The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System

Image result for the routes not takenEvery time I passed the building on 2nd Avenue and 33rd street, I asked myself why the owners of the building would want to lose money. It has a plaza out in front, open to the public, and usually empty. I never could figure out why there were so many of these spaces along 2nd Avenue (always on the East side of the street) until I read this book. Turns out they were meant for subway entrances, and the subway was never even built!

Starting in the 1960’s the city zoned 2nd Avenue to require open spaces at specific intervals, so that if the 2nd Avenue subway were ever built, there would be spaces for the entry. Mayor Lindsay and Governor Rockefeller both wanted it (unlike Robert Moses, they preferred taking the train), but it would be 40 years before we’d see any results. It’s not that the idea was unpopular; there had been plans for another subway line ever since the El was torn down. The problem was that the city was bankrupt, and once the financial crisis ended, the fractured city government couldn’t agree on anything. The issue of the “fractured municipality” is also discussed in The Metropolitan Revolution, using Youngstown, Ohio, as an example. But it happens everywhere; in New York City, Detroit, Chicago; even in Congress in 2013!

Joseph Raskin has opened a big can of worms with this book. He brings to light the massive number of subway lines that were planned throughout the area but stayed just that; plans and nothing more. Never mind the 2nd Avenue subway line, that’s been in the works for years. I’m taking about a subway line that would’ve run all the way to the East Bronx. If you’ve ever been there (which is unlikely unless you live there) you’ll know you can’t get there without a car. There was even a plan to build a subway line straight across the city to the Hudson River.

Raskin’s research for this book places most of the blame on Mayors and power brokers who didn’t care for the subways. As the city expanded outward, there was a push to build more roadways for the cars and less emphasis on public transport. And who could exemplify the “subways don’t count” attitude like the great Robert Moses, who wrecked the Bronx with his Cross Bronx Expressway? Perhaps the blame should fall on the people as well; more and more New Yorkers drank the cool aid about the “house and car” dream after WWII. There was, however, a movement to build houses on the route of the unplanned subways. Housing was built on Burke Avenue, just because the builders anticipated a subway line going that way.

This book should be required reading for a course on NYC history (if such a course exists) because public transit is a major part of life in this city. It ranks up there with Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. I applaud Raskin’s effort in writing this book. His massive research has paid off.