Sec­ond Ave. Sub­way Lurches For­ward

New York­ers Have Waited Nearly 90 Years for the Oft-Promised East Side Line

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Robin Shul­man

New York is a city of tran­sit myths: Al­li­ga­tors live in the sub­way tun­nels. A man died on the train, but no one no­ticed. Yeah, I’ll sell you the Brook­lyn Bridge.

Some­day there will be a Sec­ond Av­enue sub­way line.

That sub­way line, first pro­posed in 1920, has been re­peat­edly planned and aban­doned. It has be­come New York’s long­est-run­ning mu­nic­i­pal joke, its par­tially built, un­used tun­nels a hollow prom­ise of eco­nomic growth snaking un­der the East Side of Man­hat­tan.

But a ground­break­ing cer­e­mony this month — the line’s fourth — has re­launched con­struc­tion on what would be the first New York sub­way line to be built in more than 70 years. Af­ter the four phases of con­struc­tion are com­pleted, the Sec­ond Av­enue train is to shut­tle from Lower Man­hat­tan to Span­ish Har­lem and link some of Man­hat­tan’s wealth­i­est neigh­bor­hoods and some of its poor­est.

The Sec­ond Av­enue sub­way has be­come a metaphor for the city’s grand am­bi­tions and its in­abil­ity to get things done. Its sta­tus has marked the city’s ragged cy­cles of boom and bust, each op­ti­mistic pe­riod caus­ing of­fi­cials to haul out the sub­way plans and each re­ces­sion prompt­ing them to be shelved.

“As goes the Sec­ond Av­enue sub­way, so goes New York,” said Daniel L. Doc­to­roff, the city’s deputy mayor for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. He spoke at the ground­break­ing, which took place in a por­tion of the un­used Sec­ond Av­enue tun­nel that had been sealed off — a pris­tine, pale ce­ment hollow be­neath 99th Street.

Now, as New York is be­ing re­born as a boom­town — and its sub­way is no longer per­ceived as a lawless place of mug­gings, graf­fiti, bro­ken doors and smashed lights — the Sec­ond Av­enue line is hav­ing an­other re­vival.

“This time it’s for real,” said El­liot G. San­der, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity, which runs the sub­ways.

Trans­porta­tion an­a­lysts say plan­ners want to keep pace with the grow­ing city. Sub­way rid­er­ship last year was 1.4 bil­lion, its high­est since 1952.

It will take $3.8 bil­lion, mostly se­cured in fed­eral and state funds, for the first phase of con­struc­tion, ex­tend­ing the ex­ist­ing Q train route along Sec­ond Av­enue from 63rd Street to 96th. This is due to be com­pleted by 2013.

The first Sec­ond Av­enue line, an el­e­vated train, cast a dark shadow onto the street be­low and spewed out cin­der, soot and noise. As sub­ways re­placed the “Els” on sev­eral north-south routes, Sec­ond Av­enue was sup­posed to fol­low suit.

In 1929, plans for a Sec­ond Av­enue sub­way were re­vived — months be­fore the stock mar­ket crash — then were shelved be­cause of the Great De­pres­sion.

The Sec­ond Av­enue El was dis­man­tled in wartime 1942, and plans for a sub­way line were res­ur­rected. The de­struc­tion of the Els was cast with his­tor­i­cal im­port, as a false ru­mor spread that the Ja­panese bought the scrap and used it for bombs to rain down on Pearl Har­bor. In 1951, a mea­sure passed per­mit­ting the city to raise $500 mil­lion, mainly to build the Sec­ond Av­enue line. But the money dis­ap­peared into re­pairs for the ex­ist­ing sub­way.

Then the MTA took over the city’s sub­ways in 1968 and pushed for a Sec­ond Av­enue ex­pan­sion of the sys­tem.

When a ground­break­ing fi­nally took place on a sunny Oc­to­ber day in 1972, Gov. Nelson A. Rock­e­feller joked that “no one can say that the city acted rashly.” Fur­ther cer­e­monies fol­lowed in 1973 and 1974 for dif­fer­ent con­struc­tion lo­ca­tions. But the city’s fis­cal cri­sis in 1974 again braked ex­pan­sion, leav­ing use­less, dis­con­nected stretches of tun­nel.

Those sealed-off tun­nels have to be main­tained, at a cost of at least $20,000 a year, be­cause they sup­port the streets above, said Peter G. Cafiero, act­ing chief of op­er­a­tions plan­ning for the MTA.

The tun­nels, like any good myth, have found their way into art. In a comic play by Chad Beckim, the sub­way line catches three res­i­dents off-guard in gen­tri­fy­ing East Har­lem and sym­bol­i­cally runs over them. One novel warns that near the Sec­ond Av­enue tun­nels are vam­pires; an­other book says Vik­ing ships.

New York­ers have sug­gested in­stalling a mush­room farm or a wine cel­lar in the tun­nels. (For­mer mayor Ed­ward I. Koch said he’d rather bet on the mush­room har­vest than on the com­ple­tion of the sub­way.) In the early 1980s, the MTA an­nounced it would rent the tun­nels to any imag­i­na­tive en­tre­pre­neur, and one com­pany sought to use the space as “the world’s long­est fil­ing cabi­net.”

But none of this solved the East Side’s needs for trans­porta­tion.

Ur­ban plan­ners and his­to­ri­ans say the lack of a Sec­ond Av­enue line has ac­tu­ally af­fected the face of the city.

The East Vil­lage and the Lower East Side — dis­tricts set­tled by im­mi­grant Jews and later Poles, Puerto Ri­cans and Do­mini­cans — re­mained poor ten­e­ment neigh­bor­hoods partly for lack of a sub­way, said Ken­neth T. Jack­son, a pro­fes­sor of ur­ban his­tory at Columbia Univer­sity. Ditto for Sec­ond Av­enue north of the United Na­tions at 42nd Street, he said.

“The spine of elite set­tle­ment runs up the cen­ter of the is­land,” said Jack­son. “In New York, you need to be at­tached to the sub­way sys­tem to jus­tify high den­sity and high rents.”

While Man­hat­tan’s West Side has three sub­way lines, the East Side has only one, the over­crowded Lex­ing­ton Av­enue line, which crams in 1.5 mil­lion rid­ers on a week­day, 30 per­cent of the sys­tem’s rid­er­ship — more rid­ers than the en­tire rail sys­tems of cities such as Wash­ing­ton, Los An­ge­les and Mi­ami.

To ease the crush, of­fi­cials have looked back in time and con­sid­ered re­build­ing a trol­ley line or en­cour­ag­ing an East River com­muter ferry ser­vice, which a cen­tury ago trans­ported mil­lions a year. But then plans fo­cused anew on the sub­way, which will even­tu­ally ex­tend north to Har­lem and south to the lower tip of Man­hat­tan at Hanover Square.

“The his­tory is ru­mors,” said Maria Sorobay, 77, who has lived on Sec­ond Av­enue for 35 years but is not sure she’ll ever ride its sub­way line. “It’s a good thing I like to walk.”


A child’s poster wel­comed peo­ple to the re­cent Sec­ond Av­enue sub­way ground­break­ing event, held in one of the tun­nels pre­vi­ously built for the line.

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