The city’s least-loved subway line happens to be my favorite. It might sound nuts to New Yorkers who ride the J train more out of necessity than for fun, as I do. But the mostly elevated, century-old right-of-way affords unrivaled views and reaches under-appreciated but compelling destinations. It rubs shoulders with the “real” New York over more miles than any of its more honored rivals.
And yet, it gets no respect. As The Post reported recently, the MTA has left the J out of a proposed $37 billion signal upgrade. The agency said it must “prioritize” — and the 190,000 daily riders of the J and its express cousin, the Z, are the fewest of any major line in the system.
The diss seems like punishment for the fact the J was largely responsible for today’s subway sluggishness. A fatal 1995 J train crash on the Williamsburg Bridge prompted the MTA to reduce top speeds on all lines and to tinker with signals in a way that slowed up the works for good.
The J isn’t the worst-performing train — its average “on-time” rate as of 2017 was 64 percent, according to the MTA, on par with many other under-performing lines — but it’s one of the least appreciated. It has no speedy sections like the stations-skipping A in Manhattan or the D in The Bronx. It lacks the newness of the No. 7 Hudson Yards extension or the Second Avenue Q. It’s no hipster hangout like the L through Williamsburg.
Even its sole claim to coolness is a myth: Rap impresario Jay-Z didn’t name himself after the line, as is often said, although he did use the Myrtle Avenue station as a kid.
Never mind. I say the J is fine as is. Even a signal upgrade would 1) screw up the line for years and 2) eventually, some day, speed up a train that doesn’t need speeding up. Its leisurely pace is actually part of the pleasure.
The J serves New Yorkers from neighborhoods that are nearly as diverse as those along the fabled “Orient Express” No. 7 train to Flushing. A charming anachronism, it also reveals a “lost” New York — not only because part of its elevated section in Brooklyn was built in 1885 and is believed to be the oldest “el” in the world.
The Queens-bound J hits daylight once it leaves Essex Street and reminds you of how vast the Lower East Side is before climbing over the East River on the Williamsburg Bridge. The eye-popping vista takes in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and the harbor almost to the sea. So much at this point in the journey is new: World Trade Center towers, the rising Domino Sugar complex in Brooklyn.
Instead of new signals, the MTA should build a monument to the J
Once over the bridge, the J rocks, rattles and raps across a spellbinding urban landscape, mostly untouched by time, through Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill, East New York, Cypress Hills, Richmond Hill and Jamaica.
The first stop in Brooklyn, Marcy Avenue, is a short walk to legendary steakhouse Peter Luger. From there, the J navigates a route of sweeping curves as it wends its way above Broadway, Fulton Street and Jamaica Avenue. It reveals a city removed from its trendiest, gentrified precincts. Here is a land of church steeples, ball fields, picturesque cemeteries and swirls of aged graffiti on ancient buildings.
Along the route lie innumerable intimate brushes with city lives. The J runs close enough to Hopper-esque apartment windows to sometimes let us see the folks behind them — a cozy panorama of working-class New York.
The J’s the ticket to low-key culinary adventure — Nigerian, Venezuelan, Peruvian and many more. Near the hip-ish new Hotel RL by Red Lion at the Kosciuszko Street stop is Paradis des Gouts, a cafe offering “authentic tastes of France, Africa and America” in a warm setting.
My lifelong love of trains began at the cyclopean Broadway Junction station. The rickety-looking but functional urban ruin is a roller-coaster tangle of tracks high above the streets that look as concentrated as in a model railroad. But don’t linger in the station’s dark stairways and endless escalators at night.
Instead take the J train and head a few stops east, where Highland Park is one of the city’s premier green oases that shouldn’t be only for locals. A few minutes from the Van Siclen Avenue, Cleveland Street and Norwood Avenue stops, the 141-acre park astride the Brooklyn-Queens border rises steeply to the north. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Instead of new signals, the MTA should build a monument to the J — a line that spans the globe in a mere 13 miles, and also puts us in touch with New York City as no other train can.
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