Many months ago, I watched a commuter at the Fourth Avenue-Ninth Street station chat with a track worker about the major-scale construction underway there. "You're lucky," the MTA employee shouted toward the platform. "When we're done, you're going to have the most beautiful station in the city." But passengers who use this elevated F stop already have the most stunning station in the system—it's just that decades of neglect and bad decisions have obscured its grandeur with darkness, grime, locked doors and corporate vandalism.
"When it was opened in 1933, the Fourth Avenue el station was a unique masterpiece," Forgotten NY's Kevin Walsh wrote to me in an e-mail. Among other features, "it had an epic archway over Fourth Avenue and glass panes [that] allowed passengers to look up and down the avenue." But by the time he got to know the station in the 1970s, when he would transfer there from the Fourth Avenue local as a high school student, it was already in the same poor condition in which it remains today. "Amazingly, the station hasn't been maintained since then," he wrote.
On his website, Walsh calls the station "The Masterpiece Nobody Knows," citing features like the Art Deco stone work on its facade. "The girders that arched over the tracks from the platforms combined with sunshine streaking in from outside was almost reminiscent of European train stations and depots," he writes. But when the glass that overlooked the avenue was frequently vandalized in the 1970s, the MTA decided to paint over them, forever after bathing the station in darkness. Half of the station was closed-off, while further neglect and apathy on the part of MTA officials allowed the station to descend into what the Brooklyn Paper routinely compares to a Turkish prison. What would it have been like to stand in the station in the 1930s? "No graffiti, everything was new, no dirt," Walsh wrote, "and of course, the ability to look up and down Fourth Avenue."
Late last week, the MTA announced it would open the long-shuttered entrance to the station on the east side of Fourth Avenue at a cost of $2.8 million. This is welcome news for safety reasons—Fourth Avenue is essentially a highway—but also for economic development: having an entrance on the west side of the street keeps pedestrians on that side, which translates into bustling business with blight across the street. The west side of Fourth Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh streets boasts a cute cafe, a liquor store, a laundromat and a salon. Across the street, shuttered storefronts surround a dry cleaner that often leaves half of its gates down.
I'm most thrilled to hear the east side will re-open for the sense of enormity it will restore to the station. But it's not enough.
Here are five more improvements necessary to return the station to its illustrious intended state.
1. Occupy the Storefronts
Nothing looks as blight-y as vacant businesses—just ask anyone who walked past the embarrassingly empty storefronts at the revamped Stillwell Avenue station before they were recently, finally, filled. Using tax breaks (or, like, whatever!), the city needs to encourage businesses to fill the spaces behind those pulled-down gates thick with grime.
2. Clear the Arch Windows; for that matter, all the windows!
When a temporary platform went up at the station while construction is completed on the Manhattan-bound side, it offered commuters new views that had previously been reserved for residents of the nearby high-rise developments: sweeping views of the rooftops, skyscrapers, and signs rising all around. When the platform is inevitably dismantled, the views will disappear, but the MTA can make similar vistas lasting by removing the layers of light-blocking paint that currently cover every window on the arch facing Fourth Avenue. The city is no longer the graffiti-blighted dystopia it was in the 1970s: we can have nice things again, like views and natural light. In fact, every window in the station should be made transparent again, allowing streams of sunlight to flood into the platforms and indoor passageways that run parallel to Ninth and Tenth streets.
3. Install a Translucent Platform Roof
Corrugated metal hangs over the outdoor platforms to protect commuters from the elements. But when those sheets of steel were recently removed prior to construction, stripes of sunlight streaked the platforms, brightening the commute literally and not. The heavy snowfalls have proved that removing such roofing permanently is impractical, but certainly a translucent material that protects from precipitation but not natural light wouldn't be?
4. Restore Old Signage
Two of the station's most charming features are what Walsh calls the "pencil shaped IND indicators" that overhang entrances on the east and west sides of Tenth Street. The MTA should ensure not only that these antiques remain, but should restore them to their former glory; the one atop the long-shuttered east side entrance is in particularly bad condition.
5. Take Down the Billboards
The same way that spray-paint can vandalize a beautiful train station, so too can the avenue-length billboards that currently vulgarize the historic archway. If the MTA is seriously committed to the station, and if the borough president wants to make good on his promise to transform Fourth Avenue into a proper thoroughfare, it should take down these billboards and suck up the revenue loss. Anyway, for many months, the southern billboard has merely advertised the opportunity to advertise there.