Uncovering Hudson Yards: The hidden history beneath New York’s newest destination

PODCAST All the history that came before the development of Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s skyline-altering new project.

Hudson Yards is America’s largest private real estate development, a gleaming collection of office towers and apartments overlooking a self-contained plaza with a shopping mall and a selfie-friendly, architectural curio known as The Vessel.

By design, Hudson Yards feels international, luxurious, non-specific. Are you in New York City, Berlin, Dubai or Tokyo? Yet the mega-development sits on a spot important to the transportation history of New York City. And in the late 20th century, this very same spot would vex and frustrate some of the city’s most influential developers.

The key is that which lies beneath — a concealed train yard owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. (Only the eastern portion of Hudson Yards is completed today; the western portion of the Yards is still clearly on view from a portion of the High Line.)

Prepare for a story of early railroad travel, historic tunnels under the Hudson River, the changing fate of the Tenderloin neighborhood, and a list of spectacular and sometimes wacky derailed proposals for the site — from a new home for the New York Yankees to a key stadium for New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.

PLUS: Trump Convention Center — it almost happened!

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The West Side Yards area as it appeared on maps throughout the decades:

1879
1900
1943
1955 New York Public Library

Pennsylvania Station, constructed between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, allowing for trains from New Jersey to arrive via tunnels which were dug under the Hudson River and the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad site on the waterfront.

Bain Collection/Library of Congress. Clean-up version courtesy Shorpy

The West Side Elevated Freight Railroad lifted trains off the street and sometimes dropped off cargo right into the buildings themselves.

The elevated freight railroad enters the National Biscuit Company, between W. 15th and 16th streets, July 30, 1950.

The Ninth Avenue Elevated Railroad for passengers also streaked through the west side area. This is a view of at Ninth Avenue and West. 13th Street in today’s Meat-Packing District.

August 21, 1915. “Express track, 9th Avenue ‘L’.” Construction along the Ninth Avenue elevated tracks at West 13th Street in New York. On the corner: Charlie’s Restaurant. 5×7 glass negative by George Grantham Bain/Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy

And finally, for automobile traffic, the West Side Elevated Highway (or Miller Highway) was constructed in stages during the mid 20th century, further separating the waterfront from the east. By the last 1980s, most of this highway was dismantled.

Date unknown, image courtesy NYC Architecture

From the New York Public Library digital collection — a look at the ‘West Side Yards’ area in the late 1920s, before the construction of the elevated freight railroad (aka the High Line) and the elevated automobile highway along the west side. (Captions are those from the original images.)

Eleventh Avenue between 31st and 32nd Streets, showing New York Central freight yards. May 17, 1927. P.L. Sperr, Photographer.
Tenth Avenue, south from a point slightly above West 30th Street, showing prominently the pedestrian bridge over the Avenue at that thoroughfare. This was erected by the New York Central Railroad because of the danger involved by the use of the street bed by their trains. Popularly this was called “Death Avenue”. To the left are the milk shed yards. May 17, 1927
Tenth Ave., south from, but not including West 30th Street. This view is as seen from the pedestrian bridge, at West 30th Street. May 17, 1927.
enth Ave., west side, north from, but not including West 30th to, but not including 31st Streets. The view shows the yards of the N. Y. Central and Hudson River R.R. Company. May 17, 1927.
South on Eleventh Avenue from 35th Street. May 17, 1929.
Pennsylvania Station Excavation from 9th Avenue and 31st Street, ca. 1900 — Museum of the City of New York
The 9th Avenue Elevated Railroad at 37th Street, 1910 — Museum of the City of New York

The ‘Death Avenue’ cowboys, guiding dummy engines down the avenue for the protection of pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles.

1940, courtesy Museum of the City of New York — Taken from approximately 10th Avenue between 33rd-34th Streets, looking south.
Javits Center, c. 1990 — Edmund Vincent Gillon, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The elevated freight railroad in the early 2000s, before it became the High Line and before the area adjacent to it became Hudson Yards.

wally g/Flickr
Looking over the West Side Yards, 2014, photo courtesy Greg Young. To the right, the first Hudson Yards building is being constructed.
courtesy Greg Young
A rendering of the West Side Stadium, courtesy Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates

Images of the new Hudson Yards development, from opening day, March 15, 2019. Photos taken by Greg Young.

From the second floor, behind the deejay booth. Yes there is a deejay booth in the shopping center.
An observation deck over New York as traffic passes by on its way through to the Lincoln Tunnel.
Looking up at The Vessel and the towers behind it.

The Shed, a performance space that will be one of the primary draws for most locals.
The Vessel, designed by Thomas Heatherwick

FURTHER LISTENING

For more information about this topic, check out these early Bowery Boys podcast episodes: