Home Subway History What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

by Benjamin Kabak

The never-completed and now-abandoned station at South 4th St. in Brooklyn should not be confused with the West 4th St. stop in Manhattan. (Photo via Etsy)

Alternately one of the more endearing or most annoying aspects of the New York City Subway system, post-unification, is the naming scheme for stations. The system has two stops in different boroughs that share the 7th Ave. designation, three stations called 86th St. and a whole bunch of Kings Highway and Ave. U stops. The list is endless, and the only way to tell them apart is by consulting a map or knowing the system’s ins and outs.

There are, of course, a few notable exceptions to the issues of dual names. The various 42nd St. stops all carry with them the designation of the nearby landmarks. We have Times Square-42nd St., 42nd St.-5th Ave./Bryan Park and 42nd St.-Grand Central. And then there is West Fourth Street and the numbered streets labeled East along the IRT White Plains Road line, specifically-named rarities in a system that largely assumes its riders know where they’re going.

This past weekend, that nomenclature was the subject of a question in The New York Times City Section’s FYI column. Asked a curious reader: “Most subway stops’ names use only the street number (42nd Street, for example). How come West Fourth Street and a few stops in the Bronx (like East 180th Street and East 149th Street) are given an east/west distinction?”

The answer:

Mainly to avoid confusion.

Herb Schonhaut, manager in New York City Transit’s Office of Station Signage, said the Fourth Street station uses the word “West” to distinguish it from the planned but unbuilt “South” Fourth Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Mr. Schonhaut added that East 180th Street (on the No. 2 and 5 lines) and East 149th Street (No. 6 line) use “East” to contrast with similar stations to the west: 180th Street/Bronx Park (which closed in 1952) and 149th Street/Grand Concourse. East 143rd Street was distinguished from 143rd Street on the Third Avenue el, which shut down in 1955.

Now, the second part of this answer, I knew. When the subways were first built, the IRT, BMT and IND lines were competing systems, and it was not until 1940 that all three systems were placed under the control of the city. The three companies followed their own naming conventions, and we are still today stuck with this relic of the past.

The first part of the answer — about South Fourth St. — was news to me, and the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg did the heavy lifting on this intriguing station. The now-abandoned semi-station at South Fourth Street in Brooklyn was to be a part of the IND Second System, a great idea lost to the Great Depression. WGPA has more:

The proposed service to Williamsburg included two new lines: one connecting to the Sixth Avenue line and running beneath the East River from Houston Street; the second connecting to the Eighth Avenue line and running under the River from Grand Street in Manhattan (with the last stop at Columbia Street).

In Williamsburg, the north line was to run beneath Grand Street as far as Driggs, and then turn south to meet up with the second line, which was to run under Broadway and South Fourth Street (more detail here). All of this was to meet up with the Crosstown Line (aka the G train) at Broadway and South 4th. That was the South 4th Street station referred to in the Times article…From South Fourth Street, the lines continued east. In Bed Stuy, they were to branch off. The Utica Avenue would run to the south, eventually winding up in Sheepshead Bay. The Rockaway line would continue northeast along Myrtle and Central Avenues, and then turn south and run all the way to the Rockaways.

So the two Fourth Streets would have been a mere four stations apart, and the coverage of the subways between Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan would have been vastly improved. But, alas, the Second System was not to be. While some of the plans — a subway to the Rockaways, for instance — saw the light of the day, the ambitious expansion drive faltered before long, and the West Fourth St. name is a testament to an era in which the city dreamed big and came up small.

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Josh September 18, 2008 - 10:23 am

What are there, five stations called “23rd Street”? (Not counting 23rd Street-Ely Avenue in Queens.) Not a problem if you know the system but probably confusing if you’re a visitor.

One of the things I like so much about the London Tube is the station names – many of them historic, very few redundancies. I’ve always thought it might be fun to create a new set of names for the NYC subway stations that eliminated street names (or, at least, numbered streets as station names) in favor of place descriptions – neighborhoods, landmarks, that sort of thing. Then I realize how very many stations we have (468 is exactly 200 more than London has) and give up after doing about 20 or 30.

Alon Levy September 19, 2008 - 9:02 am

I actually like the NYC system. I was a frequent straphanger in Singapore, and there the station names just don’t tell you where the station is. The names are all unique, but you need to know the layout of the neighborhoods they’re in to know where they should be. For example, my own station, Orchard, is one of three located on Orchard Road, all on the same line. If you know the Orchard Road area, you’ll know what the most important intersection is, so you’ll know where to find the station, but otherwise, you’re out of luck.

paulb September 18, 2008 - 10:23 am

I sure would like to see a revival of that Houston Street extension, east under the river, through Williamsburg and out to eastern Queens via Metropolitan Avenue and Union Turnpike. I’m sure the new line could be brought in for, oh, no more that $15 billion.

Who went ahead and let contracts on two stations with no financing in place at all for the subway lines they were supposed to serve?

Kid Twist September 18, 2008 - 1:07 pm

They buitl this station because it connects with Broadway on what is now the G line. In a few places, the IND built shells of stations for future lines while completing the existing system. I guess the idea was to do all the construction at once and avoid having to excavate around an operating subway line later on. There are partial stations at Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn and some additional excavation at Second Avenue and Houston, all of which would have been part of stations on the IND Second System. Actually, Roosevelt is more than a shell, it has tiles and pretty much everything but tracks.

Kid Twist September 18, 2008 - 1:08 pm


Scott E September 18, 2008 - 12:02 pm

The repetitive names is awkward, but even more-so is the conflicting names.

If I enter the subway system where the sign says “Chambers St (E) (2) (3)”, I end up at Park Place on the 2/3. Chambers St is a stop away.

Similarly, the Flatbush Avenue stop on the LIRR is the Atlantic Avenue stop on the IRT. If I take the 2 or 5 to the Flatbush Avenue stop and expect to connect to the LIRR, I’m out of luck. (I suppose the LIRR’s not so ambitious attempt to rename that spot to “Atlantic Terminal” might help things).

I understand the reasoning for these discrepancies, though. Understanding and acceptance of these quirks are what separates New Yorkers from the visitors.

paulb September 18, 2008 - 12:08 pm

It seems to me the big in/out of the system, namewise, is understanding that the route is usually implicit. You have to know you’re following Lexington, or Seventh Avenue, or Flatbush Ave, or Ninth St. in Brooklyn, or Houston St. Where subways are deep tunneled and don’t follow the streets, the station names probably relate to the streets above more explicitly?

Kid Twist September 18, 2008 - 1:12 pm

Back when people referred to the lines by their names instead of nonsensically saying they were taking, for instance, the A/C train, it worked fine in most cases. Tell someone you’re taking the Eighth Avenue train to 23rd Street and they’d know you’ll end up at West 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue.

Marc Shepherd September 18, 2008 - 2:42 pm

I’m not so sure the “good old days” were any clearer than what we have now. Someone who uses the subway every day will quickly get used to just about any naming system. For visitors or occasional riders, it is rife with confusion.

Josh September 19, 2008 - 10:58 am

In addition to Marc Shepherd’s comment above, if you’re trying to give a subway novice directions and you tell them to take the Eighth Avenue train to 23rd Street, there’s every chance that they wind up on an A train and miss their stop. That doesn’t happen if you tell them to take the C train.

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