a piece of new york city subway history reveals itself in greenwich village


Just a few blocks from the flyingnorthblog international headquarters in New York City, one can find the West 4th Street subway station, in the heart of Greenwich Village. This is one of the major subway hubs in the city as at any given moment one can catch no less than seven subway lines there – the A, B, C, D, E, F and M.

For decades one portion of the entrance on the west side of Sixth Avenue [also known as the Avenue of the Americas] was covered due to a newsstand that had been built there. That is, until this week. As I walked by, I thought I had traveled through a wormhole to a time when the New York City subway system was not all one unit – a time when in fact each subway line was an independent entity. There before me was the sign that read “8th Avenue Independent Subway System.”

New York City’s first official subway system opened in Manhattan on October 27, 1904. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company [IRT] operated the 9.1-mile long subway line that consisted of 28 stations from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway.

IRT service expanded to the Bronx in 1905, to Brooklyn in 1908, and to Queens in 1915. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company [BRT] began subway service between Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1915. The Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation [BMT] took over the BRT a few years later.

In 1932, the city’s Board of Transportation completed construction of the Eighth Avenue line and created the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad [IND], the first city-run subway service. This was the first line of what was also called the Independent Subway System [IND], and the Eighth Avenue Subway name was also applied by New Yorkers to the entire IND system. It is this time period that was revealed behind the now-demolished newsstand.

When the city purchased the BMT and IRT in 1940, it became the sole owner and operator of all New York City subway and elevated lines. Yet, vestiges of the original independent nature of the subway system still exist. The primary difference among the three types of stations is platform lengths. IRT stations have platforms that are 525 feet long; BMT platforms are 615 feet long, and IND platforms are the longest some measuring 660 feet.

In 1953, the New York State Legislature created the New York City Transit Authority [now MTA New York City Transit] as a separate public corporation to manage and operate all city-owned bus, trolley, and subway routes.

From the original 28 stations built in Manhattan and opened in 1904, the subway system has grown to 468 stations. The system has an annual ridership of 1.6 billion [2010 figures], fourth in the world after Tokyo, Moscow and Seoul. The New York City subway operates 24 hours a day, and it is estimated that in 2010 the subway car fleet traveled 347.1 million miles – at its minimum figure almost the distance from the Earth to Jupiter. Unlike many other cities there are no zones, and if one takes the A train from end to end, the fare of $2.25 can in fact buy you a ride of more than 31 miles – from 207th Street in Manhattan to Far Rockaway in Queens.

On top of all that, for $2.25 you can have the pleasure of taking the subway with the mayor, street performers, pan handlers, drag queens and people of every imaginable ethnic origin – all at the same time. It is quite an amazing and efficient experiment in mass transit – one that has just revealed a little piece of its forgotten past.