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What Might Have Been. . . A Trip Through NYC's Unbuilt Subway System

12th November 2015

By Joseph B. Raskin, author of The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System

Service on the first route of the New York City Subway system began on October 27, 1904. The occasion was marked by ceremonies in City Hall, led by George B. McClellan and representatives of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), the operators of that line. Mayor McClellan saw the opening of the subway as the beginning of a new era for the greater city.

“We have met here today for the purpose of turning over a page in the history of our city; for the purpose of marking the advent of a new epoch in her development. If this new underground railroad which we are about to open proves as popular and as successful as I confidently expect it to be it will only be the first of many more which must ultimately result in giving us an almost perfect system of inter borough communication.”
“When that day arrives, borough boundaries will be remembered only for administrative purposes, and New Yorkers, forgetting from what part of the city they come and only conscious of the fact that they are the sons of the mightiest metropolis if the world has ever seen, will be activated by a common hope and united in a common destiny” (The New York Times, October 28, 1904).

Mayor McClellan operated the train that left the City Hall Station (no longer in use; the New York Transit Museum sometimes does a tour of the station) at 2:35 p.m., enjoying the trip, although he complained about the posting of advertising in the stations. It arrived at the northern terminal at 145th Street and Broadway at 3:01 p.m. The subway was opened to the public, and by 127,381 riders had made use of the subway by midnight.

Before the end of 1904, the subway extended further to the north in Manhattan and into the Bronx; in less than a year, it extended south to the Battery. Work was underway to construct a link to Brooklyn.

A photograph published in the Brooklyn Eagle on January 20, 1916. It shows a ramp built from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Chambers Street Station on the Brooklyn Rapid Transit’s Nassau Street Line (served today by the J and Z lines) that would have allowed BRT elevated lines that ran on the bridge to connect with the Nassau Street Line. This ramp was never put into use.

This was only the start of the construction of New York’s subway system. By 1920, that one line became all or parts of three routes, the Lexington-4th Avenue, Broadway-7th Avenue and 42nd Street Shuttle lines. Those lines were part of the first major rapid transit capital program, the Dual System Contracts. Many of the lines operated by the IRT and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT, later the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, the BMT). The Dual System Contracts were followed in the 1920s and beyond by the second capital program, which led to the opening of the Independent City-Owned Subway System (IND). The most recent extension of the subway system, the extension of the No. 7 line from Times Square to 34th Street-Hudson Yards, began service on September 13, 2015. The next extension, the opening of the first phase of the 2nd Avenue between 63rd and 96th Streets, is currently scheduled to open in December of 2016.

And yet, the subway system could have been even bigger. Numerous plans have been made to extend the subway system, dating back to before the completion of the first subway line. The westward extension of the No. 7 line was first proposed in the 1920s as part of a much longer line that would have extended into New Jersey. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill DeBlasio asked that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority study the feasibility of building a subway line along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn; that line was first proposed more than a century ago.

The most famous of these plans were those for the second phase of the IND, which were made public in September of 1929. The IND lines that were built (the 6th and 8th Avenue lines in Manhattan, the Fulton Street, Crosstown and Smith Street lines in Brooklyn, the Queens Boulevard line in Queens and the Concourse line in the Bronx) allowed for connections to be made with lines to be built in the second phase. This is seen at the 2nd Avenue and East Broadway Stations on the F line, the Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights Station on the E, F, M and R lines, the Utica Avenue Station on the A and C lines, the Broadway Station on the G line.

Some tunnel segments built for these connections were eventually put into use. As examples, the E line runs through a tunnel between the Briarwood-Van Wyck Boulevard and Jamaica-Van Wyck Stations partially built in the 1930s in anticipation of an extension that a line that would have run along what was then Van Wyck Boulevard. D line trains use a tunnel east of the 205th Street Station built as part of a planned extension into the Northeast Bronx to turn around for their trips back towards Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Even older connections were planned for and room was made for lines that were never built. The Nevins Street and Utica Avenue IRT stations in Brooklyn were built in anticipation of connections with unbuilt lines. The Chambers Street Station on the J and Z lines was built in anticipation of a connection with elevated lines that once ran over the Brooklyn Bridge. The 4th Avenue line in Brooklyn was built to allow for connections with a line that would have been built to Staten Island.

The reasons for these lines never having been built have varied. Budgetary issues have long impacted the ability of operating agencies to maintain, operate and expand the transit system. The release of the 1929 plan coincided with the stock market crash that fueled the Great Depression. The New York City financial crisis of the 1970s impacted the 1968 “New Routes” plan.

Political factors have affected plans to expand the system as well. The line that we now know as the G line, the Brooklyn-Queens line, whose first segment opened in 1933, was originally proposed as an elevated line close to 60 years earlier. That line was stopped by the residents and businesspeople in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg who opposed an elevated line being built along their streets. A similar proposal made in 1912-13 was stopped for the same reason. At the same time, a proposed subway line along Utica and Stuyvesant Avenues through those neighborhoods was blocked by Stuyvesant Avenue residents who opposed an underground line being built along their street.

The 2nd Avenue Station on the F Line in Manhattan. The station was built to be a transfer point between this line and the 2nd Avenue line, as planned in the 1930s, running above this platform. The middle tracks were planned to run eastward, providing service to sections of Brooklyn and Queens. Some of the neighborhoods that this line would have served do not have subway service to this day.

Mayor McClellan’s vision of the growth of the city was already coming true as service was beginning on the first subway line. The subways accelerated the growth and expansion of the city’s population and employment centers that began with the construction of the first elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The subways and elevated lines extended out through farmland and undeveloped regions far away from the downtown areas of each borough. Rural areas in the city were now well within reach. Real estate developers and the population would follow.

The developers obtained, divided, marketed and sold tracts of land on the basis that the subway expansion programs were coming their way. People bought property based on that hope. Largely rural areas like Washington Heights, Flatbush and Flushing became urbanized communities. Street grids extended outwards; villages grew and became larger communities. The extension of the No. 7 line to Hudson Yards was proposed to make that area more accessible; it is a major factor in the major development in that area.

The subway system could have extended ever further over the years that followed the opening of the first subway line 111 years ago (I write about those opportunities in my book, The Routes Not Taken). But the system is still growing. Even now, the opening of a subway line is viewed as being a positive step towards the growth and development of New York City as a whole.

Joseph B. Raskin is an independent scholar. He is widely regarded as an authority on unbuilt subway systems, on which he has been interviewed by the New York Times. He recently retired as Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations for MTA New York City Transit.

Visit Joseph Raskin’s Tumblr page.

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University of Minnesota Press

University of Chicago Press

University of Manitoba Press

University of Washington Press

Duke University Press

University of Texas Press

University of Michigan Press

University Press of Kansas

Minnesota Historical Society Press

University of California Press

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