Much of my research for Hidden Waters of New York City does not involve paddling, swimming, or walking away from my desk. It involves having a grasp of GIS: geographic information systems where one compares maps of the same location to determine what lies beneath the surface. When the internet is down and there is no time to take the bus to the New York Public Library, I have an excellent resource at the Five Boro Shop on Randalls Island.
It is the 1952 Department of City Planning map that shows the city as the agency envisioned it in the near future. The close-up above of central Staten Island shows the borough covered by a grid with two never-built highways traversing the borough. The map has much to teach its viewers on how much of the 1952 plan was realized at present time.
Wolfe’s Pond Park
On the southern shore of Staten Island, the 1952 plan shows Lemon Creek, Wolfe’s Pond, Bunker Pond, and Arbutus Lake enveloped by a rectilinear grid. The two sizable exceptions here belong to the Roman Catholic Church: its Mount Loretto orphanage and St. Joseph’s by the Sea school and church alongside Arbutus Lake. The green strip atop this close-up is Richmond Parkway, with the unbuilt Wolfe’s Pond spur branching off into the park. I followed its right-of-way in an earlier blog post.
In 1952, Coney Island peninsula was still a bustling, albeit declining amusement district. The massive public housing projects had not yet been slated to dominate much of this neighborhood. The green strip running across this map is Belt Parkway, whose green shoulders were maintained by the Parks Department. By allocating parkland along highways, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was able to get highways built with a sizable chunk of the city’s budget going to his agency.
Along Gravesend Bay the street grid extended into the water in expectation of future land reclamation. Only a few acres of this land expansion became reality, much of it within today’s Calvert Vaux Park. I marked Cropsey Avenue Bridge on this map as I’ve documented its history and that of Coney Island Creek that flows below this crossing. The creek used to separate Coney Island from mainland Brooklyn. On the other side of the former creek is Sheepshead Bay, which I’ve also documented.
Along Jamaica Bay the plan called for parkland to ring its shore, with an uninterrupted grid covering the rest of what was mostly marshland at the time. Little-known Hendrix Creek would have been filled in by the 26th Ward Sewage Treatment Plant; Fresh Creek would have been straightened, and the site of Gateway Center covered entirely in public housing. Flatlands Avenue would have crossed the border into Queens, continuing as 156th Avenue. But this inter-borough crossing was never built.
On the top edge of this map, Brownsville Houses were recently completed, the first of many housing projects that would soon cover much of Brownsville and East New York.
Western Queens, where I’ve documented Dutch Kills, Sunswick Creek, and Anable Basin was already quite urbanized by 1952, but the plan called for more public transit to this section of Queens. The pink superblocks are the Astoria, Ravenswood, Queensbridge, and Woodside public housing complexes. Roosevelt Island was still known at the time as Welfare Island for its many asylums and hospitals. The bridge connecting this slender island to Queens had not yet been built. The only way to access this 30-block island was by ferry and an elevator descending from Queensborough Bridge.
Now, for the transit lines. In 1952, the old Third Avenue El was still in operation, but next to it the dotted line along Second Avenue envisioned its subway replacement. This new subway line was an ambitious one, with branches extending to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. The Queens branch of the Second Avenue Subway departed at East 76th Street, running in Queens below 34th Avenue and the LIRR Main Line to the borough’s eastern neighborhoods.
In reality, the Third Avenue El closed on May 12, 1955, and its subway replacement opened to the public on January 1, 2017 as a stub running between 63rd and 96th Streets. The branch to Queens was realized as the 63rd Street tunnel, which opened in 1989.
For more on the city’s unbuilt subway lines please take a look at my friend Joe Raskin’s encyclopedic book Roads Not Taken on this topic.
In 1952, Fort Totten at the northeast tip of Queens was deliberately kept blank as the Cold War was at its height and the city had no say on what would be built on this military base. The army gave most of this property to the city in 1995 and today it is divided between Parks, FDNY, NYPD, Coast Guard, and the army.
Crocheron Park is at less than half of its present size. To its immediate north a grid of paper streets divided the 17-acre property of John Golden. In reality, when Golden died in 1955, his estate was donated to the city for a park.
The biggest change to the map came in 1957 with the construction of Throgs Neck Bridge, which resulted in Clearview Expressway slashing through Bayside to connect the bridge with Long Island Expressway and Grand Central Parkway. Part of the highway skirted the eastern edge of its namesake, Clearview Park, which is used as a public golf course. 421 homes were either demolished or relocated to make way for this highway. It abruptly terminates at Hillside Avenue. Initial plans had this road continue further south to JFK Airport but neighborhood opposition in southern Queens killed this plan.
In Midtown Manhattan the 1811 grid was still intact. The only superblock of note here was the recently completed Stuyvesant Town / Peter Cooper Village development. The Penn South apartments will arrive in 1962. On the west side, the High Line was still in operation, but nowhere near capacity as industries were starting their postwar flight from the city.
Leaving the city and crossing the state line, we see that Bayonne, New Jersey could easily appear as a sixth borough, along with neighboring Jersey City and Hoboken. At the time the Hudson River and Upper New York Bay were lined with freight and passenger terminals that ferried goods and people to Manhattan. As rail use declined in the following decades, the rails turned to rust and many of the tracks were abandoned.
The southernmost crossing of Newark Bay was the CRRNJ Newark Bay Bridge. After its last train crossed in 1978, it was demolished two years later. In the middle of the bay, the Upper Bay Bridge still carries trains to this day. In 1956, a highway arch bridge was built next to it for Interstate 78. Newark Bay is fed by the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, which meet at Kearny Point. The railroad bridge straddling this point is also gone. Comparing this close-up with today’s map, where there were once too many railroads, there are now too many highways.
Also notice how small Newark Airport was at the time, and the neighboring Port Newark. Both are today the leading international gateways to New Jersey and New York City.
I appreciate the map index with its color codes for parks, infrastructure, and housing, as well as transit routes. This map shows by how much the city was expected to grow in 1952 and how far it has come since then. The population has certainly grown, but unfortunately there has not been as much expansion in transit.
If you liked this map essay, check out my earlier map post on the more realistic 1950s map hanging at the Parks Department headquarters.