Home Second Avenue Subway Planning for a Second Ave. subway, 75 years ago

Planning for a Second Ave. subway, 75 years ago

by Benjamin Kabak


So that whole Second Ave. subway thing, it’s been around for a while.

Sitting on the top of this post, courtesy of the Modern Mechanix blog, is an image taken from a magazine that hit the streets in October of 1931 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was New York’s governor and Jimmy Walker was our fair city’s mayor.

The rendering of Second Ave. of the Future is part of a larger article — available here — about the streets of the future. The streets of New York’s future in 1931 were havens for cars with pedestrians earning their own separated walkways shielded from eight-lane highways.

But the roads are just the beginning. It’s what is underneath them that holds tantalizing glimpses of optimism 75 long years ago. City planners were working on the Second Ave. subway as early as 1920. The El was due for replacement, and the Public Service Commission had drawn up a plan that included a Second Ave. subway. Nearly ten years later, in 1929, the Board of Transportation announced plans for the subway. The Board planned to award contracts from 1930 through 1935 with a target completion date of 1941 and sections opening up before the.

Talk about optimism. In October, the nation’s economy came crashing down, and with it, the City’s best hope for a Second Ave. subway. New estimates predicted a 1948 opening date, but money was scarce. As we all know, the city is still waiting for a subway line that many think will never come.

It was in the midst of this planning that the Modern Mechanics and Inventions magazine published this feature, and what a grand vision it is. While our Second Ave. subway line will feature two tracks and no express service, this hypothetical Second Ave. subway from an age of optimism features four tracks and two suburban commuter rail lines. The two outer tracks right below street level would serve local stations while the outer two tracks of the bottom four would operate as express trains along the avenue.

Through it all, if you look closely enough, the train cars in 1931 still look pretty familiar today in 2008.

Meanwhile, as the Second Ave. subway slogs its way to completion, imagine a city that had built this subway line decades ago as these anonymous magazine authors assumed. Imagine a city with that extra line and maybe one or two others in the outer boroughs.

We’ll never get to know that New York City with six train tunnels running under Second Ave. Hopefully, we’ll get to know something of a Second Ave. subway, but as these long-forgotten New Yorkers who dreamed of that future 77 years ago could tell us, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. We need that subway; we want that subway; and we’ve been saying that since the Hoover Administration.

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Todd February 21, 2008 - 5:08 pm

I like the four-lane underground speedway too!

Brook February 22, 2008 - 1:35 am

The Second Avenue line won’t be the best line in the city in terms of efficiency (maybe in modernity) but then again look at the L train today. It is a two-track line but has plenty of ridership. The M.T.A. could really start ripping up Second Avenue north of 59th Street(where the funded part of the project begins), but when I do go by the project in the 90’s the men and women seem to be doing real work as opposed to some construction sites.

Streetsblog » Today’s Headlines February 22, 2008 - 8:54 am

[…] Would Work, "If Done Right" (Gotham Gazette)75-Year-Old 2nd Ave Subway Drawing Unearthed (2nd Ave Sagas)State Sen. Eric Adams Called Out for "Empty" Grandstanding (NYT)LIRR Has Trouble Handling […]

Cap'n Transit February 22, 2008 - 9:33 am

Hm. The four-lane speedway and the shoving of sidewalks under the buildings and the pedestrian tunnels (replacing crosswalks, as on the Boulevard of Death) would definitely have increased car usage and made the avenue less pleasant for pedestrians. I’m wondering if the six tracks of trains would have been enough in favor of pedestrians to outweigh the massive increase in car infrastructure.

peter knox February 22, 2008 - 1:02 pm

They are not doing much real work on the 2nd Ave. Subway. One often sees one guy with a shovel digging a hole by himself. It’s hilarious. Lots of guys eat donuts and talk, and then go for a walk. Biggest public works project going and they only have a handful of guys working at any one time. They are only moving utilities still, and they are behind schedule by at least a month. This little 5B stubway won’t be ready until at least 2015. The complete subway will never be built. Soon, very soon, we will start hearing that the project is over budget and behind schedule.

Marc Shepherd February 22, 2008 - 5:09 pm

I agree that it will most likely be finished late and over budget. I don’t know whether the later phases will be built, but many skeptics said that this phase wouldn’t be built either.

Alon Levy February 24, 2008 - 12:07 am

It’s not being built. They still don’t have that TBM, and cut and cover is apparently verboten.

peter knox February 24, 2008 - 12:31 am

It’s a lie to say the “subway slogs its way to completion.” I repeat, they have not yet begun to build it. They are only preparing to build it. And I repeat, they are not building the subway. They say they are building only a 30 block stubway. What sane person can believe the MTA can build five stations and a 30 block stubway in less than 8 to 10 years? And who really believes they are ever going to build another six miles of subway in the next 50 years.

The Secret Conductor February 24, 2008 - 5:34 am

Power to the MTA for actually trying to get this done, but I don’t know f th whole subway will happen. I think from 125 to 57-59 will be it and the T line will never exist as the Q train will go the distance to 125.

As for this drawing, it looks like something I would have made up (literally, I used to do stuff like this when I was a kid all the time). an underground roadway with some sort of sidewalk that is also underground??? lets hope that this section cut is only showing what i would call a pick up/drop off area for the cars and trains.

Its nice and maybe if the city didn’t focus on just the roads (thanks robert moses) maybe we would have this. It is interesting.

I don’t think it would have provided much relief for car traffic though, it would be just as crowded down there as it is on the surface.

Alon Levy February 24, 2008 - 2:41 pm

Some things are just pipedreams; that drawing is one of them. It’s interesting in the same sense it’s interesting to see how science fiction authors thought future society would look in the 1950s, or how inventors thought it would look in the 1890s and 1900s, but it never had a chance to materialize.

Alan Smithie March 15, 2008 - 9:30 pm

Pa-Leaze! It’s a joke of union size proportions. If the pace at which they “work” is any indication of when a project of this scope will be finished these guys appear to have little in no idea of what their doing. There does seem to be a foreman who points and gestures to truck drivers back ho “operators” that creep around directionless moves. I can say that, without a doubt they are most productive at making more noise moving around than any construction ever witnessed. Again, and I mean this personally, the people in charge of this mess perpetuate the stereotype that any city/union project should be outsourced to a foreign labor force that knows what the hell they are all doing, and can get it done in a timely fashion. I’m always amazed that no matter where I travel in the world, (third world countries included), roads and infrastructure projects of this size seem to get done on time, on budget with half the “workers” and a tenth of the attitude. I blame all involved in this mess of a project and would bet any amount of money this will end WAY over budget and years over schedule.
Don’t come to the meetings a blow smoke up the asses of the people (New York citizens) who bring legitimate concerns by placating them with lies and false promises and just do whatever the hell your going do anyway.

your neighbor.
Alan Smithie

The Trainjotting Interview: SecondAvenueSagas » trainjotting.com July 1, 2008 - 10:55 am

[…] the city gave out for free. They also enjoy a few of the quirky ones I’ve written about the 75-year history of the Second Ave. Subway and some of Massimo Vignelli’s designs for the system. Those are my favorite to write as […]


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