Second Avenue Subway, Harlem EditionAuthor: Control , Date Posted: 2011-07-06 21:33:28
Harlem. The name provokes emotion no matter how it's used. A haven for blacks fleeing the Jim Crow Southern states in the early 1900s, the Harlem Renaissance, home to the apollo theater, and later a ghetto to be feared, and still later an area of gentrifcation, resurgence and even the office of a former president's global foundation for serveral years. Harlem will always represent different things to different people. I've long throught of Harlem as something of a playground - a relatively lawless area full of abandoned tenaments, brownstones, and the occasional factory. It's also the area many of my relatives settled in when they first arrived in this country. Indeed, my old man is 100% harlem born and raised.
Throughout the good times and the bad, the streets of Harlem have been well documented. What lays below the streets, in New York Below, is a whole other world. The longest length of completely abandoned NYC subway tunnel lays below the heart of east harlem. This section of tunnel has a name that evokes just as much emotion in the natives as 'Harlem' does - because it is perhaps the least known and documented part of the long maligned 2nd Avenue Subway (or SAS for short). How did it get here? what's it like? what will become of it?
In 1929, the IND subway company announced the planning and eventual construction of what was then called 'The East Side Belt Line'. This subway line became better known as the 2nd avenue subway - named for the avenue the tunnel was to travel below. The great depression and World War 2 immediately put any plans for constructing this tunnel on the shelf. It wasn't long before the city was plotting on constructing this tunnel again:
The city started planning in 1945, to build the new subway and bought a prototype train (the R11) in 1949 for use on the new line. New York voters approved bond acts for its construction in 1951 and in 1967. Money from the 1951 bond measure was diverted to buy new cars, lengthen platforms, and maintain other parts of the aging New York City subway system. The proceeds of the 1967 bond act were partly used to begin tunneling under Second Avenue. Digging began in 1972; however, a few years later, the city became insolvent. "It's the most famous thing that's never been built in New York City, so everyone is skeptical and rightly so," said Gene Russianoff, an advocate for subway riders since 1981. "It's much-promised and never delivered."
Before the 1970s construction was halted, 3 sections of tunnel were built - one in Chinatown, and 2 in Harlem (both under second avenue). One running from 99th street to 105, and another from 110th to 120th streets. During the 1990s, graffiti artists Swatch & Tyke gained entry into the 99-105 section, while the 110-120 street section remained unseen and virtually unknown outside of the hardcore subway foamer (nerd) circles.
East Harlem is one of those 'ghetto' parts of NYC that the NYPD floods with an overabundance of police officers on what they call 'Impact' patrol. Today, the streets are pretty quiet and safe - a far cry from the 70s, 80s and 90s when drug gangs held down many corners for their open street pharmacies. Walking while White in this part of town, as one dealer-colleague of mine at the time said, was as instantly supicious as being young and black. "The cops see these white people and they know what's going on". These were the days before stop-and-frisk, when the best time for cops to catch a dealer was in the act (which was hard). And yes, to clarify that previous sentence, it was a time in my life when locally transporting and cutting deals for large quantities of Marijuana was my primary means of income. That's a long set of stories best told some other time.
Fast forward the tape to present day NYC. Late at night, it's not uncommon to see a different police car drive by every other minute. Given this presence, it's generally safe from criminals for everyone at any hour here. That doesn't mean you're safe from the police through. The Quota in 2011 NYC is just the sort of evil unforgiving enforcement-without-consideration situation that will make any good liberal cringe. Doing anything mildly suspect can and will get you arrested or ticketed here. Standing with pry bar in hand above one of few known access points to the 110-120 segment of SAS, I certainly was not cringing though. For you see, this rogue MTA personnel sponsored trip into the tunnel was as official as one can get without dealing with bosses and beauracracy that would automatically frown upon such a clandestine tour. That doesn't stop the general public from giving you weird looks. New Yorkers generally don't talk to each other on the streets, but then again, most people in the neighborhood don't seem to know this subway tunnel exists and are automagically curious as to what is under that random hole in the sidewalk.
What lays below is a borderline surreal world. The lid back up to the street closes behind us with a loud reverberating thud. The echo into the darkness of the tunnel seems to extend for miles. There's no lights on, and it looks like you could walk to Montreal from down here. There's no fear to be had amongst us - only sheer excitement. Here is one of NYC's untold stories. A tunnel unexplored by modern day topohiles. No visible alarms, motion senors, or other security devices. No other workers and more impressively - no tracks, no trains. Those fearsome death matchines which have mangled and killed dozens of subway tunnel workers and wanders over the decades don't run here. Thus there is safety, freedom, and satisfaction at being alone in a world next to no one has gotten to see.
I'll let the photos tell the rest of the story of our trip here. This all took place some time ago. More recently, some fellow explorers attempted to check out this tunnel and were spotted going in by a nosy 'see something, say something' type - who immediately alerted the NYPD to their activities. NYPD showed up in force, went in with Emergency Services (more commonly known as a SWAT team) and arrested those involved at gunpoint. Since then, we've heard that actual security devices have been installed in this tunnel to prevent terrorists from blowing up the ghetto (eyeroll).
Construction has also begun anew on the 'stubway'- as many have come to call it. The existing section of tunnel at 99th street became 'the launch box' for a tunnel boring machine, which chewed it's way south along 2nd avenue before turning west and connecting to the existing 63rd street subway tunnel. The work is ongoing as of the time of this writing, and several blogs are keeping an eye on the project's progress, along with the official MTA website.