When the subway finally came to Bay Ridge, on January 15, 1916, it was greeted with no mere ribbon-cutting. The ceremony around this truly historic event, which forever changed the character of this area, was met with a daylong celebration, including not just a ride on the newly opened line by myriad municipal dignitaries but also a pageant, dancing and a grand feast that lasted into the evening.
This week, as it turns 100, I’ll be surprised if there’s even an official mention.
That’s because our relationship with the subway has changed. What was once heralded as a game-changer is now derided as a dysfunction; what was once cutting-edge is now creaky and old-fashioned; what once required real vision is now so commonplace it’s blasé.
Here, we’ll look at how hard locals fought for the subway to come here, how drastically it affected the real-estate market, a little about how the stations and the neighborhood changed over the years, and how we go to a point now that’s so far from where we were as a community 100 years ago.
Aesthetically and architecturally, Bay Ridge has changed dramatically in the almost 400 years since the first Europeans arrived, but not so much in the last 100, when the opening of the R train finalized the ongoing development from sleepy suburb to modern urban area. “Bay Ridge is what it is today largely because of the 4th Ave. subway,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1933—“this any one who knows anything about the development of the section will readily admit.” So the story of the subway isn’t just the story of a train—it’s the story of how the community came to be.
The first Dutch settlers started farming in what’s now Bay Ridge in the mid 17th century, and the area maintained a mostly agricultural character for another 200 years. The major turning point, I think, was when a group of artists came in 1850, bought the old Ovington family farm, and founded Ovington Village, an artists’ colony with main streets and relatively closely constructed houses. Other developments had come to the area; Fort Hamilton, near the army base, had become a summer destination with hotels earlier in the 19th century, but it seemed more destination development than permanent residence. Ovington Village was the first time a large number of outsiders came to the area to stay, not for farming but just to enjoy the area’s natural beauty.
Urbanization continued from there, and a proper building boom began around the turn of the 20th century, when the farmers found better economy in real estate than vegetables, selling off their fields to developers, who built modern housing. This is when many of the strips of identical row houses were built along what became residential streets where they still stand today. At that time, though, the only way in was by an elevated train (which obviously no longer exists).
“The transit service to Bay Ridge equals, if it does not surpass, the service to other suburbs,” the Eagle explained in 1902. “The Fifth avenue elevated electric service to Sixty-fifth street, connecting there with rapid trolley service, carries passengers from New York or vice versa in one-half hour.” (It adds, noting a distinction that mostly still holds true, “Below Third Avenue is the exclusive section. While a few houses of the cheaper class have crossed the line, it is not probable that there will be many others building,” because the land was too expensive.)
The Fifth Avenue elevated ran down its eponym until 36th Street, where after 1893 it turned west and continued down Third Avenue until about 65th Street; many old photographs of the station/terminus there survive, usually set against the still-somewhat-extant greenway that was then called The Bay Ridge Parkway. Residents also used the 39th Street Ferry, though complained about it constantly, even petitioning the borough president to help or for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company to take it over, so it could better coordinate its schedule to those of the trolleys.
The Eagle would later describe Bay Ridge at the start of the 20th century as “little more than a stretch of vacant lots with a few rows of houses here and there.” Its residents were still fighting for a sewer system, for Third Avenue to be widened, graded and paved so it could serve as a proper major thoroughfare. Such basic improvements needed to be done before the neighborhood could dream of the kind of development a subway line would bring—and, anyway, the first underground commuter train to anywhere in New York City still wouldn’t be opened until 1904.
But as those sorts of improvements progressed, Brooklynites started dreaming. Ferries, trolleys and elevated trains were slow compared to underground subways. “The success of the Subway has made every other method of transportation already seem absurdly inadequate,” Brooklyn Life reported in 1904, not long after the first tunnel opened in Manhattan.
The First Idea(s)
We should stop for a second to talk about trains. Today, “the subway” refers to most of the passenger trains within the five boroughs (excepting a few stops on the MetroNorth or Long Island Rail Road), including the F when it goes elevated or the N when it goes outside; both routes actually predate the first New York subway. At the turn of the 20th century, “subway” referred specifically to an underground train. Back then, trains ran everywhere; elevated lines and surface lines moved passengers all over the city. I’m pretty sure there was even a train from Fort Hamilton to Coney Island. The blizzard of 1888, which suspended the city’s rail service, first inspired the idea of moving the trains underground.
The first semiformal proposal of a subway to Bay Ridge was in 1900. Fred Chester Cocheu, a civically active local and well-to-do real-estate dealer, lived at the corner of what was then Fort Hamilton Avenue and 75th Street (now Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge parkways). He held a meeting at his home with other prominent locals and raised the idea, which was taken up by the leading civic organization of the time, the Citizens Association of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton, which would lead the fight for the next decade and a half.
The first formal, official proposal of a subway to Bay Ridge I can find is from September 16, 1902, almost fourteen years before it became a reality, when then-borough president J. Edward Swanstrom (the borough’s second ever; Brooklyn had become part of New York City just four years before) announced an ambitious plan, involving a Fourth Avenue tunnel from Flatbush Avenue, which would continue to Fort Hamilton and cross The Narrows into Staten Island. Swanstrom also suggested the Fourth Avenue tunnel connect to the terminal of the Manhattan Bridge, which wouldn’t open for another seven years, so “people coming from Manhattan by way of the third bridge [as it was then called] could continue on to Fort Hamilton by means of the Fourth Avenue subway without the slightest inconvenience,” the Eagle reported.
In this way a practically direct route of travel would be provided for the people of Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton and the surrounding district from uptown Manhattan. In fact, Mr. Swanstrom’s plans are designed with a view to accommodating the residents of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton, who made a hard fight before the Rapid Transit Commission and the Mayor a year ago for a direct tunnel to South[ern] Brooklyn.
Those would have been who we can call “Cocheu’s Men.”
(Fourth Avenue had been chosen because it was the widest of the three roads that ran from Flatbush Avenue to Bay Ridge; Fifth Avenue couldn’t be used because it runs through Green-Wood Cemetery, which made digging underground an impossibility!)
Swanstrom also suggested a tunnel at Hamilton Ferry, roughly the present-day site of the Battery Tunnel, that connected to the Fourth Avenue tunnel via an offshoot at Hamilton Avenue, so Bay Ridge residents would have a direct access route to the Battery—a third way into Manhattan, along with the Montague Tunnel, still in use, and the new bridge. (His plan also suggested a tunnel that would connect the Atlantic Avenue–Flatbush Avenue terminal with the end of the Brighton Beach Rail Road, roughly today’s Prospect Park stop on the B/Q line.) All this would “enable the residents of Fort Hamilton, Bay Ridge and the surrounding territory to reach Manhattan without being subjected to vexatious delays.” (Which, 114 years later, lol.) Here was an idea not just for a subway but the basis for a subway system, which would develop “Great South Brooklyn and [the] Suburban Section.”
Residents of the area looking toward the future, to more development, weren’t putting all their transit eggs in the subway basket. Around the time Swanstrom’s plan was released, Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was trying to extend elevated train service down Third Avenue, past its then-terminus at 68th Street, and negotiations began between the company and owners of Christ Church, then at the location and in the way, with the blessing of local property owners. (The church building was eventually sold and moved to the corner of 75th and Fourth, where it remains today as Good Shepherd.) The plan progressed far enough that a judge ok’d the idea, though it didn’t get much further.
Swanstrom’s single two-year term was over in 1903, and the next year, advocates were still fighting for a Fourth Avenue tunnel, past the Atlantic–Flatbush terminus—basically, the Swanstrom plan (just without Hamilton Avenue), though his name is no longer on it. Here, the plan starts to lose the Staten Island component, too. A month later, on April 28, 1904, a committee for the Rapid Transit Commission submitted a report recommending extensions of the subway system in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, including the more than five-mile-long Fourth Avenue tunnel, connecting Atlantic–Flatbush to Fort Hamilton. The Eagle called the report “epoch-making.”
But just a few months later, southern Brooklynites were disappointed to hear the RTC wouldn’t open the Fourth Avenue line until after the Manhattan Bridge was completed, because otherwise it would create too much congestion. Little did advocates know at the time, it would take a lot longer than that.
Making Brooklyn “an Integral Part of the City”
A real estate report from Brooklyn Life in June 1904 describes what was starting to happen. “In the suburban section of the city there is a splendid demand for lots from out-of-town buyers for investment who make their purchases on the installment plan,” it reported. “Cash buyers and buyers who reside within the metropolitan district are much more rare…there is a…better feeling to be noted in the Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights sections owing largely to the determination of the Rapid Transit commissioners to extend the subway system to Fort Hamilton.”
By the end of the year, with little progress made, the Eagle began to get impatient. The Fourth Avenue subway, “if it is ever built, according to the scheme now entertained by its promoters, will be an independent system,” the paper reported sarcastically in December. “It has been said that Chief Engineer Parsons did not look with favor on the Fourth avenue subway proposition,” because he didn’t find feasible engineering its connection to the Manhattan Bridge. Local groups, worried the plan could die, held a mass meeting. “[E]nthusiastic citizens…will get what they ask for,” Brooklyn Life opined around Christmas. “[T]here has been, until recently, an apathy exhibited by South[ern] Brooklyn and Bay Ridge people in reference to the Fourth avenue tunnel to Fort Hamilton.”
It may be presumed that this apathy was more imaginary than real, and should be more properly termed, perhaps, over-confidence, based on partial promise. For the moment that rumors began to circulate that Parsons was inclined to oppose the South[ern] Brooklyn extension, and that nothing definite about it could be gained from the Rapid Transit Commission, they got to work with a hearty will to see this most important matter put through. So, from now on, the Rapid Transit Commissioners will have but little peace. Nor should they have until every one of Brooklyn’s demands is granted. A penny-wise policy is what has retarded New York’s growth in the past.
The resulting pressure seems to have worked. Five weeks later, Bay Ridge residents reported that the first subway tunnel built in Brooklyn would be the Fourth Avenue tunnel, despite prior approval for others toward central Brooklyn. “Citizens Rejoicing,” the Eagle declared. A few days later, the plan had been articulated, though it would rapidly change in the days and weeks ahead.
For now, it was said Brooklyn would get two tunnels. The first would look like a hybrid of what exists today, starting at City Hall and, like the present 4/5 line, going across the East River, to Borough Hall, along Fulton Street, to Atlantic–Pacific, but then it would turn (instead of continuing down Flatbush) and become like what’s now the R, going down Fourth Avenue to Fort Hamilton. The second would be similar to the A/C: continue down Fulton, except it would have turned onto Gates Avenue, continuing to Broadway, where it’d become the present J/Z line, continuing to East New York.
“The difficulty in the past of getting things accomplished in Brooklyn has been a lack of unanimity on the part of the citizens of this borough,” the Eagle reported on February 7, 1905. “Realizing this, the leaders of the Fulton street, or central section, have devoted all their energy to convincing representatives of suburban associations that the only way to accomplish anything is by united action.” The subhed declared: “Transit Development Should Make Brooklyn an Integral Part of the Greater City.”
More negotiations ensued, including squabbling over how express services could be achieved. Representatives from Brownsville hated the Gates Avenue idea, and wanted the train to travel down Eastern Parkway; Red Hook residents wanted to revive Swanstrom’s Hamilton Avenue idea. That idea gained traction, and the Eagle reported the Fourth Avenue tunnel, via connection with the Battery, Governor’s Island and Hamilton Avenue, would be the first built, and the ever-so-important connection from City Hall to Borough Hall to Atlantic–Flatbush could wait.
Around the same time, In early 1905, Brooklyn Life reported that real estate was booming in Bay Ridge because of the coming subway (and the assumption that it would pressure Brooklyn Rapid Transit to improve service on its elevated lines to compete). “There is absolutely no acreage left in Bay Ridge,” it reported on February 11. “Everything is now sold according to the number of lots contained in the property,” meaning land was no longer sold by the acre, as it would be for farmland or estates; it was sold by how many compactly placed modern homes you could build on it, underscored by the myriad ads in the Eagle thereafter for lots, lots, everything “lots.” Bay Ridge’s agrarian era was officially over.
Ups and Downs: the Spring of 1905
In March 1905, the route of the modern R train was finally laid out: “an independent subway line through Fourth avenue from Old Slip, Manhattan, through Montague street to Court street, to Atlantic avenue, to Fourth avenue,” as the Eagle reported. The Fourth Avenue tunnel would have four tracks, while the leg from Atlantic to Montague would have two, the other two feeding into the Manhattan bridge. (The paper advertised this arrangement as advantageous because you wouldn’t need to switch trains; you’d just have to get on the right one—one going over the bridge or one headed for Old Slip.) Construction would just have to wait six months while the Rapid Transit Commission got approval from the mayor and the aldermen (in the days before New York had a city council).
But subway lines were privately operated, which means that the city could determine a route, but that didn’t mean it was an attractive business proposition. At the end of March, plans for the Fourth Avenue tunnel seemed like they could again be deprioritized. Interborough Rapid Transit Company (the IRT) showed interest in building in Brooklyn—but not the proposed Fourth Avenue line. Advocates accused the Rapid Transit Commission of abandoning them; the RTC commissioner said it had not, but that RTC “cannot compel any one to build the Fourth avenue tunnel. We cannot force any one to take the contract for that tunnel…we lay down the routes wherever we think they will best serve the greater number of citizens and not where they will best suit the railroads.” Developers balked.
The RTC seemed like it might renege on its promise when, in April, it received a committee report advocating a Fourth Avenue tunnel to 50th Street and not all the way to Fort Hamilton. “How are we residents and property owners of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton to understand this report…?” asked a letter to the Eagle.
The Brooklyn Rapid Transit’s service for many years past has been inadequate to the requirements of the Thirtieth Ward [Bay Ridge and beyond’s then official designation, like today’s “Community District 10”]. Yet, in spite of that fact, no other section in Brooklyn has advanced with the strides of that section.
But why this long continued discrimination against that section—not only by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, but by the political powers, as witnessed by their glaringly long delayed and as yet inadequate improvements, and also apparently now by the Rapid Transit Commission?
Bay Ridge is one of the most picturesque spots in this county, but is twenty years behind Flatbush in development because of this discrimination.
Still, such news couldn’t stop the real estate market—“All of the talk to the effect that the Fourth Avenue subway would be long delayed in the building has not affected the interest which is taken in this locality,” Brooklyn Life reported. An April 12, 1905, Eagle article reports prices had jumped 50 percent or more in the last thirty days. “Conservative Brooklyn dealers say that it is unparalleled in the history of this borough.” For a little historical context, this is right around when the Russian Revolution was starting.
The article then goes on to describe the last few years in Brooklyn: “Farm lands have grown into suburbs, suburbs have been merged into the city, and country lanes have changed, as if by magic, into crowded streets. Great tracts of land have risen from acre values into building lots and city blocks.” By May, however, the real estate speculation actually had slowed; the RTC had decided the Fourth Avenue line would be best advertised to potential builders in sections, while Bay Ridge residents still demanded access. Brooklyn Life suggested maybe they could build under Fort Hamilton Parkway, “where it would develop an entirely new section of the city and open up farm land which now has almost no chance of coming into the market until some improvement in the transit is secured.”
More Ups and Downs: 1905-1907
The Republican borough-president candidate used subways as campaign platform in October 1905. “Three main lines of subways are imperatively required—one to East New York, one to Flatbush and one to the Bay Ridge, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst section,” said Major Frederick H. E. Ebstein. “They should be built at once.” They weren’t, and he lost to Bird S. Coler, who ran on the Municipal Ownership ticket (a third party founded by William Randolph Hearst as a challenge to Tammany Hall). Coler would still be borough president four years later when the actual digging finally started.
Well, most weren’t. Excavation had begun on Fulton Street toward Borough Hall. In January 1906, the Rapid Transit Company promised the subway would reach 100th Street (but perhaps more importantly, street lights were promised for Fifth Avenue, which until then had been dark). Less than a month later, rumors circulated that RTC might “not do anything toward furthering that pet project,” even while record-breaking real estate deals were still being done all over the area.
Real estate ads continued to tout properties on the future subway route, but it was still a decade from opening. “The entire Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton territory is the center of one of the strongest investment movements in the history of the Brooklyn real estate market,” Brooklyn Life reported in March 1907. “Thousands of lots have been sold during the past year and rows upon rows of private, two-family and flat dwellings have been erected and sold in that time.” In the area that today encompasses Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, construction began in 1906 on more than 1,500 new buildings, while another almost 1,200 were finished, most of them started the year before.
In April, there had still been no ads placed for bids on Fourth Avenue line; Bay Ridge residents still demanded it. The city had promised!! But other Brooklynites wanted their subways too. In May, the Eagle reminded readers that every civic organization supported construction, “and they are doing all they can to get this improvement.”
A large article from June 22, 1907, finally assured the Fourth Avenue line would be built “to make possible an incalculably broader, more comprehensive and significant South[ern] Brooklyn of the future.” It continued, “There is every reason to predict that it will shortly become the center of a series of residential communities, than which none shall be more notable in population, character or general scope.” Construction was assured by the RTC—which was shut down the following month, replaced with the Public Service Commission, sometimes also called the Public Utilities Commission.
Arguments soon broke out about which real estate was more valuable—shorefront property, or subway-adjacent property? They were premature; in September, the Eagle referred to the “Fight Under Way to Save Subway.” Borough leaders came together to demand no more delays on the construction of the Fourth Avenue tunnel, but the Public Utilities Commission fretted that the proposed route wasn’t financially possible. Suddenly what was just recently a done deal now looked again like it could collapse.
Finally, a Real Plan…
The Utilities Commission responded with the need for another hearing. Leaders were optimistic the board would yield to the will of the public, reasoning that almost the entire city supported the Fourth Avenue tunnel: Manhattan and the Bronx because it would provide easier access to Coney Island, and Staten Island because it would mean getting closer to a subway of its own, across the Narrows, “affording quicker transportation between Manhattan and Staten Island than municipal ferryboats can ever hope to offer.”
Intense efforts began to show the subway was, as Brooklyn Life put it, “a desideratum which comes close to being an absolute necessity, and that the sidetracking of the project will be considered an affront to Brooklyn as a whole and not to any particular section.” Of course, these are the words of real estate interests. “The object is to disperse population to vast areas now practically unpopulated, not to create further congestion in already congested sections,” the paper reported, arguing for the Fourth Avenue tunnel to Fort Hamilton rather than work on the proposed lines down Lafayette Avenue (today’s A/C), Eastern Parkway (2/3) or Broadway (J/Z).
The vote passed on October 2, 1907, three to two—the Public Utilities Commission would immediately advertise contracts for bidders to begin construction. (The Broadway/Lafayette Avenue route was also approved.) It would lessen congestion on the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the first leg in the comprehensive plan for Brooklyn, and delaying “was only assisting in the development and prosperity of the towns in New Jersey.”
Immediately—as in, the next day—fights began over which line to build next.
What Else Can We Do?
By December, some began to advocate Bay Ridge Avenue (69th Street) as an alternative to a station at 65th Street, “thus affording trolley connection,” the Eagle reported. “The chief objection to having the station at Sixty-fifth street was on account of the Pennsylvania Railroad [now LIRR] and the parkway [now Lief Ericson Park], which prevented and would continue to prevent the erection of houses in the immediate vicinity.” A few days later, a map in the Eagle showed the proposed station at Senator Street–68th Street, and the route extended as far as 101st Street–Fort Hamilton Park.
Transit advocates now focused on trolleys, demanding construction of a line on Eighth Avenue, and also that the Fifth Avenue cars that stopped at 69th Street continue to 86th, and that the Third Avenue one continue to Fort Hamilton during the rush hour and not stop at 67th Street. At a December 1907 meeting, complaints were made about Fort Hamilton-bound trolley conductors who changed their destination signs near 58th Street, so they could just back into the car barn there.
A woman passenger, living in Fort Hamilton, had boarded a car marked Fort Hamilton. Arriving at Bay Ridge avenue she was told that the car had made its last stop. She reminded the conductor that she was bound for Fort Hamilton and insisted on having the car proceed to that place. She was again told that the car had made its last stop and was ordered off. She said she would stay there all night first. She was taken in the car to the barns on Third avenue and Fifty-eighth street, where she made a complain to the officials in charge there. After being ordered out of the place by every man from the “boss” to the watchman, it was said, a special car was made up, and she was taken to Fort Hamilton.
Three streetcars departed from the elevated train stop at 65th Street: one down Third Avenue, one up Bay Ridge Avenue, and one to 86th Street (presumably by Fifth Avenue). The first drew more than twice the passengers of the other two combined, but easing congestion was difficult: even if they put out two cars, and said the second will be right behind the first, the first would be so crowded there’d be no elbow room, and the second would have empty seats.
Bay Ridge residents were so annoyed with the Brooklyn Rapid Transit company, which ran the trolleys and the el, they were asking for a small offshoot of the Fourth Avenue tunnel to go down to the 39th Street waterfront, where there was a popular ferry terminal, thus breaking the trolley-owners’ monopoly on access to it.
The Plan is Secured—Just Barely
Of course, anyone who thought the subway at this point was a done deal was foolish. So many times the matter had been settled, then reopened for debate, and of course it happened again, in March 1908. “Brooklyn had been led to believe that its accomplishment had been beyond the scope of reasonable doubt, and that it is not prepared to accept anything short of the complete fulfillment of what is regarded as a definite pledge that this route will be built not at any time in the future, but at once,” the Eagle reported.
The paper argued against critics who said it was a project just for real estate interests, stating the project would benefit the whole city, not only for the development of Brooklyn, but to stop the city’s growing population from decamping to New Jersey. The paper also argued that it didn’t believe the city couldn’t afford to do the project except in small sections, and if that were true, it had to prove it with hard facts, not just vague anxiety. The mayor sent the plan to a committee for study, which angered the hundreds of supporters who attended a March 20, 1908, meeting and shouted, “Shame!,” at him. The proposed subway had been taken for granted by so many that to shut down planning now would have a profoundly negative effect on the entire borough, advocates argued.
In another editorial, the Eagle pleaded at least to build the leg from Flatbush to 36th Street, where it could connect with the Coney Island-bound train we now call the D, as opposed to the city’s plan just to build the connection from the Manhattan Bridge to the LIRR terminus (presumably at or near the present one, the Atlantic Terminal).
BRT suggested it might build “trunk line subways” under the heart of downtown and connect with els where it could. The Eagle called it “not very encouraging,” but it was briefly considered as an alternative to the Fourth Avenue line.
A week later, the Board of Estimate pushed ahead to allow advertising for bids for construction of sections from the Manhattan Bridge to 43rd Street. “Not only will the Fourth Avenue subway in its entirety be constructed,” the Eagle reported, “but it will have to take precedence over any other improvement.” This they called “finally and definitely assured”—that all legal obstacles had been removed.
“One of the conspicuous lessons to be learned from the approval of the Fourth avenue subway is that Brooklyn can secure any improvement upon which she is united and militant and the lesson is one not likely soon to be forgotten,” the Eagle reported. “[T]he final authorization of the Fourth avenue subway must be regarded as one of the greatest victories which the borough has ever obtained.”
Real Estate Takes Off; Subway Just One Part of It
“[W]hile realty values have undergone a number of striking advances since the subway was originally projected,” the Eagle reported in March 1908, “it is certain that they still fall far short of the figures to which they will, in the immediate future, attain.”
Thousands of one and two-family houses have been erected in Bay Ridge within the past several years…but that it will be necessary to at once undertake the erection of many hundreds of additional houses in order to accommodate the growth of population that is now expected to pour into this territory with the vigor of a freshet, is undoubted…with this transit improvement now all but accomplished the existing accommodations will, within a few months at the outside, have been taxed to their utmost.
In the building of what amounts practically to a new small city of moderate size in Bay Ridge the developers of the section have not alone had an abounding faith in the future of the area lying south of Bay Ridge avenue, but have backed this confidence with the expenditure of millions of dollars.
At the beginning this required an unlimited degree of foresight and courage, but the results have amply justified both the wisdom of the pioneers of the section and the enterprise which they have shown.
From a different article on the same page: “South[ern] Brooklyn’s development is now just at its beginning. Thus far there has been written only the introduction. The first chapter is to be the commencement of construction of the Fourth avenue subway, the one great object of all [local] organizations for several years past.” This article posits the subway as one part of a three-prong approach to development: “Subway, high school, docks.” (The subway was the R; the high school was Bay Ridge High School, now Telecommunications; the docks were the waterfront, from Bush Terminal to the Pennsylvania Rail Road freight terminal near 62nd Street.)
Contracts, Lawsuit, Groundbreaking and Eye-Rolling
Contracts were awarded quickly, in May 1908, for the section from the Manhattan Bridge to 43rd Street, but they weren’t approved by Board of Estimate until October 1909 because of a taxpayer’s lawsuit filed regarding the city’s debt limit, which took 17 months to settle. (Matthew W. Wood, a Bay Ridge lawyer, argued the case.) In the interim, the 25,000 voters of southern Brooklyn threatened to show or withhold support for political candidates based on their positions on the Fourth Avenue subway. Locals complained that local transportation sucked.
The cost of the contracts totaled approximately $16 million, or roughly $4 million per mile (closer to $100 million in 2015 dollars). Ground finally broke on November 13, 1909, at Flatbush Avenue Ext. between DeKalb Avenue and Willoughby Street. William R. Willcox, chairman of the Public Service Commission, turned the first shoveful of earth, which he placed in a glass jar, in front of ten thousand people. (Many more had left because they couldn’t hear the speeches, the New-York Tribune reported.)
The Tribune report is wry. “The route has always been opposed, because it runs through a practically unpopulated region, while thickly populated sections are unprovided for…The chief advocates of the route were the property owners who expect to develop their property through the building of the line through their cornfields and potato patches.”
That’s the end of the wonkiest bit of this story; I hope you’re still with me. I think it’s important to understand just how hard residents had to fight for the subway, that it didn’t just happen by itself—it was an active process, not a passive one—nor was it an inevitable result of development. Bay Ridge didn’t become a thriving community and then get its subway; it happened the other way around. As we’ve seen, even after the subway had been won it was soon after lost, again and again, requiring not just vigor from the visionaries who advocated it (and who also stood to profit from it) but also resolution.
The First Leg Opens, and the Real Estate Market Goes Nuts
A month later, on New Year’s Eve, 1909, the Manhattan Bridge finally opened.
Contracts for 43rd to 89th streets were finally issued in September 1912, in two sections, to and from 61st Street. The cost? $3,834,429.75 (or more than $91 million, adjusted for inflation). Ground broke on October 26, 1912, and the line, up to 66th or 67th Street, where it turned onto the present N line to Coney Island, opened on June 19, 1915. “Bay Ridge Celebrates,” the New York Times declared, even though the subway had yet to reach farther than its border. (Though, keep in mind: the borders of “Bay Ridge” at this point could sometimes go as far north as 36th Street, and as far east as Tenth Avenue.)
The first trip went from Manhattan to Coney Island, then back to 59th Street; guests traveled to Leif Ericson Park (then “The Bay Ridge Parkway“) at 67th and Third for speeches; 10,000 school children (!) “held patriotic exercises,” the Times reported.
Just before this opening, an article in the New York Sun declared, “Bay Ridge Needs Many Apartments,” because scores of people were moving to the area from the Bronx, East New York and New Jersey to take advantage of the progress in transportation. “Nearly all want apartments,” according to the article. “Our apartments are all filled, therefore that is a class of building that we mostly need.”
The population south of 66th Street grew 50 percent from 1910-1915. PS 170 opened in 1915 to assist PS 102 in accommodating the growing population; the Bay Ridge Theatre, on 72nd and Third, was built around this time, as well, and was immediately a great success.
The northwest corner lot at Bay Ridge and Fifth avenues sold in 1906 for $8,000; ten years later, it was on the market for $30,000 (a difference in 1916 of almost half a million dollars, adjusted for inflation). In 1915, almost 1,000 new structures were built in Bay Ridge, more than the 700 or so built the year before. “The chief activity centers around Eighty-first street and Fourth and Fifth avenues,” the Eagle reported. Other neighborhoods built dozens, maybe a couple of hundred, in the same period.
Stations Finally Open, Parties Ensue
The Bay Ridge Avenue, 77th Street and 86th Street stations finally opened, on January 15, 1916. “Bay Ridge Gay,” declared the New York Tribune. The first trip was at 2:12pm, taking 600 passengers—including the borough president, commissioners, clergymen, civic leaders—nonstop from the Municipal Building in Manhattan to 86th Street in Brooklyn in 15 minutes and 45 seconds, though ordinarily, they said, it would take 18. The Eagle described Bay Ridge now as 20 to 25 minutes from Wall Street.
“When the official train reached the Eighty-sixth street station there were [only] a few people to receive them,” the Eagle reported. “The committee ascribed this condition to the fact that Fort Hamilton residents are angered because, they say[,] the city has discriminated against them in not extending the subway further into their section.” The 600 esteemed guests surfaced for ten minutes, then got back on the train and rode it to Bay Ridge Avenue, where they exited and continued to nearby Bay Ridge High School for a historical pageant called “Bay Ridge, Past, Present and Future,” attended by 2,000 people and starring 300 students.
It opened with Native Americans watching the arrival of Henry Hudson into New York Bay, continuing with the Dutch, the battles with the indigenous population, the arrival of the English, and the subsequent colonial period, “with the aristocracy and the pretty dances of the time,” the Eagle reported. “This scene will be the most beautiful picture of the day.”
Then, it was on to the days of the young republic, up to the 1850s. The final tableau was “Yellow Hook Became Bay Ridge.”
“At this point the allegorical tableaux are introduced. These are said to be very elaborate and beautiful,” according to a different article—“too elaborate for an advance description. To appreciate them one must see them.” Several hundred dollars were spent on costumes—the equivalent of several thousand dollars today. There were dances, and a call to peace for the European countries at war.
After this, 250 of the most important guests were taken by automobile to the Ridge Club, an athletic and social club near PS 102, for a banquet. The Eagle called the opening of the subway “the greatest event in the history of the section.”
“But banquets and pageants fade in the memory, even when they are excellent in themselves,” a different Eagle article reported. “Thing thing which will remain out of this celebration, and will grow more important with each passing month, is the eighteen minutes to City Hall. That is a fact which will not fade, but will grow in significance as time passes and which will ultimately remake Bay Ridge in something the same fashion that the subway has remade Washington Heights.”
Going to Staten Island
Way back in 1908, a member of the Civic Association had credited Staten Island groups in May with helping to agitate the Fourth Avenue subway into existence. He “even went so far as to say that he believed no concerted movement in behalf of the Fourth avenue subway would have been made without the aid of the people of Richmond,” the Eagle reported. The Bay Ridge organization pledged now to support Staten Islanders in their fight for a subway—little good it did!
The Fourth Avenue line was extended to 95th Street in 1925, appeasing the antagonized Fort Hamiltonians. Planning had begun in the early 1920s, “what is believed to be the first step in giving Staten Island a rapid transit connection with the other boroughs of the city,” the Times reported in 1922, with a tunnel going under where the Verrazano Bridge spans now. A contract, for $1.48 million (or almost $21 million today), was awarded in December. “There will be one station, located at the terminus on the half-mile extension” the Times reported. “The extension will be built so that it can be connected readily with a possible future rapid transit tunnel to Staten Island.”
Another idea for a Staten Island tunnel moved forward—an offshoot of the Fourth Avenue line, at 67th Street, either for passengers or for freight. In 1923, work actually began; workers dug as far as the Narrows before money dried up and the project died. Shafts to this tunnel are said to exist still near or in Owl’s Head Park, but I’ve never been able to find them. Their correspondents on the Staten Island side were likely filled in.
Rapid interborough transit never made it to Staten Island; the last idea was that the Verrazano could be built to accommodate rail traffic, as the Manhattan Bridge had half a century before, but Robert Moses didn’t build subways (or even pathways)—he built highways, and I doubt the plan was ever seriously considered.
The Third Avenue elevated train was finally closed in 1940, and the following year the tracks were adapted into the Gowanus Expressway. Infrastructure in New York now was for cars, not for trains, trolleys, ferries or buses.
Design and Change
The stations were designed to stand out. “New methods of treatment have been used in decorating the stations of the Fourth Avenue subway,” the New-York Tribune reported in June 1915. “In the existing subway, all stations are finished in white tile. On the Fourth Avenue line each station will have a color scheme of its own, tiling and marble of different colors being used.”
Tile is beautiful—the problem is, it doesn’t age well when you don’t replace or maintain it properly. Look at 36th Street now, with its millions of cruddy tiles. Rather than refurbish or outdo the original designs, midcentury officials instead destroyed most of it and replaced it with something uglier, less costly and more workaday—but more enduring!
The stations we have today do not resemble the stations as they were built. “In 1969 or 1970 (the mind is hazy on that point) all of the BMT 4th Avenue and Broadway Line’s intricate mosaic signs and shiny tile bricks were buried underneath unending walls of white blocks, interspersed with Mondrian-esque rectangles of color accompanied by metal signs,” Forgotten NY reports. “Less than thirty years later, the MTA went to great expense to knock down the white blocks and expose the mosaics once again—with one exception, [Rector Street]—but in Brooklyn, no such expense was warranted, and streamlined 1970 design still holds forth.”
What did the old stations look like? I can’t tell you exactly, but the tile work at 36th and 86th streets are still mostly in tact, as well as on the mezzanine at 95th Street; imagine maybe something like a combination of Prince Street and 77th Street in Manhattan?
Some hints of the original station designs survive: mosaic trims in the 77th Street station can still be seen on the mezzanine level, though they’re replaced by solid black panels on the platform level. And several terra cotta signs survive, both for men’s and women’s rooms, as well as a long-defunct newsstand. (Longtimers may remember the blind man who sold newspapers from a kiosk at Fourth Avenue until the city demolished his shed in the early ’00s. These days a man usually sells the day’s papers at the foot of the western 77th Street entrance, his wares spread out on the floor.)
“Originally, the metal signs indicating what stop it was were white with black lettering in the Standard font,” Forgotten NY adds. “In the 1980s, all stations changed the signs to black with a thin white stripe and lettering in Helvetica. However, the directional signs in Standard that were stenciled directly on the color tile were retained in the Standard font.”
“It was also around this time period [the ’70s] that the MTA started to get rid of concessions on the platform,” Brigid Harmon, curator at New York Transit Museum, told me by email, “and though…the newsstand at 77th street is on the mezzanine, it is possible that it was removed during the 70s purging of station concessions.”
“I have not been able to find anything out about the closing of the bathrooms,” she added, which now seem used for storage and break rooms. In fact, a lot of information about these stations seems to be missing from the archives. “Unfortunately some time periods/particular stations were not nearly as well documented as others,” Harmon wrote.
86th Street still has its mezzanine newsstand—a long and narrow candystore—and a modern mosaic, like those on the mezzanine at 36th Street.
“Legend has it that 86th St was intended to be used for some unknown purpose, because it has a very wide island platform and a mezzanine, ala the IND,” according to nycsubway.org. “As the original terminal before 95th St was built, it may have been three tracks, and the center platform was built over the center track when the line was extended to 95th St.” This seems unlikely, as the platform is fairly narrow—just the width almost of the staircases that bring you up to the mezzanine.
But the stations do seem to have been built so that express service could be accommodated later. Only two tracks go past 59th Street into Bay Ridge, and they’re on the western side of Fourth Avenue; if the MTA wanted to dig two more on the eastern side, it could, and then use the two middle tracks as express tracks. (I think this is why, in Bay Ridge, the ventilation grates on Fourth Avenue are on the sidewalk, but in Park Slope and Sunset Park they’re on the median in the middle of the avenue; this is also why the 68th and 76th streets exits are on only one side of the avenue.)
What’s in a Name?
The subway route we now call the R was called “BRT 2” shortly after it opened. (BRT 1 was the present-day Q line, tracks which had been shuttling trains between Prospect Park and Brighton Beach since the 1860s.) Brooklyn Rapid Transit went bankrupt in 1919, a few months after a spectacular wreck on the 1 line at Malbone Street that killed at least 93 people, and restructured in 1923 as the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation—or the BMT, and the route was BMT 2. The wreck was so bad, the street itself was renamed—Empire Boulevard. (Read this excellent long-form account.)
The first service started at Chambers Street on the present J/Z line and went to Canal then over Manhattan Bridge, stopping at Gold Street–Myrtle Avenue (before DeKalb), a station that’s now closed; its walls are painted so that, when you see them from the tunnel on a B, D or Q train, they seem to be animated. (The artwork is called Masstransiscope.) The ride continued down Fourth Avenue to 86th Street. Alternatively, a branch after DeKalb went to Lawrence, Court, through the Montague Tube to Whitehall, like it does today.
BMT 2 was still in use as late as 1939, possibly until 1959, when it was redesignated the RR. It was shortened to R in 1985 when the MTA did away with double letters (e.g. GG). (From the ’60s to the ’80s there were occasional variations: the RJ train, the brown-diamond R. You can read about them here.) Briefly, for several weeks following September 11, the J train ran on these tracks; R train service had been suspended, and the stations in lower Manhattan were closed, so the R went from Court Street in Brooklyn to Broad Street in Manhattan and followed the J route in Manhattan, North Brooklyn and into Queens.
Today, many Bay Ridge residents identify themselves by the R train; it’s almost as iconic as the Verrazano Bridge, but much more despised. It no longer takes 18 minutes to get to Wall Street; it takes more like 35 or 40, and that’s presuming an R train comes. It’s much worse at night, when you can get stuck waiting 30 or 40 minutes just for a train to arrive—the only train that comes into the neighborhood. Walking from 59th Street is something every able-bodied Bay Ridgite has done at some point, if not something they do every day.
We used to be a city that spent hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, on new transportation routes, believing the city couldn’t grow without such necessary infrastructure. Today, we barely invest in keeping it functional, despite record ridership, especially in outerborough outerneighborhoods. We could invest in new signal systems to run more trains, build more tracks in Bay Ridge to accommodate an express train to 86th Street, keep the train going to Staten Island, and build out a bigger system out there, spurring walkable and not car-dependent development.
But that would require investment and imagination, two things we now tend to lack.