What starts in Manhattan stays in Manhattan—at least for phase I of the Second Avenue Subway Line. The grand opening had been long awaited for almost a century; however, in January 2017 the first stations serving the long-awaited Second Avenue line were finally open for travel.
In 1819 engineer Daniel Turner did a preliminary study to ascertain travel needs vs. the current transit infrastructure. Turner released his painstaking study in a paper, “Proposed Comprehensive Rapid Transit System” which was quite ambitious, detailing new routes all over Manhattan and branching into Brooklyn, Queens, and even Staten Island. From this astounding survey, the newly minted Independent Subway System began to plan. Part of Turner’s plan was to get rid of the two Second Avenue above ground lines and streaming a dual track line underground. That meant lots of digging. The post-World War I boom created demand for intra-city train travel.
It was a great idea at the time—people coming home from serving in the war needed jobs and workers were needed to dig tunnels. Revision after revision of the Turner’s designs followed. One thing they could not have planned for was the sudden 1929 stock market crash, which paralyzed the city. Plan for the improved transit system, like just about all other infrastructure projects were stalled. In 1939, despite Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia’s hoped to keep the Second Avenue project in motion it went dormant and was relabeled as a proposed rather than an active plan.
Still, the citizenry and officials were not giving up hope. Real estate was sold with the promise of this new subway line. Through the fifties and sixties, the plans were aired out and then put away. It was always a question, like every other project in New York, of money.
By 1970, the Lexington Avenue stations were overburdened with a crush of riders. Something had to be done. It was finally time to resurrect the plans. Funds were finally allocated, 25 million dollars from the UMTA. The United States Government chipped in as well, and $254 million for the northern section of the line came from federal funds. It was supposed to be finished by 1980. Pedestrians strolling the street did not mind stepping around the covered trenches, as every New Yorker knew what this meant. The Second Avenue line had long been a gleam in their eye and this daily disruption meant progress!
Still, digging tunnels in the 1970’s were much harder than it was years ago when the plan was first proposed. The bottom of the structure was wetlands that had to be sealed with concrete. Then there was the problem of all the skyscrapers and apartment buildings sitting right on top. Underground plumbing and power lines all had to be carefully mapped. Railroad workers had a running joke. “I’ll meet you on the Second Avenue Subway”. For those digging these tunnels, the work which often entailed blasting through solid rock was difficult and dangerous. These men who during the 70s completed the 27 blocks of underground construction led the life of a coal miner. All this for only three sections completed by 1975. , The first part of the new project ran from 99th to 105th Streets and a second from 110th to 120th Streets, both lying underneath Second Avenue in East Harlem. The third ran through Chinatown from Pell to Canal Street. Yes, there were tunnels but no access, signals or other structures that would make it usable as a subway station. There was little air flow from street grates and you could only access it by lifting a manhole. It became an impromptu homeless shelter.
Then there was the issue or ridership. Due to the affordability of the automobile for many New Yorkers people using the system went down by half. Developments in the suburbs were enticing families to move their families up to the “country” only 30 to 60 miles away, easily commutable by the Conrail Harlem and Hudson, and New Haven lines. People living in the city often opted for the above ground bus system, as during the 70s and early 80s, the New York subway stations were seen as unsafe. Parents were urging their children to “take a cab” rather than risk a midnight mugging. Murders, thefts, and people pushed in front of oncoming trains were all over the news. In 1984 New York Vigilante, Bernard Goetz, was hailed as a hero by some and a villain by many others. Fear was the common denominator. Could the city, now in the midst of another recession, take the risk to finish the job? Fares were going up, but public confidence was at an all-time low.
This didn’t mean all projects were put on hold. In 1989 the 63rd Street line was finished all the way to 21st Street–Queensbridge in Long Island City, Queens. The long-awaited connection to the Second Avenue line was still a pipe dream. Announcements were made that there would be no further action for the foreseeable future toward realizing that Second Avenue subway line project.
Just when the world relegated the Second Avenue Subway Line project to the history books, New York still worked on finishing the job. In the 1990s, meeting after meeting ensued. Money to help fund the line went in, and then out of Mayor Mario Cuomo’s budget. Debates continued to plague the project. Issues from land use to environmental impact, plus of course funding were on the table. In 2005, however, a Bond issue, passing by a slim margin, allowed the city to come up with some city funding to match federal grants so the project was a go. This time, things looked more hopeful. Still, it took ten years for phase one to be completed. The city had to take their time to be sure that the line had everything from the all-important working signals to air conditioning. The new part of the system travels over 8 miles from 125th Street in Harlem all the way to Hanover Square. It officially opened on New Years Day, 2017 to the delight of subway commuters.
With all of the trials and tribulations did not scrimp on aesthetics either. As a tribute to the process, one photo included in the mural displays in the station shows a photo of the Second Avenue “EL”, elevated lines, that were taken down in 1942. A huge photo of a transit worker, wearing a five o’clock shadow and a somber expression graces one wall of the new station. A tribute to the sacrifice of all whose labor played a huge part in creating this 21st-century wonder. There are also photos of today’s travelers, one in particular of a gay couple holding hands, which would have been nonexistent for the “grand opening” had the station had been finished in previous time. Phase 2 is in the works, spurned on by the successful completion of this long-awaited Phase 1 portion.
This new Second Avenue Subway system is bright and airy, a whole new marvel, miles in progress from the subway systems of the past. Could Daniel Turner ever have envisioned that part of his plan would take a hundred years to accomplish? It was worth the wait in the minds of many New Yorkers.