The Routes Not Taken, Joseph Raskin’s thoroughly detailed an illuminating look at the various unbuilt subway routes that litter New York City history, begins with a simple premise: It is amazing that our subway system, in its present form, flaws and all, exists in the first place. We spend a lot of time imagining fantasy maps, pouring over details from lost and forgotten extensions and trying to catch a glimpse of the past’s future provisions. We never think about how we got to where we are today.
After Raskin’s first chapter though, reality sets in. While the subway system somehow encompasses 468 stations and 722 track miles, the more tantalizing elements are those lines and extensions that never saw the light of day. The D train, for instance, ends at a stub tunnel at 205th St. that was supposed to be the Burke Ave. subway. Meanwhile, in Queens, the mystery of 76th St. runs deep on the Internet, and plans to send trains to College Point or even the Nassau County line remain a relic of the past.
I’d urge any student of New York City history to read Raskin’s book. At times, it gets lost in the details as the author charts yet another community group meeting or business association that fights for a subway line. But those details are what makes this book so vital. New Yorkers fought for subway lines everywhere. They fought for subway lines down Utica and Nostrand Avenues; they fought for subway lines up and down the East Side. Raskin tracks each and every one of these fights, meetings, politicians’ positions and the myriad plans released by the Board of Transportation, the Board of Estimate and everyone else with a stake in the fight.
What’s most telling to me about Raskin’s book are how so many of the themes resonant today. The biggest recurring problem is, of course, NIMBYism. We know and hate NIMBYism today, and the last 100 years of New York City history were no different. NIMBYs fought long and hard against elevated lines that, even 80 years ago, were a much cheaper way to extend the subway system. NIMBYs are why the East Side has been a near-transit desert since the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els were torn down.
But then some NIMBYs fought against underground lines too. Some groups wanted stations and routing shifted one or two avenues north, south, east or west. Others feared a few years of construction would disrupt street-level business. It was the ultimate in short-sightedness as today, and for decades, neighborhoods with subway lines are far better off than neighborhoods that successfully fought against them.
Beyond the NIMBYs though were the deep-seated institutional problems that affected transit expansion. I found Raskin giving Robert Moses to many excuses toward the end of the book, but the man both threw up barriers to transit and took money away from it. He knew how to get his projects funded while both the BOE and BOT couldn’t deliver money for that Burke Ave. subway in the Bronx. Meanwhile, whenever a new subway extension would inch closer to reality, an interborough warfare would break out. The Queens Borough President would bemoan expenditures in the Bronx while the Staten Island delegation wanted its cross-Narrows subway before a Utica Ave. line would see the light of day. Ultimately, this fighting is why it took years for the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway to become the 5 train’s Dyre Ave. line and why only a segment of the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch is part of the subway.
Finally, Raskin analyzes the financial realities that plagued the city as well. He dives into the controversy surrounding the 1951 bond issue. Hundreds of millions of dollars that were supposed fund a Second Ave. Subway went instead of modernizing an aging system. But the real problem was the fare. Since subway fares were so politicized, no one could stomach the blowback of raising the fares. By the time the city discarded the nickel, the subways were operating at a crushing loss, and the hope of using proceeds to fund any subsequent system extension were dashed. We dreamed big but never with any money behind it.
So we return to the idea of our system today. It’s a marvel that it exists as it does and works as it does. But we need to move forward. If New York is going to grow, the subway must grow with it, and we know, from Raskin’s work, that the plans are out there if we dare to dream big enough.