Home Subway History A glimpse at city planning from the 1930s

A glimpse at city planning from the 1930s

by Benjamin Kabak
Those crazy elevateds interfered with the automobile's progress. (Via CHPC)

Those crazy elevateds interfered with the automobile’s progress. (Via CHPC)

Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller shared this gem with the world via his Twitter account yesterday, and what you are seeing is a page from a 1937 children’s book that Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on City Planning to introduce young New Yorkers to the concepts of urban life. It’s a great glimpse back in time, but so many of the issues — crosswalk safety, adequate airport space, zoning concerns — persist today, over 75 years after the book made its first appearance.

My favorite page, of course, is the one about the Elevateds because it underscores how we’ve gotten to where we are today. The New York of the late 1930s had more transit routes than the New York of the early 2010s because of the elevated, but with those structures came noise, darkness on the ground and, of course, inconvenience for drivers. Even in 1937, as the illustration showed, cars deserved the space more than trains do.

Today, we’re afraid of elevated. The planned train connection to La Guardia Airport died at the hands of NIMBYs who couldn’t stomach the idea of an elevated extension through Astoria even though technology, such as sound dampeners, and design have improved immensely since the BMT built the Astoria line. Now, we know why as an entire generation of future city planners were raised on a book that underscores the evils, but not the benefits, of elevated train lines.

Postscript: I had apparently overlooked this, but the Tri-State Transportation Campaign beat us all to the punch. TSTC’s Joseph Cutrufo took a deeper dive into the book in a post last week and also noted things haven’t changed. He profiled the pages for bridges, omnibuses (the “most modern way”), roads and crossings.

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Spiderpig November 1, 2013 - 3:10 pm

The X with the mother and child run over is a little rough. And planning, I get it!

johndmuller November 1, 2013 - 5:17 pm

A glowing description of O–is for Omnibus
“And the nickel you pay – Transports you for miles – In a most modern way.”

I half expected some vilification in a S–is for Streetcars or T–is for Trolleys, but I guess they were already dead horses by then so they didn’t need need any further scurrilous remarks. I do remember family hand-me-down stories about what happened to “bad boys who stuck their heads out the trolley windows” (I’ll leave that to your imaginations).

The matter of matter of streetcars tying up traffic was certainly a well schooled thought, and is still around in debates regarding street-running light rail. The issue of street-rail tracks disrupting control over car (and especially bike or motorcycle) wheels is not so much discussed these days, but perhaps should be, as they can be dangerous, and even more so if they are wet. Still, much of the badmouthing of streetcars seemed to have been choreographed by competing interests.

I suspect that the Els that were torn down were somewhat deserving of that fate from a structural point of view – there are pictures of some rather flimsy (and quite high to boot) els that one might think twice about riding on. They used much smaller and lighter trains in the early days and upgrading and/or retrofitting them for more modern trains might not have been worth it. After all, they promised to build a subway to replace the 3rd ave. el, didn’t they?

Bolwerk November 1, 2013 - 8:07 pm

The bus thing is rather bizarre, considering how cramped and uncomfortable buses get as they get busier – which could only have been more true then than it is now. I guess modern isn’t always good. But then, I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog ever rode and NYC trolley to compare. (At least one or two regular posters on nyc.transit remember them fondly, of course.)

Bolwerk November 1, 2013 - 8:10 pm

The evils of els and the vaunted “flexibility” of buses are like two tenets of the same boneheaded religion, even for many transit advocates.

Actually, to many, rail is plain evil. A good portion of people who should care about the loss of the Rockaway Line simply don’t give a shit or are even hostile to having trains there.

Tsuyoshi November 1, 2013 - 9:34 pm

The elevated trains in New York are the loudest I’ve ever experienced. They really don’t have to be so bad. If they were quieter, people in New York would be a bit less opposed to more of them.

But at least we can say that the elevated lines that survived are here to stay. As much as NIMBYs oppose extending the Astoria line, I haven’t heard of anyone seriously proposing removing the existing line.

Or to give another example, I’ve always thought it was curious that the elevated 4 in the Bronx (the most crowded route in the entire system) was just a few blocks from the B/D (one of the least crowded). If the mania for tearing down elevated rail was still alive, you could certainly just resize the platforms on the Grand Concourse line to IRT standard, terminate the B/D at 145th, and reroute the 4 to Grand Concourse. (Presuming that the reason the 4 is more popular is because it goes to the east side. Maybe it’s because there are more people west of Jerome than east of Grand Concourse; I don’t know.) But it will never happen, fortunately.

Frank B November 1, 2013 - 11:00 pm

The proximity of the IND Grand Concourse Line to the IRT Jerome Avenue Line was no coincidence; there are several lines that were built specifically to compete with private lines; for instance, there was really no need for an 8th Avenue Line; There was already a line at 7th; that line would have been better built on 9th Avenue, better serving the west side, and giving equal walking distance to both the IRT and new IND 9th Avenue Line; however, that wouldn’t have stolen significant enough revenues away from the IRT; helping driving it into bankruptcy and allowing the city to take it over.

What’s amazing is that the City even had the audacity to have nearly the same stops as the IRT; Yankee Stadium, 167th Street, 170th Street, 176/174-175, 183/182-183, Fordham Road, Kingsbridge Road, Bedford Park Boulevard etc. etc. The only unbreached territory that the IND touched was Norwood in The Bronx, and that was because the IRT terminated at Woodlawn, and the dead normally don’t take public transit. 😛 The IND didn’t even have 4 tracks; it was 3 tracks, just like the IRT.

What a damned waste of money.

MH November 2, 2013 - 8:12 am

Another reason the 4 is more popular is that it stops in the financial district and city and borough hall areas

Alon Levy November 1, 2013 - 9:59 pm

E is for elevated
That must be torn down
A thrice as wide highway
Is best for our town

(Actual attitude in that era)

Frank B November 1, 2013 - 11:08 pm

Honestly, LaGuardia was a true enemy to transit. He ripped down els, forced the IRT and BMT to be city-owned and operated (which effectively arrested new development and new lines being built with zero competition) and held the nickel fare, which ruined the IRT and BMT’s finances in addition to direct competition with the city-owned IND.

Now, I love the IND, and I think its clearly superior to the IRT and BMT in terms of speed and overall design. However, I feel that proper competition would’ve fueled further lines being built in underdeveloped areas throughout the 5 boroughs that would’ve been built on-time with private money; would the IRT have eventually extended to Bayside and Whitestone for more business? Would the BMT have finished the Staten Island Tunnel and bought up the North Shore, South Beach and Main lines of the SIR? Would the Myrtle Avenue El have been truncated at Broadway? Would the IRT be operating in Marine Park?

Who knows what could’ve been; Robert Moses had a huge hand in the city’s fate; but the subways had huge hands in the city’s fate as well… Until LaGuardia had those hands tied..

Bolwerk November 2, 2013 - 2:31 pm

LaGuardia was definitely unfriendly to transit, and people forget that. He also hated the streetcar network. It’s the kind of odd thing about Alon’s limerick: there was a recognition that transit was necessary still, but also a grotesque hostility to it. That meant the only investments allowed were in overbuilt IND-style subways or under-performing buses, with nothing allowed inbetween.

Speaking of the Myrtle El, I think it was once possible to stand at Seneca Avenue in Ridgewood (near Bushwick) and choose either the Myrtle El or the Dekalb Ave. streetcar to cross northern Brooklyn and go over the Brooklyn Bridge. Both those options were gone by the mid-20th century. It’s unlikely a bus, even with dedicated lanes, could ever make the trip as easily or efficiently. Besides, drivers are too important to inconvenience by dedicating part of a bridge to the filthy transit users.

Michael Sherrell November 2, 2013 - 2:09 pm

Contrary to the message above, the Eighth Avenue subway was not built to replace the IRT #1, #2 or #3 in Manhattan. This is basic Transit History 101. Corrections just have to be made!

The IND Eighth Avenue and the Sixth Avenue subway line in Manhattan, as well as the Fulton Street subway were planned and built, (late 1920’s and early 1930’s), to directly compete with, and replace the Ninth Avenue Elevated Line in Manhattan, that had a branch on 53rd Street, that connected with the Sixth Avenue Elevated Line.

Of course the Ninth Avenue line had a connection to the current #4 line in the Bronx, with a station and the rail connection near the old Yankee Stadium (now covered over by the new Yankee Stadium). Ever notice or wonder why there is that track arrangement by the 167th Street stop? The current B and D train replaced that connection by providing service from the westside of Manhattan to Yankee Stadium and the west Bronx – one of the functions of the Ninth Avenue elevated line. Notice the pattern!

While the Sixth Avenue IND Subway was being built, the planners and builders had to contend with the ELEVATED SIXTH AVENUE Line directly above the street. Making the building the 34th Street-Herald Square complex of trains and stations an engineering marvel and headache with an active elevated train line above their heads, all during the construction of the IND subway there, as well as weaving the IND subway into the underground complex of the BMT subway, the PATH subway, the LIRR train tracks, and a water tunnel at that location.

Yes, the IND’s Sixth Avenue subway line replaced the IRT’s Elevated Sixth Avenue – clear and simple.

In Brooklyn, the IND”s Fulton Street subway line directly competed against and replaced the Fulton Street Elevated Line! For a time, the IND subway existed existed below ground, while the Fulton Street Elevated line ran trains above the ground. Some of the evidence of the long demolished Fulton Street elevated line exists at the current Broadway Junction station complex in Brooklyn. Ever wonder why the current A and C trains stop at Broadway Junction?

There used to be elevated train lines on both Third Avenue and Second Avenue on Manhattan’s Eastside. In the plans for the IND’s Second System, the IND Second Avenue Subway was planned to replace both the IRT’s Second Avenue Elevated line, and the IRT’s Third Avenue elevated line in the late 1920’s.

There were several aspects of the IND’s Second System built into the construction of the first set of IND stations and tunnels. Of course the Elevated Second Avenue line, as well as the Third Avenue Elevated line Manhattan were torn down in anticipation of the building of the Second Avenue subway, again built to use IND-type trains.

The IRT Second Avenue Elevated line had train and track connections and service to Queen’s Astoria and Flushing elevated train lines at the Queensboro Plaza station by traveling over the 59th Street Bridge.

Ever thought about how in the planning for the new 1970’s Second Avenue Subway, there were plans (as well as built tunnels and stations now used by E and F trains), as well as definite plans and service to and through Queens incorporated. In a sense it was to copy and replace/enhance the services provided by the elevated train lines that were torn down in both Queens and the Bronx!

Considering that this week is the 95th Anniversary of the Malbone Street wreck, how can anyone not know about the Fulton Street elevated line that connected to the Brighton line to Coney Island, a part of the pathway to/from the Malbone street section. None of this stuff is in isolation to each other, it all fits within the larger picture of transit in NYC.

All of this is basic Transit History 101.

johndmuller November 2, 2013 - 7:36 pm

Regarding the Jerome Ave (4) line between Yankee Stadium and 167th St, there was a connection there with a line into Manhattan. The track idiosyncrasies there are likely leftovers from a flyunder (or over) to those tracks. I only know of it for sure as a shuttle line to the Polo Grounds from the Yankee Stadium station, but perhaps it was the last surviving piece of a longer line, going as you say to the West Side. Things were kind of cramped over there spacewise, so I’m not sure how the tracks would have gone, but I don’t doubt that they could have somehow.

Michael Sherrell November 3, 2013 - 11:05 am

Yes, I am indeed talking about the Ninth Avenue Elevated Line, which had a station as well as yard facilities at the Polo Grounds, which also crossed the Harlem River, passed by Yankee Stadium, and joined the #4 train! It was all one large transit line.

Yes, the old Polo Grounds Shuttle was the last remaining piece of the Ninth Avenue Elevated Line, it connected with an old railroad line that had a station in the area. Of course the Polo Grounds Shuttle (as well as the full Ninth Avenue Elevated Line) connected to the Polo Ground Stadium that used to exist there. The old Ninth Avenue Elevated line had a station and train yard there. All of this was replaced by the public housing that was built there.

The old Polo Grounds Stadium had great attendance until a new stadium was built across the river for Babe Ruth.

Go to NYCSubway.Org to find out more about the Ninth Avenue Elevated line, the Sixth Avenue Elevated Line, as well as the Second Avenue Elevated Line, and the Third Avenue Elevated Line (which was not just the Bronx section).

The building of the NEW Yankee Stadium removed most of the last vestiges of the Polo Grounds Shuttle, and its pathway to Manhattan. However on the NYCSubway.ORG website there are pictures of what used to exist. It is all New York City History!


peter June 14, 2023 - 7:04 am

Analyzing city planning from the 1930s offers captivating insights into the time’s urban growth and architectural visions.
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