In discussing yesterday’s news that Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has called for more support for Second Ave. businesses, a few SAS readers wanted to know about the impact previous subway construction efforts had on local merchants. And so into the archives of The New York Times I went.
Submitted for your approval are my preliminary results. On Jan. 12, 1930, The Times ran a piece with the headline “Want No Subway Under 57th Street; Fifth Avenue Body Suggests Link Through Sixty-First Street.” It is available here for subscribers and those willing to pay an access fee. I’ll excerpt the key parts:
Petitions are being sent to property owners and business interests on Fifty-seventh Street by the Fifth Avenue Association asking for signatures to be presented to the Board of Transportation urging that the crosstown link to connect the proposed Sixth and Second Avenue subways be placed under Sixty-first Street instead of Fifty-seventh Street…
“While we approve of the construction of the Second and Sixth Avenue subways and endorse in principle the idea of a link across town connecting these subways,” states [C.J.] Oppenheim’s [Fifty-seventh Street] committee, “our studies indicate that it would work a great hardship upon the merchants and property owners of Fifty-seventh street to use that street for the connecting link…”
One of the objections cited in the use of Fifty-seventh Street is the serious damage to merchants due to the open-cut construction method, the conditions on Eighth Avenue for three or four years being mentioned as an example of the business disturbance which would be caused…
“The construction of a subway beneath Fifty-seventh Street,” states the petition, “with the long inconvenience to business which would result from building operation, would work a great hardship on this street and would bring about heavy losses in property and business values.”
We know how this particular story ends. While the Second Ave. Subway is still under construction, nearly 80 years after The Times first printed the story, 57th St. was never used as a crosstown subway link. Rather, the Sixth Ave. trains went north from 57th St. under Central Park and under 63rd St. The F stop at 63rd St. and Lexington and the 63rd St. tunnel — opened decades after this article appeared — are a testament to Mr. Oppenheim’s success.
Meanwhile, we can use history to learn a lesson. The disruption to businesses along Second Ave. is no surprise whatsoever. While the MTA is not going to use a cut-and-cover method of construction this time around, the agency still has to dig up the street to relocate utilities, to drop a tunnel boring machine and to construct subway entrances. While not as extreme as it was in the 1930s, the disruptions are still significant.
With this in mind, the city and authority did not adequately prepare Second Ave. businesses for the chaos of subway construction. With history as a guide, they should have recognized what a ten-year construction project would wrought. Instead, businesses will suffer, and the mistakes of the past will be repeated.