In a rather absurd ranking of the New York City subway lines on Buzzfeed last week, the Z train didn’t score too well. It landed at 17 on the list, and the author was skeptical of its existence. Considering how little time the train spends in Manhattan and the path it takes as it winds through Brooklyn and Queens, many lifelong New Yorkers rarely find themselves riding the Z or even its more frequent brother the J. It’s such an odd little quirk of the subway system.
My first trip on the BMT Nassau St. line came years, and perhaps even decades, after my first subway ride as a baby. While growing up in New York through the 1980s and 1990s, not only were there few reasons to take the J, Z or M trains over the Williamsburg Bridge, but it also simply wasn’t a safe line. It went through bad neighborhoods and didn’t go anywhere a kid from the Upper West Side needed to go. When we would take family trips to the dearly departed Ratner’s, we switch at 14th St. to the F, and upon exiting at Delancey St., I’d catch staircases leading up to the mysterious J train. What was it? Where did it go?
I had no idea then of the train’s odd history and the way it mirrors the ups and downs of the city’s subway system. It began as a noble plan to link up various neighborhoods in Brooklyn via a series of loops through Lower Manhattan and has stumbled to its current iteration with a series of decrepit and little-used Manhattan stations, the oldest section of elevated track in the system and the sorry stations underneath Archer Ave. that aren’t nearly as old as they look. In between, it cuts through neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying that look nothing as they did 15 or 20 years ago.
When work began and planning started for the section of subway that became the BMT Nassau St. line, transit developers wanted to, for reasons not immediately obvious to us in 2014, create a series of Brooklyn loops, and those loops not only arrived but survived well into the second half of the 20th century. Before the tracks from Chambers St. to Canal St. were disconnected to the Manhattan Bridge, the line we know as the J train could have run through the Montague St. tunnel from 4th Ave. in Brooklyn, under City Hall and over the Manhattan Bridge and back to the 4th Ave. line. It also could have continued north over the Williamsburg Bridge and out to Queens. It skirted the edges of Manhattan, running close to more reliable and more useful subway lines.
After some time, these loops became less useful. After all, the service was highly redundant; no one needed to go from Court St. to De Kalb Ave. via Lower Manhattan and the Manhattan Bridge, and the BMT found that direct service over the Williamsburg Bridge was far more in demand. Snip went the loops, and gone, these days, is the service via the Montague St. tunnel, a victim of the 2010 service cuts.
Today, the Manhattan stations along the Nassau St. line are in serious need of something. The Canal, Fulton and Broad St. stations are relatively fine. At Canal, at least, vestiges of the loops can be seen fleetingly from the platform as the decommissioned eastern set of tracks is visible. Chambers St. is an absolute ruin (but still with a provision for service over the Brooklyn Bridge), and the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s least used and most oft-forgotten stations, well, this photo of the area still in revenue service speaks for itself. Maybe one day, these stations will get their just dues.
To me, there’s something almost romantically nostalgic about the BMT Nassau St. line in all of its various iterations and conditions. It’s from a time when subway lines got built and when builders left in provisions for other connections to bigger systems and potential expansions. Maybe the BMT Nassau St. didn’t quite work; the best part of it today is a connection, established long after the fact in 1968, for the M up to Sixth Ave. But for many workers in Lower Manhattan, it’s opened up large areas in Brooklyn and Queens for an easy commute downtown. Its looks are deceiving; its ridership low; but it’s not the worst of anything. Somehow, it’s there, and that’s something we can’t take for granted.