Borough Hall in 1908, the year the subway opened at this location. Note the two subway entrances.

Borough Hall in 1908, the year the subway opened at this location. Note the two transit entrances.

Our class was turing Cadman Plaza yesterday in the second installment of our walk-through of the site. After dipping in to Borough Hall for five minutes to talk and get out of the cold–it could not have been more than 28 degrees at the time–we wrapped up in the downtown Brooklyn subways station. The Borough Hall subway opened in May 1908, a full ten years after the consolidation of the five boroughs. A student noted that the plaque placed during the station’s opening contained the seals of both Brooklyn and New York City itself. This led to a discussion about how strategic and intentional the laying of the subways lines were when the tracks were being planned and laid out in the 1900s. The real answer is I don’t know–a student will be looking into that in the coming months–but it sounds feasible; the main purpose of the Brooklyn Bridge was to link Brooklyn and Manhattan’s city halls, which are only about two miles apart as the crow flies. In this sense the subway was a continuation of the Great Bridge’s main purpose.

The subway did more than ease movement however; it had the ancillary but still important purpose of binding Greater New York together. I made the point to the class that Staten Island is the least New York-like of the five boroughs culturally and politically. It’s more complicated than this, but what does Staten Island lack that the other four boroughs all have? . . . Subway lines.

The mayor at the time was none other than George B. McClellan, Jr., son and namesake of the Civil War general. It has never been clear to me why Mac Jr. gets so little recognition. He did so much to build New York City’s infrastructure and worked tirelessly to make Gotham a twentieth century city. He even served in World War One a few years after leaving city hall. I suspect he has never received his just due because his mayoralty came after that of Seth Low, who with LaGuardia and a few others is remembered as the top-tier of New York City leaders. It is strange how we fixate on some historical figures at the reputational expense of others.

(image/Irving Underhill, Library of Congress)