I was in New York a week too early! One week later, I could have witnessed a Second Avenue Subway groundbreaking ceremony. I missed the last one, more than 30 years ago, so it would have been a rare opportunity. But fortunately, this will not be the last Second Avenue Subway groundbreaking. If I live long enough, I'll be able to witness another. Because, as every New Yorker knows, the question is not when will the Second Avenue Subway be built. It's when this story will run again.
Whenever anyone mentions about the on-again-off-again discussion about whether to tear down the Gardiner, the elevated highway on the south edge of downtown Toronto, I think of our old friend the Second Avenue Subway. It's hard to explain this phenomenon to a non-New Yorker. Put it this way: the old "You know you're really a New Yorker when..." test could easily end with "...you know the Second Avenue Subway will never be built".
Subways run uptown-downtown (approximately north-south) in Manhattan, except for a couple of oddballs that run briefly crosstown (east-west) on their way to Brooklyn or Queens. The two crosstown runs, although important, amount to a few long blocks; uptown-downtown is several hundred blocks, the entire length of Manhattan.
On the west side, subways bring you within two or three long blocks of the Hudson River, the western edge of Manhattan. Until recent development (and landfill), no one lived much farther west than the subway. But on the east side, the eastern-most subway line, the Lexington Line, leaves a tremendous amount of land, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, in a vast subway-free tract. (On this pdf NYC Subway map, the Lex Line is in green. We're only talking about Manhattan here, blown up a zillion times larger than scale on the map.)
Once upon a time there was something called the Third Avenue El (which stands for elevated train line). One of the reasons that its destruction in 1955 was thought to be viable was the impending construction of... you guessed it, the Second Avenue Subway.
To understand the impact of this, you also have to get your mind around how utterly dependent New Yorkers are on public transportation. Public transit is not an option or a decision in New York; it's a way of life.
While in most places in North America, not owning a car is either a very unusual choice or a sign of poverty, in New York City, it's perfectly normal. Millions of New Yorkers don't own cars. Those who do, use them for travel outside the city, not for local driving. There are buses, and there are cabs, but traffic is a nightmare.
New Yorkers complain constantly about their subway, but that's about the management of the system - that is, about the MTA. The subway itself is vast, extensive, and indispensable to the functioning of the city. Until fairly recently, there was not even a free transfer between subways and buses; people were said to live in a "two fare zone". Imagine how that affects your budget. Even now, with free transfers via a Metrocard, living far from a subway line changes the entire nature of your life.
I was once on a bus to Albany, to lobby our state legislators (about some no-brainer laws that still haven't passed). A young woman, new to the City, was telling someone about her new apartment, and I was eavesdropping. She had just moved to York Avenue, right above the East River. "I have to take a bus to the Lexington Line subway," she said, "but they're building a subway line on Second Avenue. As soon as that gets built, it will be much more convenient." Oh my god, I thought. Did the realtor also try to sell her the Brooklyn Bridge? But hey, I'm not scoffing at that young woman's naivete. I was lobbying Albany, thinking laws would actually get passed!
So this past Thursday, there was another groundbreaking, although MTA officials could not agree if it was the third or fourth. (Answer: fourth.) The Gothamist live-blogged the ceremony, and the New York Times gives a full timeline. Hint: it begins in 1920. The Gawker says "it's been drilled by more politicians than Marilyn Monroe".
Wikipedia's entries on the Second Avenue Subway and the Third Avenue El are both interesting, and have a lot of good links for subway fans.
The New York Times story ends with Edward I. Koch, always ready with a quote. (One day he will die, and perhaps then he will shut up.) Koch, who was mayor of New York City from 1978-1989, appears in the film of the 1972 groundbreaking, when he was a Congressperson. Says Koch, "I have no recollection of that day. I do have a recollection that the Second Avenue subway — the first shovel went into the ground when God created the earth."