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Mystery on West 4th Street: Why Is This Subway Station Different from All Other Stations?

A “tile caption” at the IND West 4th Street station, via GeneralPunger/WikiMedia

Riding the A train from Upper Manhattan to Greenwich Village means passing a lot of stations named after the numbered streets directly above them. Starting at 207th Street, you stop at 125th Street in Harlem, 59th Street welcomes you to Midtown, and 14th Street is the station before your final destination. All these stations and many more are just numbers until your destination: West 4th Street. Why West 4th, and not just 4th Street? What makes this station so special?

The answer lies in an empty shell of an unbuilt station deep below Williamsburg, shaped by a city that planned for a much more expansive system than we have today.

West 4th Street is one of the original stations built as part of New York City’s Independent Subway (older subway riders may remember it as the IND), planned in the 1920s to compete with the then-privately owned IRT and BMT subway systems. The station’s upper level opened on September 10, 1932, following the completion of the IND’s Eighth Avenue line from 207th Street to Chambers Street. The Sixth Avenue line— which would replace the aging Sixth Avenue elevated tracks — was built in stages, with the station’s lower level opening to welcome a new line south to East Broadway on January 1, 1936, followed by trains heading uptown on December 15, 1940. The station below Sixth Avenue was designed to be a major connecting point for passengers on the IND’s two main lines through Manhattan, made more essential with the addition of express tracks from West 4th to 34th Street in 1967. In 2005, the West 4th Street and 10 other stations were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The West 4th Street station, via Jason Zhang/WikiMedia

Planners outlined the routes for the IND’s initial lines in the mid-1920s, but their dreams didn’t stop there. In 1929, they proposed what’s known as the “Second System,” an expansion offering 100 miles of new routes stretching into all five boroughs, from a full Second Avenue line to a subway connection from Brooklyn to Staten Island. The major transfer point for potential riders in Brooklyn and Queens was supposed to be under South 4th Street in Williamsburg. Trains from both the Sixth and Eighth Avenue lines would have stopped here, so with two 4th Streets on the map, the decision was likely made to name one West 4th Street and the other South 4th Street. 

Construction on South 4th Street started in 1929, with space hollowed out beneath the Broadway stop on the present-day G train, another IND line. The project was waylaid by the Great Depression, so the vast shell of poured concrete still exists, with no tracks or lighting ever put in place. In 1939, with the unification of the subway’s three systems on the horizon, a more modest Second System was proposed, but like its predecessor was never realized. Today, this station only exists in underground explorations of abandoned subway stations (as in this 2016 video by The Underbelly Project) and in outstanding detailed guides to abandoned transit dreams (for example, cartographer Andrew Lynch’s massive post and accompanying maps charting the Second System’s history and impact from the 1920s to 1970s).

The original Board of Transportation proposal for the IND “Second System,” and a section of a more recent interpretation by Andrew Lynch with West 4th Street at upper left and South 4th Street at lower right.

Meanwhile, our West 4th Street station offers still one more interesting oddity. There are entrances on West 3rd and West 8th Streets, but not on the stop’s namesake street. In fact, such portals did exist on Sixth Avenue at one time according to MTA records, on the southeast and northwest corners of West 4th, as well as the southeast and southwest corners of Washington Place. As a city real-estate tax photo shows, an entrance existed at least through 1940. So why did they close? That mystery will have to be solved another day — but if you know, please reply in the comments.

This 1940 tax-record photo shows a subway entrance at West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue that was removed some decades ago.

4 responses to “Mystery on West 4th Street: Why Is This Subway Station Different from All Other Stations?

  1. Subway expansion may have slowed following the great depression but there was activity up until World War II. It seems that system expansion ceased after the War. How much new trackage has been added since 1942? I understand that there were plans to expand the system in Queens but it seems to have never happened. For example, the #7 line terminated in Flushing. Why there? Wasn’t it supposed to continue to the border with Nassau county?

    1. I have seen it said that new infrastructure today in cities is so costly and usually avoided when possible because there are so many people and buildings now where people want to put things. New schools and other new amenities are so hard and expensive to do, too, for the same reason.

      New York would have been so different and better if they had put in what was needed before all the people arrived in the outer areas.

      What in God’s name will people do when all the original old transportation stuff underground has to be totally replaced? What will they do centuries from now when things will have to be redone in the tunnels for the xth time again? The mind boggles.

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