Second Ave. Subway Lurches Forward
New Yorkers Have Waited Nearly 90 Years for the Oft-Promised East Side Line
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.