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Moving Locals Above Ground and Below: Mass Transit History in Our Communities

New York’s mass transit is the circulation system for our metropolis, allowing the city to survive and flourish even with the nation’s highest population density living in some very tight spaces. This is especially true of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, three communities that have a long history of train travel above and below ground. 

Elevated Lines

For a period of about 70 years, from the late 19th century to the mid-20th, four different elevated lines ran above our neighborhoods. They may have been noisy and cast long, dark shadows on our streets, yet lines on First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues did a fine job of connecting residents with points uptown, downtown, and beyond. 

Map of Elevated Rail Lines, c. 1881. Image: Library of Congress.

The Ninth Avenue El was the city’s first truly elevated line, initiated by Charles T. Harvey in 1868, with a charter to run from Battery Place to 30th Street with trains pulled by cable. The line closed in 1871 due to financial and technological problems, but reopened the following year with steam locomotives under the aegis of the newly organized New York Elevated Railway Company. Around the same time, New York City surgeon Rufus Gilbert formed an eponymous rail franchise called the Gilbert Elevated to build new lines and help those in poor communities to move from the crowded downtown to healthier, less developed neighborhoods. His company merged with the New York Elevated to form the Manhattan Elevated Railway Company, which quickly started work on routes on Second, Third, and Sixth Avenues, all opening segments in 1878. (Note: what was known as the Second Avenue El actually ran along First Avenue from Houston Street to East 23rd Street.)

The Sixth Avenue El passing Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village, 1935. Photo by Berenice Abbott

These elevated lines, considered obsolete by many thanks to the development of new subway lines, started closing in sections starting in the late 1930s. In 1955, the Third Avenue El was the last of these els to be demolished in Manhattan, under the promise of a new Second Avenue El that would stretch the length of the borough but has yet to be completed.

Discover more about the four Manhattan els on our website.

Astor Place Station

The Astor Place station, an anchor in the East Village, has been serving local trains on what is now the Lexington Avenue line for more than a century: It was one of the original 28 stations of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) when the system opened in 1904. 

The present-day entrance to the Astor Place station

The design of the Astor Place station follows the goals set forth in the 1891 Report of the Rapid Transit Commissioners that every effort be made “in the way of painting and decoration to give brightness and cheerfulness to the general effect” of the stations. Below ground, walls are lined with elegant ceramic tile tablets of beavers — the namesake family of Astor Place first made its fortune in the fur trade — and the station’s name. At street level, on the northbound side, the entrance featured a graceful kiosk similar to those found in the Budapest subways; starting in the late 1950s, those Manhattan entrances that also welcomed passengers to other IRT stations were torn down to improve drivers’ views of passing pedestrians.

In 1979, the station was landmarked by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but its condition had fallen to the point where it was listed as one of the system’s most deteriorated. Fortunately, Chemical Bank funded a renovation of Astor Place that started in 1984. The project was led by graphic design pioneer Milton Glaser. Porcelain panels replicating and repeating elements from the station’s 1904 scheme certainly brighten the station, perhaps more than Glaser’s original plan to feature large representations of beaver on the walls (rejected by the MTA as looking too much like rats) would have. A cast-iron replica of the original kiosk to the uptown platform was also installed. The station was also included in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Read more about the Astor Place station here.

Bleecker Street Station

Located one station downtown from Astor Place station, the Bleecker Street stop shares many features with its uptown sibling: an original 1904 IRT station with bright station-name tiles (here, large, oval, Beaux-Arts-style tablets), landmarked by the LPC in 1979, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. For decades, however, the station was perhaps best known among commuters for what it didn’t offer: a transfer point with another line.

In 1957, a free transfer passageway was built between this station and the Broadway-Lafayette stop (today serving the B, D, F, and M lines) almost directly below, but that connection was only made for Bleecker Street’s downtown platform; anyone wanting to make a connection to or from the uptown platform for the 6 would have to leave one station, walk outside, and re-enter (for free) the other. This hassle, albeit minor, was rectified in September 2012 when the MTA built an ADA-accessible transfer point between Bleecker Street’s uptown side and Broadway-Lafayette.

Read more about the station here.

West 4th Street Station

The West 4th Street station, like the aforementioned Broadway-Lafayette, is one of the original stations of the Independent Subway, or IND. The station below Sixth Avenue serves as a main connection point between two of the city’s busiest lines: the Eighth Avenue, with trains stopping on the station’s upper level that was completed in 1932, and Sixth Avenue trains that use the lower level finished in 1940. Express tracks from West 4th to 34th Street on Sixth Avenue were installed for the lower level 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

Unlike other numbered stops in Manhattan, this one is officially designated with a direction, West 4th Street rather than merely 4th Street. The name points to a future for the New York subway system that never happened. In the mid-1920s, planners outlined their dreams for what was called 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 the Sixth and Eighth Avenue lines would have also stopped here, so with two 4th Streets on the map, the decision was likely made to name one West 4th and the other South 4th. Construction on the latter actually started in 1929, with space hollowed out beneath the Broadway stop on the present-day G train. 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. 

Discover more history about this station, including the lack of an actual entrance on West 4th Street, here.

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