Archive for Subway History
Some short history tonight as I’m not feeling 100 percent: Penn Station, the original version, has been in the news lately as last week marked the 50th anniversary of the march to save the station. As David Dunlap detailed in The Times last week, the upper crust of Manhattan along with city historians marched, albeit futilely, against the plan to demolish Penn Station. While they failed in their efforts, many credit the Penn Station movement with saving Grand Central a few years later. New York would not wipe two historic train stations from its streets in as many years.
Today, we mourn the loss of Penn Station as an architectural calamity. After all, the current iteration is an eyesore underneath an arena. But the old version suffered from a capacity too small to meet the demand. Ultimately, something had to give, and out of its destruction arose the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, both a barrier to urban growth and a nod to the city’s history. Whether that’s a net positive is heavily debated today.
Meanwhile, bits of Penn Station, as Jim O’Grady discovered earlier this week, survive. Entryways, design elements and staircases survived the destruction, and one day, if the money shows up Moynihan Station could become the city’s next grand train depot, welcoming visitors in a more regal manner than today’s Penn Station does. The city sure does spend a lot of time living down the legacy and fighting for the future of train stations that often seem to prioritize aesthetics over functionality.
As the dog days of summer dawn upon us, the subways are often viewed as the city’s oven, and newsstand operators store candies in the fridge. By and large, though, the subway cars are a cool reprieve from sweltering platforms. While newer rolling stock models have some AC quirks — it’s generally much cooler in the middle of the cars than it is at the ends underneath the air conditioner units — outside of the rare AC malfunction, the trains are kept temperate.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the subways, ceiling fans shuffling around stifling air were the norms. While platforms weren’t as heated by AC exhaust as they are today, traveling underground in the summer was never a pleasant experience. A few years ago, I looked at the history of A.C. in the subway, and today, I want to revisit that post. After a weekend of hot and humid days, the air conditioned train car is something we shouldn’t take for granted.
Over the weekend, as sticky weather and temperatures in the 90s descended upon the city, I enjoyed relatively good subway luck. I didn’t have to wait too long for most of my trains, but I found myself with a few minutes to kill at both 161st St. and West 4th St. on Saturday. The heat was oppressive, and while summer in the city is my favorite season, the subways are utterly unbearable.
The worst part of riding around New York City in the summer are the underground waits. With train cars spewing heat from industrial-strength air conditioners, the stations themselves see temperatures soar beyond tolerable levels. The stagnant air induces sweat at hours of the morning far too early for that kind of heat, and only the blessed air conditioning of the train cars makes a commute tolerable.
These days, we take our air conditioned subway cars for granted, but it wasn’t always like that. The MTA undertook its current air conditioning efforts in 1967, and the thought of a summer ride without AC lives on only in the memories of long-time New Yorkers. So as we sit on the cusp of summer and Transit turns on the AC, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine to a time when the New York City Transit Authority just couldn’t quite get air conditioning right.
Our journey begins in September of 1955, an odd time to test air conditioning as the heat is already dissipating by then. On a day that saw the outside temperature hit just 62 degrees, NYCTA ran a successful test of its first air conditioned subway car, an retrofitted R-15 car. As station temperatures hit 81 degrees and the mercury outside climbed to 87.5 in un-air conditioned cars, the test car saw temperatures fluctuate between 68 and 73 degrees. The authority proclaimed this one-day test a success, and plans to outfit the entire subway fleet at a cost of $700 per car were drawn up.
This optimism was short-lived. A year later, the NYCTA unveiled another test run of the air conditioned cars. Six R-17 cars equipped with loud speakers, air conditioned and in-route music provided, of course, by Muzak, made headlines as Transit officials again extolled the virtues of air conditioning. At the time, Transit planned to test these cars along various IRT routes but ran into early troubles.
The authority tried to test it on the Shuttle route, but the short trip did not provide for ample testing time. “The run between Times Square and Grand Central takes one minute,” wrote The Times, “apparently too brief a time to cool the hot subway air taken in during the stops of one and one-half to two minutes at the shuttle terminals.” Passengers complained as well of stale air and high humidity.
By 1962, the promise of air conditioning had failed to materialize, and the NYCTA declared the $300,000 experiment a failure. Even after the successful test runs, Transit found humidity levels well beyond acceptable. “As humidity built up and breathing became difficult,” The Times said in 1962, “passengers fled to the fan-ventilated cars…To add to passenger discomfort the cool air was dissipated when doors opened at stations, while the humidity remained unchanged.” While PATH announced air conditioning, NYCTA was left searching for solutions.
Five years later, the city struck air conditioning gold. After tinkering with the technology, Transit found a costly solution, and early test runs were again successful. This time, the humidity levels were kept in check, and railfans began to stalk the air conditioned cars, riding them along the F line from terminal to terminal to bask in the cool air. With a grant from the government and $15 million from the city, Transit finally promised to outfit its rolling stock with AC.
Even still, the going went slowly. By August of 1970, finding an air conditioned car was likened to finding a needle in a hay stack, and a 1973 proposal called for full air condition only by 1980. Throughout the 1980s, those struggles continued. At various points in the decade, air conditioning either didn’t work or was on the verge of breaking down. In 1983, while Transit officials alleged that 50 percent of cars were air conditioned, one rider found himself with AC during only 20 percent of his trips.
Today, with new rolling stock and a better maintenance program in place, the subways are blissfully air conditioned, a haven from the heat outside and in the station. I’m too young to remember those days of un-air conditioned trains, but I have vague recollections from the mid-to-late 1980s of stiflingly hot rides in graffiti-covered cars. Even if the new rolling stock can seem somewhat sterile at times, I’ll take that air conditioned as the mercury rises and summer settles in to stay for a few more months.
Yesterday afternoon, in my post on foolish track-jumpers at 9th Avenue, I mentioned the abandoned lower level platform. Hidden at the bottom of some casually roped-off staircases, the lower level platform at 9th Avenue has sat unused for nearly forty years and is a testament to another age. This piece from the archives originally ran back in August of 2010, and I thought now would be a good time to revisit it. It’s way more fun to ponder the lost corners of the subway system than it is to risk life and limb for a pointless YouTube video so without further ado, some history on the Culver Shuttle, the train that once used that abandoned platform.
Over on Subchat this morning, Newkirk Images posted a photo of the now-abandoned lower level of the 9th Ave. station in Brooklyn. Sitting in the center of the photo is a two-car train that has largely been lost to the history of the New York City subway system. That trainset is the Culver Shuttle.
The Culver Shuttle, as Joseph Brennan details at his Abandoned Stations site, had its origins in the late 19th Century steam-powered railroads that would take vacationing New Yorkers to the seaside resorts at Coney Island. With various elevated lines providing access throughout Brooklyn, the immediate history of the shuttle, says, Brennan is “fairly complex.” He writes:
Up to 1931, 5 Ave El trains provided all the service, and 9 Ave must have been busy with Culver passengers changing to the West End subway trains for a faster ride and access to many more places. The wooden el trains were slow and ran no farther than the end of the Brooklyn Bridge at Park Row, Manhattan.
When the Nassau St loop in lower Manhattan finally opened in 1931, the BMT began operating a mixture of subway and el services to the Culver line. Subway service ran Monday to Saturday, to Kings Highway in rush hours and summer Saturdays, and to Coney Island midday and other Saturdays. El service went to Coney Island rush hours, nights, summer Saturdays, and all Sundays, and otherwise ended at 9 Ave station. Is that clear? The BMT didn’t have enough subway cars for full service, so at rush hours and summers, the el had to pick up the service to the end of the line, so the subway trains could shortline. 9 Ave lower level saw its peak train service in these years, with both el and subway trains, and el trains reversing in the middle track during some hours…
The Transit Authority fulfilled a longstanding Board of Transportation plan in October 1954 when the IND subway was connected to the Culver line at Ditmas Ave station and took over all service to Culver stations beyond that point. BMT Culver service from a single track terminal at Ditmas Ave continued as before on weekdays, but nights and weekends it was a shuttle to 36 St. Ridership dropped, and in May 1959, it was made a shuttle full time, between Ditmas Ave and 9 Ave only.
As the subway system decayed throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Culver Shuttle keep chugging along. It ran the BMT standard subway cars up through the early 1970s, and Brennan notes how the way Transit didn’t maintain this little-used station echoed the collapse of the system as a well. “The dark, deteriorating lower level at 9 Ave, and the partly dismantled elevated line gave it a mood of decay,” he writes. “There was just one track, the center at 9 Ave and the west side on the el, and one train operated all the service. The end was obviously in sight, but it somehow hung on until 1975.”
That year — 1975 — saw the demise of the Culver Shuttle amidst the now-familiar refrain of budgetary problems. Only 1000 people a day used the shuttle, and most of those were making the round trip to and from work. The MTA estimated it would cost $1 million it didn’t have to rehabilitate the elevated structure, and the shuttle, which once ran into Manhattan via the 4th Ave. line and Nassau St. loop, would be shuttered instead, with residents offered a free bus transfer as a replacement service.
These days, not much remains to remind New Yorkers of the Culver Shuttle. A sealed staircase leads to an abandoned platform, and the platform itself is in terrible shape. The rails too are but a memory as they were demolished in 1984. The rights of way between 9th Ave. and Ditmas Ave. have generally long since been sold to private developers, and houses in Brooklyn now mark the tracks of the old Culver Shuttle. Today, only stub tracks remain, a remnant of this rich history of rail travel in Brooklyn.
While browsing through NYCSubway.org over the weekend, I came across a few photos of the Atlantic Ave. headhouse. The one above, along with this postcard, show the headhouse as it was when the elevated trains still ran up and down Flatbush Ave. The building today is symbolic, but it once served a purpose.
As I leafed through the pages of photos, I saw the headhouse evolve over time. The elevated trains came down, and the subway systems were unified. The Atlantic Ave. headhouse became a relic amidst busy streets, unused and falling into a state of disrepair. A photo from 1997 shows the headhouse at its worst.
At some point, Arts for Transit took over the building, and today, it sits majestically and silently in the middle of the triangle formed by Flatbush, Fourth and Atlantic Aves. A 2008 photo shows the restored headhouse, and its Arts for Transit page discusses how the headhouse now serves as an artistic skylight for those folks waiting on the Brooklyn-bound local IRT tracks.
The photos made me ponder the changes in our system. Once we had elevateds; now we by and large do not. Where will we be in another 100 years? What infrastructure will still be used? What will be gone? What new things will take its place? The city’s transportation landscape must be ever-changing to keep up with demand, but sometimes, it seems stuck in time.
The New York Post had one of the more infuriatingly tantalizing two-paragraph articles you’ll ever see about the subway today. The story is here, and this is the entire thing:
Every hipster’s favorite subway line — the perennially packed L train — was almost completely shuttered 25 years ago because barely anyone was using it, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota revealed yesterday.
Now that line — serving once- desolate but now trendy Williamsburg — is one of the fastest-growing in the system.
With a nary a hint of history, The Post drops a bombshell. The MTA may have considered eliminating the L during its nadir. Could it be true? Would the authority sever a cross-borough connection that now is packed morning, noon and night, seven days a week? Some brief Google searches didn’t turn up any history, and this story piqued my interest.
I initially reached out to the MTA for initial comment, and while they’re working on it, they didn’t seem optimistic that too much would turn up. I queried SubChat as well, and those responses were equally as vague. One SubChatter noted a rumor that the TA may have considered shutting down the G, and another noted that a proposal to shutter the L could have been a part of the so-called “planned shrinkage” movement from the late 1970s when the city was literally burning down.
But what of The Post’s claims themselves? One SubChatter disputed the notion that the L was “barely used” and recalled the era of the 1980s when the train was full during rush hour commutes. Perhaps the J/M trains were to be axed instead? Another though remembered a time in the 1960s when the BMT Canarsie line was not a popular route.
There is, it seems, some truth to the fact that the L was not a popular line for a while. Mike Frumin, who used historic ridership data to chart station popularity, noted in 2009 how L train traffic tanked for decades and only recently has enjoyed a relatively strong upswing. At its low point in the late 1970s, only 1.2 million annually — or around 3000 per day — used the Bedford Ave. stop. That figure spiked to nearly 7 million in 2010 with average weekday ridership up to 21,000.
All told, considering the financial and ridership problems that plagued the MTA as well as the social and political situations in New York City at the time, it makes sense that the authority could have considered shutting subway lines. That was, after all, the time of the infamous Ford to City: Drop Dead Daily News cover. Still, without the L train or the J/M/Z or even the G train, areas in Queens and Northern Brooklyn that are enjoying growth today would be entirely lost. Shutting full subway arteries isn’t something that should be considered as an option, no matter how bad a temporary financial situation lasts.
When the Nostalgia Train ran last month, straphangers itching to experience or relive riding on trains from another era had the chance to do so. It wasn’t quite the same as being there though as the cars, as they’re usually kept on display, have a decidedly museum-y feel to them. Yet, the novelty never wears off.
For a different kind of glimpse back into the city’s history, we have Enrico Natali. In 1960, the photographer would surreptitiously capture scenes from the New York City subway. Today, we do the same with cell phone cameras and digital devices, but Natali used a Yashica. Starting this weekend, his photos will be on display in California, a far ride from New York, but luckily for the Internet, we can view them from the comfort of our own computers.
The Daily Mail has a bunch of shots and a small article about Natali, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography has a page of 28 Natali photos. My favorite is this capture of 51st Street. The missing tiles on the wall are evocative of stations that today are in need of repair. After 52 years, some things never change.
Bruce Davidson’s photographs of the subway from the early 1980s remain some of the more iconic images from the time period. His stark photos show the system at its nadir. Graffiti-covered trains and dark stations belie the dangers that were inherent in the subways at the time. We’ve come a long way from those days, and now Davidson’s images evoke a bygone era that we’d rather not revisit.
Earlier this year, Davidson’s book was reissued, and a few weeks ago, he penned an essay on his experiences for The New York Review of Books. In it, he talks about overcoming his fear of the subway as he rode into parts of town that a guy with a fancy camera would otherwise never visit. He speaks of approaching subjects to get their permissions for photos, and he relates a tale of getting mugged near Chauncey Street in Brooklyn.
Today, with subway crime far below record highs, we often take safety for granted, and the new rolling stock lends an air of sterility and security to our rides. But Davidson’s essay reminds us that we’re not far from those bad old days. Give it a read; it’s well worth it. (NYRB via Kottke)
For students of the history of New York City and its subways, abandoned stations and half-built shells offer up an alluring reminder of what was and what could have been. Scattered throughout the city are various platforms now shuttered and lost to the era of longer trains, and of course, the provisions that remind us of the grand plans for the IND Second System capture the imagination. We know of the shell at South 4th Street and a similarly hidden one at Utica Ave. But what of the other subway mysteries?
One long-standing urban rumor has concerned a station along the IND Fulton line just east of Euclid Avenue and past the walls that mark the end of the C local train. This is the 76th Street station, an urban fable kept alive by an old April Fools joke, some mysterious construction barriers and track maps that hint of an unbuilt subway extension. The 76th Street station itself is a mystery. If it exists, it would be found at the area of 76th Street and Pitkin Ave. in Queens. Officially, it was never really built, and no one has photographic evidence of it. But there’s long been lingering doubts in the minds of even the most ardent subway historians.
The immediate tale of 76th Street begins where many subway legends start: on SubChat. A recently revived thread from February covered the discussion of a potential C extension down Pitkin Ave., and one person claimed to know someone who had the seen station. The topic comes up now and then, and in 2001, rumors of the station’s existence were prevalent.
What we know today are snippets of rumors and in complete images. The story is fueled by a cinderblock wall past Euclid Ave. and a signal that’s facing the wrong way. For some reason, subway construction crews at one point decided to brick up the area at the end of the local tunnel, and all that remains are stubs on track maps and signal schematics. A 2007 post by the LTV Squad simply fueled speculation, and like any good urban legend, the story doesn’t die.
Early in the decade of the double aughts, two subway historians brought tales of the 76th Street station to light. In a comprehensive posting on April 1, 2002 that included some excellent Photoshops, Joe Brennan created a history of 76th St. He even claimed the station had been in revenue service but was shuttered as part of a city cover-up. That, of course, was an April Fools joke, but Randy Kennedy’s 2003 column on 76th Street was no laughing matter.
Kennedy spoke with one man who insisted the station exists, and his evidence was similar to that found by the LTV Squad. An electric board says 76th Street; the cinder block wall is an oddity; other transit workers and police officers claim the station exists on the other side of the wall. It’s a case based on circumstantial evidence, but until someone returns with photos, 76th Street will remain forever a debated part of subway lore.
And yet, we do know what was supposed to go past that cinderblock wall sixty-plus years ago. As part of the IND Second System, the Fulton Line was to split near Euclid with one section continuing along Liberty Ave. and the other heading east to 229th St. in Cambria Heights, right near the Nassau County line. Some plans called for the IND to use the LIRR right-of-ways, but the details are immaterial. Eventually, due to costs and some engineering concerns, the plans for such an ambitious extension were scrapped. It is true that a signal schematic references the “future 76th Street interlocking,” but that is ultimately a future that never came to pass.
Another baseball post-season, another playoff appearance for our own New York Yankees. With the club’s 16th playoff berth over the past 17 seasons, the MTA is once again rolling out the Nostalgia Train for a timeless jaunt up to the Bronx. It’s become an annual tradition and one that attracts Yankee fanatics and railfans alike.
Tonght’s Nostalgia Train will be departing from the uptown express tracks at Grand Central at 7:15 sharp. It will stop at 59th, 86th, 125th, 138th and 149th Streets before arriving at Yankee Stadium. Transit will do it again tomorrow before Game 2 and ahead of Game 5 on Wednesday if the Yankees’ series with the Detroit Tigers makes it that far. This year’s Nostalgia Train consists of cars originally operated by the old Interborough Rapid Transit company from 1917 into the early 1960s. Be forewarned though: These vintage cars aren’t air conditioned.
I got back to New York City pretty late tonight after my flight north from Florida was left circling above Wednesday’s thunderstorms. Instead of a new piece, I’ve decided to run something from the archives so I can get to sleep. I’ll have more later this morning. In the meantime, enjoy this look back at some recent subway history that I wrote originally back in August of 2009.
I grew up three blocks away from the West Side IRT station at 96th and Broadway. For the first six years of my life, I learned the subway from the front windows of the 1, 2 or 3 trains. The 2 — the old red birds — were my favorite until one day in 1989 when the MTA introduced the 9 train.
Six-year-old Benjamin was smitten. It was a brand new subway train that would stop at his home station and skip some far-away stations in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx in which I as a child never set foot. I was disappointed when I realized that the 9 trains were just 1 trains with a different bullet, but to me, that 9 always looked like a big grin. It was a welcoming child of the subway system.
In high school, I came to enjoy the 9 train. During my junior and senior years, I would take the subway from 96th St. north up Broadway to 242nd St. before walking up Post Road to my school on 246th St. Each day, I would hope for a 9 train because, in my mind, it was faster. The 9 train skipped four stops north of 125th St. while the 1 skipped only three. It was simple subway math.
After high school, the 9 train faded from my subway conscious. I didn’t have to use it any longer, and on Sept. 11, 2001, the MTA suspended 9 train service as they had to change a slew of routes to accommodate for the damage to the subway system in and around Ground Zero. While the 9 returned a few days after the one-year anniversary of those terrorist attacks, it was but an afterthought. Less than three years later, it would be wiped from the map, a victim of the northern Manhattan population boom that continues to this day.
Soon, we’ll celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the good old 9 train. The first 9 — in reality, a rebranded 1 — rolled off the line Monday, August 21, 1989, twenty years and six days ago. Donatella Lorch reported on this service addition for The Times:
The new service provides ”skip-stop” service between 6:30 A.M and 7 P.M. on weekdays, freeing the old No. 1 local to skip four stops between 137th and 242d Street. The purpose, says the Transit Authority, is to provide a faster and less crowded ride for people in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. Not everyone believes this will happen. Some passengers say they will spend more time on platforms, transferring or waiting for the right train to come along…
“It slows me down because I have to change trains for no good reason,” complained Frank Gary as he waited yesterday evening at 137th Street for an uptown train to 157th Street. “I knew about it this morning so I did not get confused.”
Jared Lebow, a Transit Authority spokesman, said the new line would save up to three minutes on a ride from South Ferry to 242d Street. That’s not much, he said, but cumulatively, over the course of a day, enough time is saved to get more use out of the trains. He also said that a total of 28 No. 1 and 9 trains would now run during each rush hour, instead of the 25 that used to run on the No. 1 line.
For 16 years, residents of northern Manhattan complained about the 9 service. While those of us passing through enjoyed the luxury and perceived speed of the seat-saving skip-stop service, people in Marble Hill, Inwood, Washington Heights and Harlem felt slighted by the MTA.
By 2005, the need for this service had greatly diminished. In fact, as the skipped stations had grown in ridership, Transit had to restore full-line service to Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and 12,000 per day experienced more frequent service when the 9 was axed. “Skip-stop service on the 1 line is an idea which today doesn’t make sense for our operations or our customers,” Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit at the time, said to Sewell Chan in 2005. “By eliminating skip-stop service, the majority of riders along the 1 line will benefit from shorter travel times and will no longer have to stand on platforms as trains pass them by during rush hour.”
The last 9 train rode up and down the West Side IRT local tracks on May 31, 2005, and it passed quietly into subway lore. Nearly 22 years ago, it debuted, and now it is but a memory in the minds of New Yorkers, a fleeting part of straphanger past. Sometimes, I believe the MTA should revisit skip-stop service to better apportion crowds on locals, but for now, the 9 simply rests in peace.