Untapped New York is excited to announce a new editorial collaboration with the Gotham Center for New York City History. In this series, we’ll share fascinating stories from the Gotham Center archives. These scholarly articles will explore New York City history through a variety of lenses and cover topics that range from Dutch colonialism to public transit and modern art!

Transportation systems are the lifelines that allow us to live, work, explore, and stay connected to one another. In New York City, with its enormous, diverse population, and huge land area with many natural obstacles, it is a vital part of life. As the population grew, infrastructure like tunnels and bridges and rapid transit like elevated trains and subways opened up areas of the city for development and settlement. Transportation improvements led people to better living conditions and more economic opportunities, as they moved away from congested Lower Manhattan into other Manhattan neighborhoods and the outer boroughs. But at the same time, as the city expanded, mass transit infrastructure projects displaced thousands of people from their homes. The redistribution of New Yorkers, whether by choice or force, became a constant factor of city life, highlighting the resilience of impacted communities to adapt, survive, and grow. How and why have different communities ended up in certain parts of the city? How has public transit taken on the role of both placemaker and displacer in the history of New York City?

[New Bent 207 southeast corner Broome Street], January 25, 1916, XX.2008.7.2.200, Elevated Railroad Photographs; New York Transit Museum
[New Bent 207 southeast corner Broome Street], January 25, 1916, XX.2008.7.2.200, Elevated Railroad Photographs; New York Transit Museum

One community that was deeply impacted by access to public transit was Chinatown, when overcrowding and unemployment in the 1970s and ‘80s prompted expansion into new areas of the city. Chinese immigrants first settled in New York City in large numbers in the 1870s, many of them having worked on the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad.[1] They lived in the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, congregating on just a few streets, including Mott, Pell, and Doyers Streets, eventually becoming enough of a presence that by the 1880s the area was called “Chinatown” by the New York Times. Horsecar lines ran along the Bowery, Canal Street, and Centre Street, and on the eastern edge of the neighborhood, the Third Avenue Elevated rumbled uptown beginning in 1878. By the 1920s the IRT Lexington Avenue subway (4/5/6 lines), and the BMT Broadway and Nassau Street/Jamaica subways (N/R and J/Z lines) stopped on Canal Street, and by the late 1960s, once the Chrystie Street Connection reconfigured subway traffic over the Manhattan bridge, additional lines and stations were added nearby. These subway lines provided a crucial service to the community when overcrowding and unemployment intensified in the 1970s and 80s as they enabled people to move away to more affordable neighborhoods with better economic prospects but stay connected to all the things they needed in Manhattan.

After immigration restrictions were lifted in 1965, immigrants from mainland China arrived in large numbers. Many, however, had trouble integrating into Chinatown – both linguistically and culturally – because the established population was more working class and spoke only Cantonese. Furthermore, as more immigrants arrived, jobs were harder to come by and housing conditions were poor and overcrowded. To survive, residents pushed the boundaries of Chinatown north from Canal Street, east across the Bowery, and west as well. Others left Manhattan altogether, moving to Queens and parts of Brooklyn that were easily accessible by public transportation.

During the difficult economic period in the 1970s and 80s, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park was going through a transition as local industries closed and residents moved away. Jobs had been disappearing on Brooklyn’s once-busy waterfront for years, and the neighborhood went into decline. Many families departed, leaving empty storefronts and abandoned buildings in their wake, particularly along 8th Avenue. This displacement presented an opportunity for Chinatown residents looking to find better, more affordable housing and economic opportunities for their families. By the late 1980s, including newly arrived immigrants, there were approximately 3,000 Asian-Americans and 12 Asian-American-operated businesses in Sunset Park. Chinese grocery stores were followed by restaurants and eventually garment factories as the community developed.[2]

Taking advantage of Sunset Park’s low residential and commercial property prices, and the subway line that connected it directly with Canal Street in Manhattan, pioneering Chinese families moved to Brooklyn. The 8th Avenue Station on the Sea Beach Line (N), the first outdoor station in Brooklyn, was their home base. According to the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association, “The Chinese would call this station the ‘blue sky’ station, a term that not only aided those who couldn’t read the English signs, but also carried with it a sense of optimism. This place was where you emerge from the tunnel, where you escape darkness for the light.”[3] Sunset Park provided readily available space and housing options, while the N train enabled people to stay connected to jobs, family, and community services of all kinds that remained in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It was also considered good fortune for a location to include the number 8, a symbol of prosperity in Chinese culture.[4] Recent data shows that by 2010, Sunset Park had become the largest Chinatown in New York, with the community in Flushing, Queens a close second.[5]

Chinatown’s extension into Sunset Park, however, was not the only time that a tight-knit group of people took advantage of public transportation to survive and thrive. Before 1950, a vibrant multi-ethnic, residential neighborhood known as Little Syria existed at the very bottom of Manhattan. A concentration of immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine (countries collectively known then as Greater Syria) settled on Lower Washington Street beginning in the 1880s, in a neighborhood full of low-rise buildings and tenements that were slowly being surrounded by skyscrapers and huge office buildings.

P. G. Andrews, [Roadway condition at Battery Place and West Street], BBT_PRE_ME2, Jan. 16, 1937, Courtesy of MTA Bridges & Tunnels Special Archive
P. G. Andrews, [Roadway condition at Battery Place and West Street], BBT_PRE_ME2, Jan. 16, 1937, Courtesy of MTA Bridges & Tunnels Special Archive

At the neighborhood’s southern border, Battery Park provided respite and fresh air to Little Syria’s residents and there was an abundance of public transportation around them. The 9th and 6th Avenue elevated train lines wound their way up Greenwich Street until they split at Morris Street. In addition, numerous horsecar lines traveled along Battery Place and up West Street. The area was also situated close to ferry services that ran between the tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

As in the case of Chinatown, the transit connections between Little Syria and Brooklyn became instrumental in the community’s transplantation and survival. As early as the 1890s, residents of Little Syria began to venture across the East River, looking for better living conditions but also a reliable way of getting back and forth to the “Mother Colony” in Manhattan where much of life was still concentrated.[6] Some Syrian families who had started businesses on Washington Street also flourished on Atlantic Avenue; Sahadi’s Importing Company, for example, established their business in Manhattan in 1895 and then opened a store in Brooklyn in 1948 which remains a neighborhood favorite to this day.

But in contrast to the Chinatown exodus to Brooklyn, it was not just the ease of public transit and the state of Washington Street living conditions that pushed this community across the river. In this case, nearly the whole neighborhood was razed in the 1940s to make way for the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (Hugh L. Carey Tunnel), meaning that residents who hadn’t already departed for Brooklyn were now forced to leave. In the case of Little Syria, the city’s transportation demands both displaced people and provided a means of resettlement in other parts of the city.

By the 1940s, most residents had already left the neighborhood in Manhattan, making Atlantic Avenue the new heart of Arab culture in America, a new Little Syria. However, Middle Eastern immigrants also took advantage of the Brooklyn subway lines heading South, creating sizable populations in the 1950s and 60s in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, an area that still has a large Arab community today.

Albert Studios [General view of construction operations], BBT_8N_2205, April 24, 1947, Courtesy of MTA Bridges & Tunnels Special Archive
Albert Studios [General view of construction operations], BBT_8N_2205, April 24, 1947, Courtesy of MTA Bridges & Tunnels Special Archive

While Chinatown and Little Syria were already centrally-located, densely populated neighborhoods before subways fueled their growth and dispersal, in other parts of the city subways created or fundamentally reshaped neighborhoods. Before the elevated train arrived in the 1880s, Harlem was too far north of the city to be a practical place to live for most New Yorkers whose jobs were in Lower Manhattan because of the long travel times and lack of public transit options, though some Harlemites did commute downtown using the New York & Harlem Railroad, which opened in 1832.[7] Once the elevated trains trekked north over 9th, 3rd and 2nd Avenue in the 1870s and 1880s, a Harlem real estate boom led to a glut of housing, which ultimately helped to make parts of the neighborhood affordable to working-class families—particularly Italian and Jewish immigrants. Across the East River, the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and a new elevated train service over Lexington Avenue in 1885 transformed the quiet communities of Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights into busy commuter suburbs.

 As European immigrants moved uptown in search of better living standards, African Americans and Black immigrants were also looking for better housing and quality of life in a city that generally confined them to the worst housing in the poorest neighborhoods. At the turn of the century, much of New York’s Black population lived along a corridor stretching from the west thirties up to the San Juan Hill area, but these neighborhoods were plagued by police harassment and vulnerable to evictions and redevelopment.[8] Four entire blocks of the area known as the Tenderloin, an infamous entertainment and redlight district, was demolished for the construction of Penn Station, which opened in 1910. This huge transportation project displaced thousands, including many Black New Yorkers.[9]

[Lenox Avenue Line at 125th Street], April 22, 1910, 2010., Lonto/Watson Collection; New York Transit Museum
[Lenox Avenue Line at 125th Street], April 22, 1910, 2010., Lonto/Watson Collection; New York Transit Museum

The evictions coincided with the opening of the first subway line stretching from City Hall to 145th Street, with a branch traveling under Lenox Avenue. By November 1904, Central Harlem was connected with Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Real estate developers speculated on this new, profitable convenience and continued to overbuild, anticipating an influx of middle-class white residents that never quite materialized. Black-owned real estate companies, particularly Philip A. Payton Jr.’s Afro-American Realty Company, encouraged Black people to move uptown, helping them get into white-owned buildings and to purchase their own properties, with the hopes of cultivating a prosperous Black middle class.[10] By the 1920s, Lenox Avenue was the heart of Harlem and Harlem had become the heart of the Black community in New York City.

Over the course of the 1920s the Black population of New York had more than doubled, from 152,000 to 327,000.[11] During the Depression, high unemployment coupled with deteriorating buildings, overcrowding, and discriminatory housing practices, pushed some Harlem residents to take advantage of a new subway system called the Independent or IND, which opened in 1932 and runs under 8th Avenue. This subway line eventually became synonymous with Harlem, made famous by Billy Strayhorn’s jazz standard, “Take the A Train.” Once it connected to the IND’s Fulton Street Line in 1936, it offered a one-seat ride from Harlem to Brooklyn and the promise of more space and more prospects for work, especially at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard as the nation mobilized for war.

Joining the small Black community already there, families began to settle in Bedford-Stuyvesant where some of the finest houses in Brooklyn had been built. Another draw of this neighborhood was the variety and distribution of public transportation, including trolley and bus lines; the Myrtle Avenue, Broadway, Fulton Street and Lexington Avenue Elevated train lines; as well as subway services including the BMT Nassau Street/Jamaica lines (J/Z and M), the IND Crosstown line (G), and the IND Fulton Street line (A/C), which offered the assurance of a continued link with Harlem.

By the 1960s, this had become the second largest African American community in the city and a major destination for Black immigrants from all over the world. Like Harlem, it has become a center of Black culture in America, but recently, just like Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant is undergoing a large degree of demographic change as neighborhoods across the city gentrify, pushing lower-income populations out.

Public transportation networks that serve the city and region will continue to impact communities in both negative and positive ways. There has always been an interdependent relationship between the riders and public transit, each need the other to survive and thrive. New Yorkers will continue to make choices about where and how to live based on access to a subway or bus line, where it can take them and who it connects them with. And the MTA, the State authority that operates all public transportation in the region, continues to try to meet the rider’s needs by connecting communities and expanding networks. Phase one of the Second Avenue subway, for example, which opened in 2017, helped to alleviate overcrowding on the 4/5/6 line, the busiest subway line in the city, but its construction also caused rents to rise, inevitably driving some out of the neighborhood, and disrupted life for close to a decade for local residents and businesses. Phase two, which is now underway, will reach into East Harlem and will be one of the first recent major infrastructure projects in a neighborhood that “isn’t serving Manhattan’s elites” making a huge difference to the approximately 123,000 daily riders, and bringing foot traffic to small businesses in the neighborhood, boosting the local economy.[12]

Polly Desjarlais is the Content Manager at the New York Transit Museum, where she has worked for the last 16 years and learned all she knows about New York City history.

This post is adapted from Placemaking and Displacement through the Lens of Public Transit, a series of virtual public programs offered by the New York Transit Museum exploring how different New York City communities have been affected by public transportation.

Next, check out 20 Secrets of the Subway


[1] Kimmelman, Michael “Chinatown, Resilient and Proud; A Virtual Walk,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2020.

[2] “A Bluer Sky: A History of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association” Brooklyn Chinese-American Association, http://bca.net/eng/about.html

[3] Brooklyn Chinese-American Association.

[4] According to multiple sources the number 8 is lucky because the Chinese word sounds like the word for “prosper” and is associated with wealth and good fortune, so much so that the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008 began on 8/8/08 at 8 minutes and 8 seconds past 8 p.m. local time.

[5] Beekman, Daniel “The Changing Chinatowns: Move over Manhattan, Sunset Park now home to most Chinese in NYC” New York Daily News, August 5, 2011.

[6] Talass, Kawaa “Inside New York’s Historical Community of Arab Immigrants, Little Syria,” Arab News, April 10, 2020. It was also referred to as the “Syrian Colony” and the “Syrian Quarter” according to Linda K. Jacobs, Strangers in the West: the Syrian colony of New York City, 1880-1900 (Kalimah Press, 2015) 3.

[7] This was the first horse-drawn urban railroad in the country that stretched from Chambers Street to the Harlem River. By the 1850s, steam engines had replaced the horses above 42nd Street.

[8] see Marcy S. Sacks, “ ‘Skull Trouble: A Brief History of Police Harassment of New Yorkers,” Gotham. April 23, 2020, and Douglas Flowe, “ ‘[T]hey’re Knocking Down Negroes Around Here’: Public Racial Violence and Black Self-Defense in Early 20th Century NYC” Gotham. April 12, 2016.

[9] Kimmelman, Michael “When the Old Penn Station Was Demolished, New York Lost Its Faith” New York Times, April 24, 2019.

[10] Hassan, Adeel. “Overlooked: Philip A. Payton, Jr.” New York Times, 2019.

[11] “Great Migration” in Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[12] Ley, Anna “Will East Harlem Ever Get Its Long-Delayed Subway?” New York Times, January 31, 2022.