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WSJ Book Review: The Routes Not Taken by Joseph B. Raskin

14th April 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Book Review: ‘The Routes Not Taken’ by Joseph B. Raskin
April 11, 2014

The Second Avenue subway was first proposed in 1929. It will begin operation—perhaps—in 2016.

Three things enabled the population density that made New York rich, diverse and dominant throughout much of the 20th century: Manhattan’s street grid, Central Park and the subway system. The crowded, contentious city of today would be unthinkable without the grid’s arrow-straight streets, which expedited vehicle and pedestrian flow, and the extensive subway system, which transported people to most of the places they wanted to go. But as New York has undergone yet another surge in population—some 8.3 million people lived in the city in 2013, projected to grow to 9.1 million by 2030—it has been grappling with the limits imposed by its aging infrastructure. Most important, its subway system has barely expanded—though this is not for lack of trying over the past century.

Joseph B. Raskin’s “The Routes Not Taken” lays out the planned underground labyrinths that were never built. The book couldn’t be more timely or relevant: Some of the routes now being built (the Second Avenue line, for example, which is to run along Manhattan’s East Side) or recommended (the extension of the No. 7 Flushing line westward under the Hudson River to New Jersey) were carefully analyzed and seriously proposed decades ago—the extension of the Flushing line in 1926, the Second Avenue subway in 1929. But “no proposal for a line,” Mr. Raskin writes, “enjoyed an easy path.” The author, an official at New York City Transit, uncovers and explores dozens of abandoned routes and chronicles the many ghost tunnels and stations that have been nearly forgotten or have come to be regarded as urban myths. It’s a wonder, he concludes, “how lines have ever been built.”

In presenting lively, though sometimes overly detailed, case studies of what he regards as the most important unbuilt lines, Mr. Raskin encourages his readers to think about the adaptable nature of the city. Had the other boroughs gotten a crosstown subway, linking them with one another as well as Manhattan, they would be profoundly different, and probably far wealthier, today. By focusing on the negative—what didn’t get built—Mr. Raskin forces us to ponder what the city is, what it could have been, and what it still could be.

Earlier generations fully appreciated the subway’s ability to bring development and wealth to underserved sections of the city. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rising neighborhoods such as Harlem in Manhattan and Flatbush, Midwood and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn were marketed with an emphasis on access to transit. And that strategy applied even to upscale buildings: In the 1890s, William Waldorf Astor sited his elegant apartment houses on subway stops to attract the swells. The old planners also understood the potential downside of elevated lines, which could move people but blight neighborhoods. “There is such a thing as the defacement of a city,” said W.C. DeWitt in 1889, representing Brooklyn’s Fulton Street property owners. A strong shared civic understanding made possible the capital commitment and construction of transit even as communities and their representatives fought over details.

As Mr. Raskin shows, the old New Yorkers were every bit as irascible, contrarian and territorial as their successors. The transit system, under the authority of the state, isn’t under the control of the mayor or the city council. And the residents of each borough have their own interests to look out for. In its campaign for a subway, the Queens Chamber of Commerce trumpeted: “Should the Bronx grow as Flushing stands still? Shall the Third Ward pay for the growth of Yonkers, Mt. Vernon and White Plains?”

The underlying problem was, and remains, that most basic of political questions: Who benefits? Some neighborhoods prospered while others stagnated. Many New Yorkers assumed that wealthier and more privileged areas were being preferred. “The only time you get to the Northeast Bronx is when you are on your way to the Yale Bowl to see the Yale and Harvard game,” said Bronx assemblyman Joseph Kinsley to a city planning commissioner in 1929, discussing the never-built Burke Avenue line. In 1953, the Brooklyn borough president accused the New York City Transit Authority of behaving like “a prince in Manhattan and a pauper in Brooklyn.” He refused to support any plans that excluded Brooklyn.

At the heart of these disagreements was a conflict between two legitimate points of view: Some thought that transit should benefit the city’s farthest regions and beyond, while others urged transit for the densest neighborhoods. Cost was always, as Mr. Raskin notes, “the daunting factor.” Elevated lines might blight, but they were relatively cheap to build. Underground lines were tremendously expensive. And even though construction was financed from bonds that came due well into the future, many New Yorkers felt they were paying in the here and now to benefit unborn generations.

In practice, New Yorkers weren’t even paying for ongoing expenses. Because the city’s mayors, and often the newspaper editorial boards, opposed fare increases, the fare stayed at a nickel for 44 years, not doubling to 10 cents until 1948. The result was that a concept of “deferred maintenance” was present almost from the beginning. When the system got new money, even for capital construction, it was often diverted to maintenance.

When money was finally found for a new line, all sorts of obstacles could cause delay. The repeated postponement of the Second Avenue Subway is the most famous example. Over the decades, construction has proceeded in fits and starts. The latest big push began in 2007, as crews started boring tunnels from 96th Street down to 63rd. The daily cost of massive under- and above-ground construction to businesses and residents has been immense. Once finished, the line will likely deliver equally immense benefits, but not to those businesses that went bankrupt or to the residents who moved out in despair.

—Ms. Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy organization.

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