The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

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17 Responses to “The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan”

  1. Ty Says:

    I drove a yellow cab back in the day. Those lights amused me while people would step two lanes into rush hour Third Avenue to hail me.

  2. countrypaul Says:

    It’s fascinating how what was once commonplace is now rare. In particular at this moment, I’m thinking of el stations designed to look like country railway depots, “house” roofs and all, but high in the air.

  3. greg chown Says:

    Before Uber, a taxi licence was a very valuable item. I have a friend in Toronto who sold his licence a few years ago when he retired for $300,000.00 +. That same licence today might be worth $25,000.00
    I have never taken an Uber…..

    • David H Lippman Says:

      Yes, Uber is whacking the Taxi Medallion industry, sadly.

      No Checker cabs any more, either.

    • NYC Cabbie Says:

      Yes. I still drive a yellow cab around the city and the value for the medallion has gone down. I’ve been driving for the past twenty five years!

  4. Mike Valentin Says:

    Taxi signs, a real reminder of what life was like in the early 60’s. I remember those taxi callouts were a Godsend in the winter, especially along West End Avenue. Where the original Lincoln Towers stood (61st Street), it wasn’t uncommon for availability of taxi dropping to zero requiring a brisk hellish walk to wave a cab down during the winter.

  5. mitzanna Says:

    There used to be a light like in the third photo, on top of apartment doorway canopies on the street side, but without the taxi sign. This was on the Upper West Side.

  6. Beth Says:

    My mid-century building has a taxi light above the awning (I think it’s still there). When I moved in in the ‘90s, the doorman turned it on, but they’ve been hailing taxis themselves for many years now.

    • NYC Cabbie Says:

      Yeah! all people have to is whistle or slant their hand in an angle and we know they need a cab. Sometimes people don’t even have to do these things and we just know they need a cab.

  7. Susan Siskind Says:

    There used to be a taxi light on our East 63rd street awning in the seventies and taxis did turn to our building from York Avenue

    • Ty Says:

      Yes, taxi drivers then specialized. York was the rich person’s ride jealously held by some of the older more established drivers. If a fleet driver like me even showed up on York I’d get the evil eye. The drivers would brag about how they got to know this person or that and how much they tipped. Pre-Uber they worked on relationships. They coveted the pre-planned meet me later LGA ride in the middle of the night. Big fare / little time.

  8. bobfitterman Says:

    And on a related note, high-end buildings (such as one I saw on Fifth Avenue) had a button in the elevator you could press to alert the doorman before you got to the lobby that you were in need of taxi.

  9. Karen Says:

    I grew up at 275 CPW (88th St) in the ’60s and ’70s. We had a light on the awning, which was often used by the doorman in the evenings to get cabs. He also had a whistle that he wore around his neck. My bedroom was on the 2nd floor, just above the awning, and I loved looking down and watching the people below.

  10. Peter Rad Says:

    Hi!
    I just want to thank you for keeping this wonderful blog up throughout the years.
    Your post are always uplifting and interesting. I especially appreciate that you’ve kept the format the same throughout the time you’ve been posting. With all the change that occurs daily in our lives (especially in this moment), it’s comforting to see your grounding posts.
    Keep up the great work, and thanks again.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for your kind words! The format is the same because it seems to be readable and showcases the photos…I’m a don’t fix it if it ain’t broke kind of person.

  11. mitzanna Says:

    I have never, nor will I ever, unless in a dire emergency, call an Uber, Lyft or anything like it. Give me a yellow cabbie anytime!

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