New Yorkers view their subway system with reproachful pride. We fixate on its virtues and faults, as though the subway lines were our children. We want so much for them, and yet they so often disappoint. When their latest report cards arrived, just after Christmas, the top grades went to the 1 line, the 7, and the L. The goats were the 5 and the A. The A train at least has an anthem, and the vestigial grandeur of connecting old Harlem to Bed-Stuy. The 5, ode-less, has passengers massed five deep on the platform, with herders in fluorescent vests blowing whistles and barking out commands (“Let the people off the train first!”) and riders adding their own gloss (“If you don’t fit, get out the fucking train!”). Along with the 4, it provides express service up and down Lexington Avenue. It also provides the routine rush-hour humiliation of getting stalled between stations as the 6, the Lexington Avenue local, rattles past on a parallel track. The Lex line carries more riders per day—1.3 million—than any other train in the United States. You tend not to look around much on a crowded car, but when you do you will typically see, on faces pointing every which way and often rearing back to avoid backpacks or arms thrusting up toward grab handles, a portraitist’s range of had-it-up-to-here.
The subway-line rankings, based on such categories as cleanliness, crowding, and frequency of service, come from the Straphangers Campaign, a project underwritten by the New York Public Interest Research Group. Straphangers also issues year-end top-ten worst and best lists. By its lights, the tenth worst public-transportation event in 2016 was the release, by a performance artist aboard the D train, of a box of live crickets, which caused another passenger to pull the emergency brake, stranding the train for half an hour on the Manhattan Bridge. Considerably worse were spikes in both hate crimes and air-conditioning failures, record system-wide overcrowding, the looming shutdown of the indispensable L train, and—salt in the wound—a fare hike, effective next month. The ten-best list was perhaps harder to pull together, there being a shallower pool. Hats off to more Wi-Fi service and countdown clocks, and a fleet of newly designed cars. Top of the list, however, was momentous, and a bit of a no-brainer: the début of the Second Avenue subway, which opened to great fanfare at noon on New Year’s Day—ninety-seven years after it was first conceived.
The line’s notorious state of non-fruition had made it a perennial punch line, a home-town Godot, shorthand for decades of public-works failure. And so its completion—on time and on budget, by some metrics; anything but, by others—was a cause for celebration, self-congratulation, and heavy Instagramification. It is the biggest addition to the New York City subway system in several generations. Certain subsets—Upper East Siders, transit geeks, the Times—treated its arrival like the moon landing.
Still, this Second Avenue subway is just a stunted version of the one that was originally envisaged. It consists of only three new stations and two miles of new track, running from a new platform deep in a preëxisting station under Lexington Avenue at Sixty-third Street, east to Second Avenue, and then north to new stops at Seventy-second, Eighty-sixth, and Ninety-sixth. This is the terminus of Phase I. The projection is that the Second Avenue line will convey two hundred thousand passengers a day, most of them fugitives from the 4/5/6. Phase II, which would extend the line another mile and a half north, to 125th Street, is supposed to begin in two years, but only a fraction has been funded, and there’s no time frame for laying track. As for Phases III and IV, which would extend the line downtown, to lower Manhattan, those are probably decades away. (The Trump Administration, as it happens, has included all this on its infrastructure wish list.) For now, though, this Second Avenue subway is really just an extension of an existing line—the Broadway express known as the Q. It’s an appendix, or, as some have said, a stub-way. Call it the Q tip.
And yet reasonable people everywhere—depending on your definitions of reasonable and everywhere—seem to agree that what we need now, most of all, from our government at every level is heavy investment in new infrastructure. Here, for our delectation, was an unlikely gleaming specimen, a municipal unicorn. Run and see.
That first morning of 2017, a crowd of citizens gathered at the station entrance on the southwest corner of Ninety-sixth Street and Second Avenue. There’d been a few open houses in the stations the previous week and an invitation-only train party the night before, at which political dignitaries and some of the workers who’d got the thing done drank New York State sparkling wine and took an inaugural ride. But this was the line’s first go as public transit. Just before noon, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who in recent months had made its completion an obsession and a point of pride, spoke briefly, and then the barricades came down, a cheer went up, and the crowd, phones aloft, streamed onto an escalator and a stairway. Downstairs, transit workers waved them through the turnstiles (a free ride, no less) and down one more flight to an immaculate platform and a waiting train, which was not itself new but which was covered, inside and out, with art work and advertising celebrating the new line. In the space formerly reserved for Dr. Zizmor and Invisalign, there was testimony from forgiving Second Avenue residents and business owners, who had been so notoriously inconvenienced during the new line’s near-decade of construction. (“We’ve been anxiously awaiting this to open,” Zen Master Samu Sunim declared. “It feels great.”) The mood aboard was giddy, too. Rounds of cheers greeted the routine recorded announcement (“Stand clear of the closing doors, please”), the first hint of movement (Euro-smooth, not lurching), and, finally, the remarks over the public-address system from Governor Cuomo, who was up front in the engineer’s booth (“Rest assured, I am not driving the train”).
Another crowd was waiting to board at Eighty-sixth Street, and then at Seventy-second Street. Elation gave way to humdrum—just another subway ride, after all. Nonetheless, many passengers got off at Sixty-third Street to have a look around the new platform and then ride the next Q back uptown. Those boarding a car in the middle of the train encountered a transient passed out across the seats, a coat over his head and, on the floor next to him, a mess of chicken and rice spilling from a partially crushed Styrofoam clamshell. Ten minutes in, and the city had asserted itself. The passengers, maintaining what they deemed a safe distance, made buoyantly cynical remarks—“Wow! Already?”—and snapped a few photos on their phones. A rider who’d got on at Coney Island said to them, “That’s not his food. He got on in midtown. Food’s been here since Brooklyn.”
For the next several hours, people rode up and down, stopping in at the stations, wandering at a snow-day pace, often reëncountering each other on intersecting orbits. Smiles, hugs, tears, a reawakened attunement to the marvels of the city and its skunkworks—not the usual nostalgic pride, the pining for Fishbowl buses and Checker cabs, but a kind of municipal mindfulness. It was the happiest New Yorkers had looked in months.
What was there to see? The stations, in caverns deep below the surface, are vast and airy, with spacious mezzanines and high ceilings. Most of the city’s subway stations are ancient snug burrows forested with steel columns, but these new ones, benefitting from advances in construction techniques and materials, have unbroken sight lines and tracts of open space, which mitigate whatever claustrophobia one might feel, deep in the belly of the bedrock. One could linger over the clean, rat-free track bed or a drain grate reminiscent of a coat of arms. Wi-Fi, climate control, an uncharacteristic hush. Each station has a permanent installation of mosaics or ceramic tile work by a prominent artist. The art, no way around it, is beautiful, accessible, and indigenous, especially the giant Chuck Close mosaics of New York artists like Lou Reed, Cindy Sherman, and Philip Glass (and himself) and the life-size Vik Muniz mosaics of regular New Yorkers (and himself). The art has been a hit among locals, tourists, critics, and stoned teens.
Another well-represented constituency, not much interested in the art, were the train buffs. Metrophiles clustered by the openings to the tunnels and filmed the trains coming in. As passengers, they tended to congregate in the front car. “I have been to every station in the system,” Arnie Zambrano, a thirty-five-year-old tour guide from Jackson Heights, said. “I made it my mission in high school.” He had a photographic memory, he said, and, to prove it, recited all the stops on the Q line. He soon found himself in an impromptu train-fact duel with a computer technician named Danny Schwartz.
“The D train is the only line that passes the same-named station twice: Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn,” Zambrano said.
“No, currently, it’s the B train.”
“Correction. Touché. Got me on that one.”
“And the R train has a Thirty-sixth Street in Queens and one in Brooklyn.”
Zambrano pointed out the train window and said, “Notice the bell mouth.” This is the term for a fork in the track, with the alternative branch a dead end. It was an intimation of Phase III, there for whatever distant day when the line would continue south along Second Avenue rather than turning west. “It took us ten years to build three stations,” he said. “Our forefathers would be ashamed.” Still, he found a lot to like: the deep cut, the quiet ride, the station design, which reminded him of the E, though, truth be told, he was a little put off by the new typeface, a kind of squished-together, overlapping version of the old Helvetica. Change is hard.
There were railfan families. Larry Victorson (“I’m retired, I ride trains”) and Elizabeth Elizondo (“You should see his train set”), who live at Ninety-sixth and Second, had got up before dawn and, with an adult son, Eric, of Seventy-ninth and First, gone out to Brooklyn, to start their ride at Coney Island. “Bell mouth,” Eric said as the fork in the tracks went by again. The Neumans, of Washington Heights, had come down to ride back and forth. Spencer, thirteen, standing by the door, filmed departures and arrivals and watched the tunnel lights flash by. He and his younger brother have subway duvet covers, and Spencer has held a birthday party at the Transit Museum. Their father, who works for the New York Power Authority—“We provide the subway’s power”—said that, when Spencer first learned to walk, he and his wife decided to let him roam, see where his legs would take him. Hallway, elevator, lobby, street: Spencer led them to the 190th Street station so that he could watch the A train come and go. His favorite line is the Times Square Shuttle, because it begins with “S.”
The train stopped in the tunnel. There came a familiar, inexplicably cheerful recorded announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.”
This subterranean love-in is what Governor Cuomo hoped for when, beginning late in 2015, he became increasingly involved in pushing the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the state entity behind the project, to make its deadline of January 1, 2017. When he heard “New Year’s Day,” he said recently, “it caught my ear.” It had been on New Year’s Day of 2015 that he was sworn in for his second term—the same day that his father, Mario, the former governor, died. The M.T.A. wanted to move the deadline. “They were talking years. I said, ‘You can’t move a deadline!’ ‘No, no, you can move a deadline’ was their argument. ‘You just have to do it early enough.’ ” In another meeting, Michael Horodniceanu, who, as the president of M.T.A. Capital Construction, was overseeing the project with the M.T.A.’s chairman, Tom Prendergast, estimated that their chance of making the deadline was eighty per cent. That wasn’t good enough for the Governor, who is known less for speaking softly than for carrying a big stick. He entrusted two deputies, Rick Cotton and Larry Schwartz, with the task of meeting the deadline.
“When was the last time New York did something big and said, ‘Geez, that’s us, boy. That’s New York at its best,’ ” Cuomo said. “I thought it would be uplifting to the body politic if you could actually make something great happen. I didn’t want another admission of failure. I didn’t want the jokes to be true. ‘I’ll pay you back when they finish the Second Avenue subway.’ ”
The New York City subway opened in 1904. City-built but leased to private enterprise, the system grew fast, and then more or less stopped growing before the Second World War began, when the city took control. Maintenance fell off, too, so that by the time the state took over, in the sixties, the upkeep backlog strained the M.T.A.’s finances and capabilities and made any visions of new stations or lines unrealistic. We all know about the seventies: the system went to pieces, ridership and revenue plunged, and the Warriors came out to play. In the nineties, boom times, better governance and policing, new equipment, and the introduction of the MetroCard reversed the trend. In the past quarter century, ridership has almost doubled—it’s nosing up toward two billion a year now—while capacity has hardly increased. Lucius Riccio, a former transportation commissioner, told me that New York will need a new subway line every ten years for the next hundred years just to keep up. The subway system is a little like Social Security: ingenious, necessary, expensive, historically robust, yet, by virtue of demographics, shadowed by future collapse.
Dark prophecies, and talk of a Second Avenue panacea, go back a century. In 1920, a city engineer named Daniel L. Turner proposed a citywide rail expansion, which came to include a six-track subway under Second Avenue from the Bronx to lower Manhattan. Since 1880, there had been an elevated railway on the avenue, which brought soot, noise, and gloom to the neighborhood—and therefore diminished the value of its real estate. Turner wrote, “It should be borne in mind that it is not contemplated that the comprehensive transit scheme in its entirety should be undertaken at once but that it should be proceeded with gradually and continuously.” Gradually, indeed: a modified version of the plan, approved in 1929, was quickly undone by the Depression, and then by the war. Still, the city went ahead and demolished the Second Avenue El, in 1942, and the Third Avenue El, in 1956, leaving the East Side, amid a boom in new apartment buildings, with nothing but the Lexington subway line, which, even in 1920, was described by Turner as “heavily overcrowded.” “In a relatively short time the existing subway will be wholly unable to meet the transit requirements of the East Side of Manhattan,” he wrote.
The yoke wasn’t really taken up again until the sixties. In 1965, as the era of Robert Moses and his car-centric building schemes wound down, Governor Nelson Rockefeller created the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority. In 1968, the M.C.T.A. took over the N.Y.C. Transit Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (Robert Moses’s base of operations) and dropped the C. The M.T.A., an arm of the state, was now in charge of the subways. It was able to raise money for transit as a result of the federal government’s Mass Transit Act of 1964. Mayor John Lindsay supported the so-called Program for Action, or the Grand Design, an ambitious regional rail plan, conceived by the M.T.A., which imagined an array of new subway lines, including forty miles of new track in Queens and the revival of the Second Avenue idea. This iteration would run from the Bronx to the Battery, and be ready to roll by 1982. Phase I would cost two hundred and twenty million dollars. Construction commenced on three tunnel segments in 1972 but was soon halted, because of the fiscal crisis. Ed Koch, who became mayor in 1978, suggested that the abandoned tunnels be used to grow mushrooms.
The Second Avenue subway persisted, like a fungus. Governor George Pataki took it up in the nineties, pushing for the so-called East Side Access project. (East Side Access, our Big Dig, is made up of a new East River tunnel and a new subterminal at Grand Central to allow the Long Island Rail Road, which terminates at Penn Station, access to the East Side. Its final cost is now estimated at eleven billion dollars, nearly three times the original estimate, and it is still five years from completion.) Transportation planners knew that an L.I.R.R. station would add even more riders to the Lexington line. At the beginning of the last decade, consensus emerged among planners that the Second Avenue subway was the most practicable solution to the problem, even if every mention of it provoked what one planner called a “Pavlovian chuckle.”
Breaking ground in April, 2007, the M.T.A. fell down a rabbit hole of engineering challenges, operational folly, and NIMBY (or really IMBY) grievance. The decision was made to go deep: dynamite and bore the Seventy-second and Eighty-sixth Street station caverns (“shoot and blast”) rather than dig a trench from above (“cut and cover”), in order to avoid the jungle of utilities immediately belowground and also to spare the people living along the route—more than a hundred thousand per square mile—as much as possible from the damage, dirt, and noise. This was hard to do. Crews had to blast the bedrock and remove all the spoils while a busy, dense neighborhood aboveground tried to pretend it wasn’t under siege. Surveys of two hundred and twenty-five buildings identified foundations that needed bolstering, leaning tenements that had to be propped up, and detaching façades that had to be reinforced, all on the taxpayer dime. The M.T.A. built half-block-long muck houses to contain the debris and the fumes from the dynamite blasts, and the spoils as they were loaded onto supertrucks and borne away from Manhattan. Eventually, the neighborhood revolted over the explosions, which were going as late as 10:30 p.m. (“That was stupid and inappropriate on our part,” Horodniceanu said), and so the M.T.A. decreed that the daily blasts end between 7 and 8 p.m.—the kind of modification thereafter cited to account for its trouble meeting the deadline.
Horodniceanu, a courtly civil engineer who was born in Romania and later fought with the Israeli Army in the Six-Day War, took up the cause of community relations. He became something of a Second Avenue subway celebrity, known to all as Michael H., a bow tie among the hardhats and the lapel pins. The four-hundred-and-eighty-five-ton tunnel-boring machine was named after his granddaughter, Adi. He led seventy-three Saturday tours of the tunnels, went door to door to assuage local shopkeepers, and cooked for the construction workers at a neighborhood restaurant, though there wasn’t much he could do about a plague of flies—a result, he theorized, of the excavation of all the old hops the neighborhood’s long-gone breweries had dumped into the ground.
The Ninety-sixth Street station, situated in shallower ground, was cut and cover. The ground in a tunnel section just south of it was too soft for the boring machine, which was engineered for schist, so to solidify the ground the engineers had to freeze it, which they did by drilling holes and inserting a web of more than a hundred refrigeration tubes, averaging around seventy feet long. This took four or five months. Each lateral twenty-foot segment of excavation required the insertion of slurry walls and a system of horizontal struts to support them so that the surrounding earth, and therefore the sidewalks and buildings, wouldn’t collapse into the excavated pits. All the utilities—asbestos-shrouded steam pipes, old cast-iron water mains, electricity cables, natural-gas lines, and the Empire City ducts containing cable and telephone wires—had to be diverted as well. At one point, a diver had to descend into a slurry wall—a frogman Santa wielding an underwater welding torch fifty feet down a chimney full of muck—to free up some steel that had got caught.
“We don’t every day build a new line,” Horodniceanu said.
Such contortions came at a steep price. Phase I cost $4.5 billion, by the state’s accounting. Per mile, it’s the most expensive rail project ever built, and several times the cost of new subway lines in London and Paris. Phase II, though shorter in distance and with the advantage of some tunnel segments left over from the false start in the seventies, has been projected to cost even more: six billion dollars. In an era of straitened budgets, obligations of this magnitude can make ambitious infrastructure hard to justify, no matter the system’s requirements. There are many culprits: population density, the nature of the schist, the desire to appease the neighbors, the size of the stations, which the M.T.A. attributes to ever more stringent fire and safety regulations. (The stations, not the tunnels and the tracks, accounted for the greatest share of the cost.) You could write a treatise on the convoluted inanities and inefficiencies of state-run construction projects. In this one, for example, each station had a different contractor, who in turn, and often obliviously, tapped the same subcontractors and suppliers, leading to shortages, logistical headaches, and, yes, delays. One imagines cheaper options. Benjamin Kabak, the author of the blog Second Ave. Sagas and a critic of the project’s high cost, recently tweeted a photo of a cop talking to El Chapo, a celebrated tunneller, after he was extradited to New York: “So we just opened this new subway,” the caption read. “It took 10 years to build 2 miles.”
Cuomo distances himself from the outlay, if not the goods. “I wasn’t there when they designed it,” he said. “Are we building extravagant facilities? Are we wasting money? These are legitimate questions. But I don’t think it applies here. The Second Avenue subway has a very austere construction. Only thing you can point to as extravagant is the public art. And I would argue that this isn’t extravagant.” (Altogether, the installations at the four stations cost $4.5 million, a tenth of one per cent of the budget, according to the M.T.A.)
His own biggest extravagance, perhaps, was to insist on the deadline, since the work-acceleration agreements with the contractors cost the M.T.A. sixty-six million dollars (though this might have saved them money in the long run). The hands-on approach can have other, hidden costs. Cuomo’s objection, during a final walk-through last year, to some design elements in a new concourse at Penn Station prompted twenty-five million dollars in expenditures and a delay of more than half a year. (The Governor’s office said that the modifications were necessary and that the objections were not solely Cuomo’s.)
The Second Avenue subway was the brainchild and the ward of many who preceded Cuomo; he adopted it late and then smothered it with so much attention that you’d have thought the baby was his. By this past fall, Cuomo was holding weekly meetings with contractors and subs. “It was the L.B.J. approach,” his adviser Rick Cotton said. “Love and fear.” The Governor began showing up at the stations unannounced, several days a week, at off hours, and getting on the phone with contractors and suppliers to convey what you might call urgency.
Cuomo said, “We told them, if you fail on this project, that’s going to be taken into consideration on all the other state projects you bid on.”
Tom Prendergast, the M.T.A.’s outgoing chairman, characterized the ultimatum thus: “You want to work here? Deliver.”
The tricky stuff, as the deadline neared, wasn’t the tracks or the signalling. It was the complexity of integrating various computerized systems in the stations, and the vexing nature of vertical transportation: that is, the elevators and escalators. The Governor, in weekly meetings, went around the room grilling the vertical-transportation contractors. This fall, it came to light that someone had forgotten to order a required elevator-safety device called a shunt trip breaker. “The shunt trip breaker. The nemesis to all modern-day construction,” the Governor said. Soon, Michael H. was on the phone with a supplier in the Dominican Republic—a sub to a sub to a sub—negotiating the price of a pair of bespoke shunt trip breakers.
Cuomo, in his second term, has become infatuated with public works. He casts himself not only as a bulwark of progressivism in the age of Trump but also as a master builder, in the tradition of Robert Moses. He emphasizes Moses’s visions and successes, while glossing over his methods and abuses. He likes to say, as he did last month at his State of the State speech, at One World Trade Center, “New York has lived off its inheritance for too long.” He told me, “Somewhere along the way, we lost our confidence or our ambition or our mojo for big projects. We used to build big things.” Governors are remembered for what they build, not for what bills they pass, especially if they aspire to higher office—which Cuomo, of course, will not cop to. He has some big projects under way (a new Tappan Zee Bridge, a new Penn Station, a new LaGuardia Airport, the East Side Access) and some others in mind (a new J.F.K., a freight tunnel under New York Harbor), any one of which, some speculate, might one day bear the name of his father, if not the son. The début of the Second Avenue subway was the show pony of his New Year’s master-builder tour, trotted out among references to the state’s great historical public works. Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare three subway stops to the Erie Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge.
Politicians get clear of boondoggles when they can. No one, you’ll note, has jumped up to take the blame for the Oculus debacle, Santiago Calatrava’s four-billion-dollar railway hub and dinosaur skeleton. The authorities, the infrastructure entities initially devised to transcend politics, spread accountability so thin that the elected officials who stack them with appointees get to bob and weave. The city itself doesn’t always have much say in what it becomes. And the way projects are given priority has less to do with real regional planning or economic good sense than with the caprices of government horse-trading and funding.
Everyone always talks about how much better other cities’ subway systems are: Paris, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul. New York has a few competitive disadvantages: its trains run 24/7, and, in spite of its self-regard, it is not its nation’s undisputed urban center and showpiece, and therefore not the beneficiary of outsized attention and funds. Also, the governance of the city’s transit system is so convoluted, amid a tangle of state and city ownership, obligation, and deflection, that decisions, much less good ones, are hard to come by. When an L.I.R.R. train derailed last month while entering a station in Brooklyn, it was almost comical to watch Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio try to outmaneuver each other for political advantage. (Cuomo rushed to the scene, while De Blasio decided he had better things to do: let the jockeying begin.) Though fellow Democrats and Clintonites, they have nevertheless carried on a long-running feud that can only partly be explained by customary tensions between city and state. It was hard to see much beyond personal pique that led them (and their staffs) to squabble in December over the jurisdiction of a stray deer that turned up in a Harlem housing project. (The deer died while in city custody awaiting state intervention.) The acrimony doesn’t help advance otherwise popular and commendable ideas, such as MetroCard discounts for the poor. (The city and the state each say the other should fund it.)
You had to wonder if one of the reasons Cuomo spent so much time peacocking on Second Avenue was to stick it to de Blasio in his own back yard. De Blasio, for his part, downplayed the advent of the new subway, even though its northern terminus is three blocks from Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s residence. Technically, the state runs the subways, so his deferral to Cuomo makes sense in terms of structure, if not exposure. The Mayor has so far declined to work the Q into his commute to City Hall. This is in large part because he chooses to travel most mornings by chauffeured S.U.V., under police escort, from the Upper East Side to the Y.M.C.A. in his old neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in order to work out. Afterward, he is driven back across the East River to City Hall. His exercise regimen is reportedly a half hour on a stationary bike. The geographical illogic smarts. He might as well make a side trip to Staten Island for an egg-and-cheese.
To many New Yorkers, it was galling to see one of the city’s whiter and more affluent neighborhoods get a new line, when so many precincts outside Manhattan are so ill-served. The cutoff at Ninety-sixth Street, the traditional dividing line between East Harlem and the Upper East Side—between brown and white—was conspicuous, reminiscent of the scene in the 1984 John Sayles film “The Brother from Another Planet,” in which a subway magician says to the protagonist, as the uptown A train pulls into Columbus Circle, “Wanna see me make all the white people disappear?” (“125th Street next.”) Phases II, III, and IV, if they ever come to pass, should mitigate this sense that Yorkville has been granted its own special commuter spur, a Trump-era twist on the Waldorf-Astoria’s private stop. It will be interesting to see if these other neighborhoods get the same consideration, when it comes time to cut and cover, or shoot and blast. Who will be Harlem’s Michael H.?
In planning terms, however, the question is how many people, not what kind. The line went where the people were. By the end of January, it was taking on a hundred and fifty-five thousand riders a day. As it stands, the new subway is a godsend for Yorkville residents commuting to Times Square or Madison Square Garden or anywhere else downtown and west—a trip that until January, 2017, always involved some kind of less-than-optimal but certainly conversation-inducing combination of rides.
To the extent that mass transit is a city’s lifeblood, its role is not just to drain but to nourish. It not only follows density; it creates it. One of the main rationales for expanding subway lines is to foster economic development, which, really, means new and bigger buildings. This is why the Second Avenue subway has always been popular with real-estate developers and construction unions. Certain portions of the route are maximized, more or less, but the upper end, near the current terminus at Ninety-sixth Street, is still in flux. Rents and lot values rose prior to completion, and now seem to be climbing further.
It’s an odd, semi-gentrified corner of the city, a mix of giant apartment towers and older tenements. A block east of the subway’s Ninety-sixth Street entrance is a storied open-air roller-hockey rink, site of dimly remembered rumbles, and, past that, a busy F.D.R. Drive interchange, the former stomping grounds of the infamous squeegee men, the windshield entrepreneurs who were run off by Rudy Giuliani when he was living a half-dozen blocks south, at Gracie Mansion. In between the rink and the Mansion are the Isaacs Houses and the Holmes Towers, housing projects still considered by the police to be a “high-crime zone,” though the dime-bag corner at Ninety-second and First is now a Greenmarket. Barack Obama lived in a drug-infested tenement on Ninety-fourth Street between First and Second when he attended Columbia, in the early eighties. Just to the west of the station is Normandie Court, a block-square apartment megalith of some three dozen stories, once known as Dormandie Court, for the postcollegiate settlers who keg-partied there, during the great yuppie migration of the eighties and nineties. Just uptown, on the other side of Ninety-sixth, is the biggest mosque in New York.
Last Monday morning, a little before nine, TV-news trucks were parked there, in pursuit of reactions to the mosque shooting in Quebec. Pedestrians, paying little mind, flowed toward the Q, a fresh tributary of the old familiar flow to Lex. On Track 2, a train was slowly filling up: seats for all. L.E.D. signs indicated that the time between departures, known as the headway, was eight minutes. No more exultation: New Yorkers on a workday, amid crappy news, their own meshugaas, and the doldrums of winter. At Eighty-sixth Street, the first to board was a blond woman with a pink yoga mat, and behind her a preppy guy with a crimson sweater emblazoned with the letter “H.” By Seventy-second Street, the train was full, though not sardinishly so, in the manner of the Lexington line. A seated passenger, conducting the usual absent-minded survey of riders’ shoes, concluded that the footwear was more expensive here on the Q.
Soon, the Q was pulling into Times Square. It was just another train, neither new nor old. People got on and off. Nothing moved. After a moment, a familiar announcement came over the P.A.: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.” ♦