For now, it’s just a long, ugly tract of construction cleaving the Upper East Side almost in two, from 69th Street all the way up to 96th. But it represents something much more: the city’s oldest unfulfilled promise to its residents, at long last becoming a reality. After 90 years as a pipe dream, the Second Avenue Subway is finally underway.
The new train will bracket the clogged Lexington Avenue Line from 63rd to 96th Street, though plans call for it to one day run from the Financial District to Spanish Harlem — a long teal vein down Manhattan’s East Side. When done, it’ll provide service to an area of the city long deprived of mass transit options.
Last week I asked why New Yorkers had to wait so long for this train to arrive. For most of its length, the West Side has the 1, the 2, the 3, the A, the C, the B and the D. But the other half of the island has only the three green trains along Lexington Avenue. How’d this come about? I decided to start by excavating the historical record.
If you were alive between 1880 and 1942, you would’ve been able to ride the Second and Third Avenue Elevated Lines between City Hall and 125th Street. The city demolished the old Els after World War II, promising work would soon begin on a new underground train to replace them. It didn’t. To learn the reason for that, I thought the best person to ask would be an expert on New York City planning in the 20th Century.
When I e-mailed historian Robert Caro’s office requesting an interview, I didn’t expect any reply, let alone a consenting one. After all, the man has two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities Medal. But he granted me his phone number, and when I rang and left a voicemail, he called me back. He caught me at a $1.50 pizza place on Fourth Avenue, and I hurried to one of the tables out front to ensure decent reception and to escape the cloying Top 40 pop inside.
“When LaGuardia was in office, they knew that line out of the Bronx was going to be overcrowded,” he told me. In fact, the city outlined the new subway shortly after the First World War. Caro once encountered a civil servant who’d inherited those plans from his father upon going to work for the city in 1929. Though he chuckled while relating that anecdote, Caro was serious — almost somber — when he talked about the man responsible for keeping the Second Avenue train stalled on the drawing boards.
Though never elected to office, Robert Moses was probably the most influential figure in New York City during the 20th Century — or during any century, for that matter. At once the chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, city park commissioner and city construction coordinator, Moses also held numerous titles in the state government during his 44-year reign. A man of tremendous vision and intelligence, Moses was particularly adept at seeing that only his pet projects received funding, usually at the expense of competing ventures. He had an iron faith in automotive transportation and a disdain for mass transit, even though the overwhelming majority of New York City families didn’t own a car. Caro’s 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, details in over 1,100 pages (not counting the endnotes) how Moses was able to manipulate city, state and federal financing to his own ends.
“To me, the Second Avenue Subway is an illustration of how different New York would have been if Robert Moses hadn’t been in power all those years,” Caro remarked. I scribbled his words down fast as I could, despite the bitter wind stiffening my fingers and snatching at the pages of my notebook. “It’s an example of how, ever since 1934, funds were used for projects benefitting the automobile at the expense of public transportation,” he said.” When Moses came to power in 1934, New York City had the best public transportation system in the world. When he left in 1968, it was one of the worst.”
According to Caro, the city attempted to build the Second Avenue line first in 1942 and again in 1954. Both times Moses prevented funds from being allocated to the project, preferring to instead spend the money building expressways through densely-populated neighborhoods. If you’ve ever been on (or near) the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the BQE or The Major Deegan, you can thank Moses.
When I asked him what he thought of the Second Avenue Subway finally going in, Caro laughed.
“It’s about time. But you can’t be overly jubilant when you think about how long ago it should’ve begun.”
Moses was finally dislodged from power when he ran afoul of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and the newborn Metropolitan Transit Authority absorbed the TBTA. Between 1972 and 1974 there were three different groundbreaking ceremonies for a Second Avenue Subway, but by then New York City was scrambling to avoid bankruptcy and the money for the new line had evaporated.
Still, the city managed to balance its budget in 1975, and the economy blossomed several times in the years that followed. Yet the Second Avenue Subway never came. Caro couldn’t tell me why the city didn’t build the train during the fat decades of the ’80s and ’90s, so I thanked him for his time and went back to eating pizza. To get the answers I wanted, I had to call the MTA.
After a couple transfers, I got connected to spokesman Aaron Donovan. I explained myself and told him what I needed to know.
“All right, I can find that out for you. Why don’t I give you a call before the end of the week?” he said in his well-oiled PR-man voice.
At 3:30 on Friday, when all my other reporting was done, I ended up having to call him.
“Do you have that information I asked you about the other day?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” was his only response.
Donovan told me that by the time the city economy got back on track, the entire train system had atrophied so badly the agency had to sink all its resources into making repairs.
“The MTA during the 1980s and 1990s was focused on restoring the existing subway system.” He named vandalism and outdated equipment as the reasons for the improvements. “We spent $64 billion upgrading the subway, the buses, parts of the Long Island Railroad.”
It wasn’t till 2007 that the stars and the funds finally aligned for the MTA to start handing out contracts for the Second Avenue Subway. Donovan says the MTA expects the train to be operational in December 2016, though he admitted that the Federal Transit Administration — the government agency responsible for funding public transportation nationwide — places the date later, in 2018. In either case, it’ll be almost 100 years after the subway was first proposed.
Today, the train is moving full steam ahead. Screened in by chain-link fences are dozens upon dozens of generators, cables, cranes, heavy trucks, construction trailers, earthmovers, planks, pipes, concrete culverts, piles of dirt and smashed concrete. For long stretches the sidewalk’s edge has been sheared away to accommodate construction; other areas have barriers and arrow signs to direct pedestrians. You can glimpse the open shafts at 83rd and 92nd Streets. At 91st Street, thick tubes channel liquid nitrogen into the ground, oozing ice from their fittings. Above ground, the construction skips over the east-west streets and, in places, tapers off for a block or two, but underfoot there is already one tunnel running the whole length of the project.
The venture has also brought an invading army of tall, bulky, r-dropping construction workers to the Upper East Side, who stick out a bit from the native population of gray-haired ladies in furs, gel-slick yuppies, kept women wearing exercise pants and miniature dogs. Some are hewing out the caverns for the new stations; others are pouring concrete and rearranging the tangle of underground electrical conduits and water mains; still others are laying temporary decking — slabs of cement that allow feet and tires to flow overhead.
Getting one of these guys to talk to me wore holes in my Converses. Five bright, frosty mornings in a row I paced the length of the construction, trying to buttonhole workers on their breaks at nine and noon. With their hardhats decaled with American flags and union stickers, their Carhartt jackets, their heavy boots and their Day-Glo vests with the company names on the back, I found them to be a laconic and anonymous bunch — not to mention imposing: almost every one of them completely dwarfed all five feet ten inches and 200 pounds of me. The first several I approached eyed me suspiciously and told me to find one of the bosses to talk to. Others directed me to their companies’ temporary offices. Another one I went up to said he’d be delivering Chinese food the next day if he spoke to me. A few more just said “no” and walked on.
In the first couple days, the best I got out of anyone was a guy who told me in between cigarette drags that he was “building the subway.” I spent the rest of the day leaving voicemails with buildings along the line I’d read about in the New York Times, and then came home with an anxious heart and aching feet. All I had for the article was my interview with Caro and a couple Google searches worth of history. What would the piece be without words from the people actually building this thing, turning the designs into concrete and iron?
Finally, one morning a little after nine o’clock, on 73rd Street, I caught a worker with a beard and a faintly Southern accent who said he’d talk to me if I came back at lunch. Of course, when noon came, the man was nowhere in sight. I went up and down the avenue hoping to run into him again. I didn’t find him, but I did find somebody else.
He had a broad, friendly face and was only about one and a half times my size, so I thought I’d try. It seemed like he’d been waiting for somebody to come up to him. A native of Staten Island — or, as he put it, “Staten Italy” — he wouldn’t give his name, and explained why: the MTA has a gag order on everybody involved in the project. When I talked to Donovan later, he called this “normal procedure for the MTA in general.”
“It’s bullshit. If somebody from the neighborhood comes up to me, asks what’s going on here, why’re you doing this, I’m going to tell them,” said the worker. “The MTA owes it to them, instead of leaving them in the dark, which they’ve done a lot.” But despite some of the complaints he’s heard from locals, he’s enthusiastic about the job.
“I don’t think people understand this is one of the biggest civil engineering feats going on in the world right now.” And seeing as he’s part of a crew blasting what is essentially a mine shaft underneath the largest city in the United States, I can understand why he thinks so. Several other workers passed by, giving us odd glances, but he just said “hi” to them and went on talking.
Born in ’64, he said he wasn’t aware of the attempts to build the line back in the 1970s. But he was able to assure me there’s no chance of the city’s fiscal issues derailing the train again. “Back in the ’70s it was awful, gas prices, the budget crisis. The money for this project has already been allocated. There’s no way they could stop it at this point. We’re too far into it.”
I shook his hand and thanked him. Not only had he stocked my notebook with quotes, he’d refreshed my perspective and given me new energy to pursue interviews. I developed a system for who I approached. Go after the ones on their own, not groups or pairs. Men are more likely to talk than women. Guys wearing sunglasses tend to be withdrawn. Read their faces for signs of friendliness. Also, try the comparatively smaller ones.
, I managed to snag an interview with another cooperative worker; this one a little less outgoing, but still helpful. Coming out of Jersey, he was in his third year on the project, having started Uptown and changed to a different contractor.
“It’s like a city down there and you wouldn’t ever know it.” When I asked him what he meant, he laughed. “It’s, it’s…cavernous.”
He, too, has been talking to community members about the job.
“Everybody wants to know what we’re doing, how long we’re going to be here. Some people like it, some people are aggravated. We try to accommodate the people.”
And although the new line promises to act as a pressure valve on the 4, 5 and 6, and will serve the people stranded on the island’s eastern edge, many people are aggravated. I spoke to a few of them.
Sherry Marks’ East 74th Street apartment sits just a few blocks up from my two interviewees’ job site. She says that dust and grime from the project seeps in through her windows. And above the constant rattling of jackhammers and the heaving of machinery, “the traffic is always backed up with honking and gridlock. It’s so hard to even cross the street.” Having the blacktop stripped off the avenue makes it even worse. And bookending the block to the south of her building are a pair of signs describing a whistle system to warn off impending blasts. But Marks says she never hears the whistles till after the dynamite goes off. “It’s terrifying.”
A Sheepshead Bay native who’s lived on the Upper East Side for nearly 15 years, Marks says she never expected the line to actually go in on her street. “You heard about it, but you never thought it would actually come about. In this city, so many of these things are just dropped.”
One of Marks’ neighbors calls Second Avenue — long a glamorous and hotly sought-after stretch of real estate lined with trendy, upscale boutiques and eateries — “a dead zone.”
“The shops are going out of business, the streets are filthy,” she complains. “Conceptually, I think it’s a fantastic idea. But I wonder if any thought was given to the community. We’re desperately trying to hold on to what Second Avenue used to be.”
“We meet with the community regularly,” Donovan told me. “One of the big concerns that came up was with the businesses on Second Avenue, who have the construction right at their doorsteps. We worked to reformulate street signage, reduce clutter, improve pedestrian walkways. We make every effort to reduce noise and dust.”
But despite the signs on the fences and scaffolding, and a big raised banner at 93rd Street urging passersby to “Shop 2nd Ave,” along every stretch of construction is a rash of stores and restaurants — many slick, glossy, new — with ads in the windows for available retail space.
I wanted to get the point of view of a tenants’ organization from a building along the project, especially one that’d sparred with the MTA in court. Sherry Marks recommended one she’d heard about over on 85th. I headed over there after our interview and talked to the doorman.
“The Second Avenue Subway sucks,” he told me. “It’s a good idea, but it’s too much at one time. And it’s made the parking around here really bad.”
He gave me the number for the management company, and when I called them they said they’d talk to the head of the condo board and see if he was interested. And that was the last I heard of any of them. I made contact with the president of a tenants’ association in the 60s, but he was too overwhelmed in his work as an attorney to make time to talk. So I decided to just start Googling addresses near Second Avenue to see if a phone number came up. The first address I put in yielded something much better: a senior center right at the heart of the project. Who better, I thought, to give perspective on the train than the people who’ve lived here the longest?
I walked into the lobby, spoke with the social worker, and she made calls around the building to see who was open to an interview. She got a Mr. George Harris on the line, and though he seemed a bit leery at first of meeting with me, he eventually came downstairs and brought me to his room.
“Two months I saw Second Avenue the way it’s supposed to be,” he said as we sat down at the table in his apartment. He moved to this place from the South Bronx shortly before work on the train began.
“At that time, I said, ‘good, we’re getting a new train, I won’t have to walk up to Lexington Avenue. I wasn’t thinking how long it was going to be.”
You can tell right away that Harris is alert and energetic for a man late in his 60s. A bicycle leans against one wall of his apartment: it’s his ticket to travel around the neighborhood without public transportation. He also seemed sharply aware of what’s happening in the area: he counted six nearby stores that have gone out of business, and could say what buildings in the area briefly lost utilities thanks to the construction and which ones had to be evacuated after digging undermined their foundations. Harris said that two years ago, after a news team came to investigate complaints about the subway construction, he was among a few locals granted the chance to go down into the new shaft.
“There were no rails in yet. It was just a big, round tunnel,” he said, drawing an arc in the air.
Harris recalls not caring about the ’70s attempt to build the line, since “it didn’t affect me.” He cares now, though. His building sits right on Second Avenue; a space on its first floor has become a temporary office for one of the construction companies. He bemoans the loss of shopping options and the construction’s aesthetic effects.
“The neighborhood’s nice. It’s just that subway.”
Still, he’s optimistic about the train in the long term.
“It’s a good idea; it’s needed,” he said emphatically. “I’ll be glad when it’s finished.”
Downstairs, the social worker suggested another center a few blocks away. I talked to the social worker at that place, and she invited me to speak at the building’s weekly meeting.
I arrived early, and waited as the seniors gradually accumulated in a semi-circle around me. When about 15 or so residents had arrived, the social worker asked if they’d prefer to go through their regular program first, or hear from “the writer.” The answer was unanimous: “The writer!” She introduced me, and explained that I worked for an online magazine.
“Not the kind you hold in your hand, the kind on the computer.” That drew a few boos. She handed me a mic, and I thanked them for their time and explained that I was writing an article about the Second Avenue Subway’s present and past. In many ways it felt like the culmination of my reporting process: at that moment, sitting in that chair, I felt sure I’d be able to finish the story. I asked the seniors for their thoughts.
I found that several of them had lived and worked on the East Side for years and could remember the original Els, and that they had similar gripes to the ones I’d heard before.
“It has polluted the air, we’re inundated with mice. They dig up, they cover up, they leave, then two weeks later they come back again,” one outspoken woman told me.
All of them lamented the loss of local businesses and were concerned about the noise and uncleanliness.
“I know this is progress, progress has come, but don’t be too loud or too dirty,” a man said.
Many of them are on walkers or in wheelchairs and can’t grapple with the subway stairs, making them dependent on the buses for transportation. For reasons they believe are linked to the construction, the M15 no longer stops at 86th Street, where many of them do their shopping. They now have to travel the extra blocks themselves, over damaged pavement. When I talked to Donovan later on, he couldn’t say why the 86th Street stop had been eliminated.
Still, most of them think the new train will be a positive addition to the neighborhood.
“I feel this is all the sign of progress. When we have the Second Avenue Subway it will be convenient for people living on First Avenue and East End Avenue. Right now it may look bad, but it will help in the long run.”
Another woman echoed this sentiment.
“I think it will be a big improvement. The Lexington Avenue subway is very overcrowded. I don’t think I’ll be able to see it, but it’ll be good for other people.”
I left the meeting excited, almost ecstatic. I’d learned the answer to my question — Why wasn’t the Second Avenue Subway built? Well, for a number of reasons, but I had much more than that. The seniors had given me the material I’d need to create a piece encompassing so much of New York City; an article woven out of everyone’s stories. The common thread connecting it all is a sleek new train first imagined nearly a century ago. Though never built, the Second Avenue Subway has already run through the lives of millions of New Yorkers, and undoubtedly it will continue on into the lives of millions more.