Everyday, thousands of New Yorkers destined for Midtown exit the 34th St./Herald Square station and walk north along Sixth Avenue. Most do not realize it, but they are tracking the path of an underground complex that ranges north from 35th to 40th Sts. and connects the Herald Square subway station to the 42nd St./Bryant Park stop. That passageway, closed for nearly 20 years, is just one of the many secrets the subway system hides right before our eyes.
This passageway dates from the construction of the IND, and it originally opened, as the Municipal Arts Society recounted, in 1940. A piece from the May 4 New Yorker that year introduced the city to the tunnel as a work in progress:
It’s a passageway running from Thirty-fifth Street to Fortieth, connecting with both the Thirty-fourth and Forty-second Street stations. The idea is that it will relieve congestion at these points by distributing passengers over a greater area. If you add the length of the station platforms to the length of the underpass, you have something impressive – a stretch of more than nine blocks, from Thirty-third Street to north of Forty-second. There will be a catch to using this as a summer promenade, however. There will be turnstiles at the ends of both station platforms, so it will cost ten cents to make the entire distance. The arrangement should nevertheless be a boon to adventurous strollers in the summer of 1941…At the south end, once you’re through the turnstile, you will be able to wander on indefinitely underground: through territory of the BMT, the Hudson & Manhattan terminal, Saks-Thirty-fourth Street, Gimbel’s, the Pennsylvania Station – a whole world in itself.
For years, the passageway served as a short cut away from the crowds on 6th Ave., but as the subway system fell into ruin, so too did these less-than-secure areas underground. Eventually by the 1980s and early 1990s, homeless people outnumbered commuters, and long, dark passageways were hallmarks of the unsafe subways. Junkies and pushers sprung up in area that bred graffiti and saw nary a cop – or station agent – patrolling the grounds.
Resembling what we might see in a movie today, these tunnels were ominous, and in 1991, after years of police complaints, disaster struck in the form of a horrific rape. A 22-year-old woman from New Jersey was sexually assaulted in that 6th Ave. tunnel on a weekday afternoon in March, and her attacker used construction equipment to shield the crime. The MTA’s reaction was swift. They barricaded that long tunnel and offered a mea culpa. The authority had kept open the passageway despite police requests because they feared a public outcry from homeless advocates. The crime though tipped the balance.
That now-forgotten tunnel under 6th Ave. wasn’t the only casualty of an unsafe and unpatrolled system. Throughout the system, the MTA shuttered various isolated crossovers and passageways that many deemed to be unsafe. “Although it may be inconvenient for some people to walk the long way around,” Beverly Dolinsky, then of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Council, said, “I think most riders won’t mind because of the increased feeling of safety.”
Included in those closings were a walkway outside of fare control that connected the IRT stop at 14th St. and 7th Ave. with the IND station at 14th and 8th; free connections between the uptown and downtown platforms at 28th St. along the 6 and 23rd St. on the R; various staircases at the C/E station at 50th St.; and assorted understaffed areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Few of these passageways and staircases have reopened in the intervening twenty years, and most have been lost to the vagaries of time and subway history. That Gimbel’s tunnel is but a memory from another era.
Today, the subways are safer than they’ve ever been in part because the more dangerous high-crime areas have been off limits for two decades, and yet, that fear always lurks in the minds of New Yorkers. With station agents set to be eliminated, many wonder if we’re in for a repeat of the shiftiness of the the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, new technology and innovation – cameras, more efficient police beats – make the subways safer, and maybe one day, the MTA, with the right investment project, can reactivate these old passageways and restore lost transfer points.
In fact, Vornado is proposing to do just that. In a sweeping plan that would overhaul the Herald Square-Penn Station area, the real estate company has called for the reopening of the Gimbel’s tunnel. Their ambitious transit renovations would reconnect the 34th St./Herald Square complex with the 7th Ave./Penn Station stop, and instead of a dual fare at either end of the tunnel, the connection would be free. This underground dream that would see 34th St. resemble the Rockefeller Center are a long way from reality, and for now, these various passageways shuttered throughout the city remain the ghosts in the subway machine.