New York subway planners. (Click for the interactive version)
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.
A schematic shows the Rockaway Beach Branch service from 1955 until it was shuttered in 1960. (Courtesy of Railfan.net)
As creative urban parks go, New York City’s High Line is a great success story. The city, with fiscal help from private donations, turned an abandoned and decrepit freight rail line that no longer went anywhere or connected to the rest of area’s transportation network into a popular park that weaves through a neighborhood teeming with residents, businesses and tourists. Now, everyone wants a piece of the action.
Across the country, urban activists are eying the nation’s dying rail infrastructure not for transit but for parks. In Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit, community groups are searching for the “next” High Line — some infrastructure that can be turned into a park that will revitalize a neighborhood. It’s not quite that easy as New York’s High Line runs through a densely-populated neighborhood that already was a big tourist destination before the park opened, but that minor point isn’t stopping anyone.
Even within the city, New Yorkers are also looking for the next spot for the new High Line. Every few months, the Delancey Underground effort earns some press, and now an old initiative from Queens is gaining ink as well. On Friday, the Daily News explored how Queens residents are once again trying to turn the LIRR’s defunct Rockaway Beach Branch into a park. This isn’t a new plan; it last garnered coverage back in 2005. But with the High Line’s success, residents are emboldened to try again.
Lisa Colangelo has more:
Encouraged by the success of the High Line in Manhattan, a group of Queens park advocates are rebooting a proposal to rehabilitate an abandoned rail line into a greenway. The old Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, which went out of service almost 50 years ago, stretches from Rego Park to Ozone Park, cutting a swath through Forest Park.
“This is such an exciting idea,” said Andrea Crawford, the chairwoman of Community Board 9 who is helping organize supporters of the project. “It’s green, yet it has economic development opportunities. It would tie us in with other rail-to-trail projects happening all over the country.”
Crawford was part of a group of civic leaders who met with city agency representatives this week to discuss preliminary plans for a greenway along the route. Remnants of the line are visible throughout the area. The tracks ran along trestles above Metropolitan Ave. and Union Turnpike. The path is mostly clogged with trees and overgrown vegetation, but it still includes some train tracks and signal equipment and towers. The tracks, which lead into Forest Park just south of Union Turnpike and Woodhaven Blvd., are owned by the city.
As Colangelo explained, Community Board 9 supported the idea a few years ago, but Community Board 6 declined to authorize a feasibility study for a park. Residents in Forest Hills had raised concerns focused on “security and the impact on private property.” Today’s activists aren’t going to let obstacles from a few years ago hinder them.
Now, outside of the practicality of it — what money will turn this abandoned rail line into a park and is it in a part of the city to which people will travel to experience such a transformation? — there’s another issue: It’s part of a long-term effort that removes transit infrastructure from its intended use. By turning the West Side Line into the High Line, the city ensured that it would never be used for rail transportation again. If the Essex St. trolley terminal suffers the same fate, it too will never be a part of the city’s transit infrastructure.
The Rockaway Beach Branch has been fetishized by transit advocates for decades. The MTA once considered using the line as part of a one-seat ride to JFK or for Airtrain right-of-way before NIMBYs in Queens killed that idea, and an extensive thread on a popular transit message board traces the various ideas for reactivating the rail line. In his 40-year plan for the MTA, then-agency head Lee Sander mentioned restoring transit services to the line as well. Turning it into a park would immediately dash any of those hopes.
Therein lies the tension with old infrastructure: How long should a former train route lie fallow before we can accept other uses for it? Should the city be willing to discard half-formed plans to activate train lines that could provide useful service because someone else is louder or better connected? Turning the Rockaway Beach Branch into a rail trail will forever preclude using it for transit just as turning the Essex St. Terminal into a park or shopping area would do the same. That’s a decision that should not be made lightly.
A few months ago, as Jay Walder’s tenure at the MTA came to an end, word leaked out of an ambitious plan to turn some idle underground infrastructure owned by the MTA into a park. Called “Delancey Underground,” the plan involved bringing sunlight from above through fiber optic cables to create a park in the abandoned Essex St. Trolley Terminal. As New York City has seen the High Line take off on the West Side, the park proponents envision something similar for the Lower East Side.
As I understand it, the men behind this plan had a sympathetic ear in Jay Walder, and although press coverage of the Delancey Underground hasn’t died down, I’m not sure what their future holds. Even if the space isn’t turned into a park, the MTA, though, wants to see it redeveloped. Enter today’s video. In it, Peter Hine of the MTA takes us on a visual tour of the Essex St. Trolley Terminal, a mysterious space across from the J/M/Z platform that has been shuttered for decades. Sneak a peek:
I’m trying to arrange a tour of the space myself, but for now, Hine’s walk-through will have to do. While South 4th St., for example, remains sealed off seemingly forever, the Essex St. Trolley Terminal is firmly on the authority’s radar. As Hine says in the video, the MTA is looking for something to fill the space that “benefits both our transit system and its passengers.”
For Transit, converting these idle spaces into something useful is part of a new focus on “creative redevelopment and reuse.” If the authority can make money while turning parts of the system into spaces for urban creativity and exploration, even better. Still, the trolley terminal hasn’t been in use for sixty years. It could be a few more before anything lands there. For now, it’s still just a glimpse into the city’s transit past.