Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

City Hall festooned with flags and finery to celebrate ‘Tunnel Day’

May 2, 2022

New York used to really celebrate itself. On the opening day of the Brooklyn Bridge in May 1883, fireworks blazed the skies, and a flotilla of ships sailed triumphantly on the East River. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October 1886, the first ticker-tape parade was held amid a day of festivities.

And in 1900, city officials were apparently so excited by the idea of the new subway, they couldn’t wait until the system was up and running to throw a party.

So a celebration open to the public dubbed “tunnel day” was scheduled to mark the start of the digging of the first tunnel and the beginning of underground rapid transit.

Tunnel Day happened on March 24, 1900, and City Hall was decked out with flags, banners, and bunting. Makes sense: City Hall was the focal point for city politicians and other bigwigs, but it was also the site of the groundbreaking of the first station—the “crown jewel” City Hall IRT station.

City Hall Park was also decorated to the hilt. “They are the finest seen in years,” wrote the Evening World the day before Tunnel Day. “The park has become an aerial maze of bright colors. Flags flutter from the treetops and branches.”

Thousands of people watched from the sidewalks of Broadway and Park Row rooftops, 1,000 policemen kept crowds under control, bands played, and officials gave speeches. Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck turned “the first spadeful of earth” with a silver spade, the World noted on March 25. (Crowds tried to grab some of that dirt as souvenirs, alarming the police.)

Tunnel Day was a grand display of pride and progress at a time when the city was on the upswing—in population, land mass, and financial and cultural power. Four years later in October 1904, an even more massive celebration commemorated the opening of the first leg of the New York City subway.

City Hall was covered in flags and bunting once again…but the tradition seems to have died out. I can’t recall a recent event that brought out so many flags and banners.

[Top image: MCNY, X2010.11.584; second image: Evening World; third image: NYPL]

A painter’s dazzling mosaic of energy and color in 1901 Madison Square

April 28, 2022

Painter Maurice Prendergast has been described as a “post-Impressionist.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but he has a unique, early 1900s style that turns city spaces into dazzling mosaics and perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic vitality of New York’s streets and parks.

The painting above, “Madison Square,” is from 1901 and is part of the collection at the Whitney Museum.

I can’t make out the words in the sign below “Buffalo NY,” but I can feel the women and girls and drivers and strollers, all out for a day in a park that was much more elite a generation earlier but has been ceded to the masses. Judging by all the umbrellas shielding female faces, the sun must be quite warm.

Prendergast seemed to like scenes of leisure and play, like these—also in New York City parks.

The mysterious faded house outline on the side of a Chelsea tenement

April 25, 2022

In the under-construction contemporary city, you see them all the time—the faint outlines of roof lines, chimneys, windows, and staircases. They’re the phantom buildings of another New York, fascinating palimpsests from bulldozed edifices of Gotham’s past.

150 Ninth Avenue, with the phantom remains of 148 Ninth Avenue on its side

This site is a big fan of these ghost outlines and features them regularly. But recently I came across one in Chelsea with the steel beams and concrete floors of a new structure creeping up to subsume it.

So before the faded outline disappeared from sight behind a new luxury condo or co-op, I tried to delve into the backstory of what was once 148 Ninth Avenue, at 19th Street.

Examples of circa-1820s Federal-Style houses still extant on Harrison Street

Because of what looks like a steep peaked roofline going down the back—and also partly in the front—I assumed number 148 had been a Federal-style, early 19th century home. These modest brick houses for the middle class merchants and artisans were popular in the 1820s and 1830s. Humble but sturdy, they typically reached three stories and featured dormer windows on the third floor.

Many Federal-style homes have been demolished over the decades, small and out of fashion. But a good number remain, with a handful on lower Eighth and Ninth Avenues. They were likely built when this area was on the outskirts of the newly planned Chelsea neighborhood, which rose from the 18th and early 19th century estate of Captain Thomas Clarke, which he called Chelsea.

148 Ninth Avenue

Unfortunately, when it came to finding a photo or illustration of a former Federal-style house at number 148, I came up empty.

Instead of an early 19th century home with peaked roof and dormer windows, the photos I found of 148 Ninth Avenue depicted a typical late 19th century walkup tenement (above and below), similar to but not quite a match to its neighbors running north from numbers 150 to 158.

148 Ninth Avenue in 1939-1941

I don’t know when the corner tenement was torn down. But once it was gone, it seemed to reveal the ghost of the Federal-style house, strangely preserved enough so passersby like myself could imagine the family that inhabited it in the 1820s or 1830s—maybe operating a store downstairs and living on the second and third levels.

From the New York Daily Herald, 1873

Decades later, the little house may have been sliced into separate apartments, as single-family houses in New York City almost always were. Perhaps this furnished room advertised for rent in the New York Daily Herald in 1873 was one of the carved up flats (above)?

The roar and grit from the Ninth Avenue elevated, which dominated the avenue by the late 1860s and lowered the value of the area as a residential enclave, might have hastened the house’s demise.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The touching 1913 dedication over a Grand Central Terminal entrance

April 21, 2022

When Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2, 1913, the railroad barons who financed the $35 million project could have dedicated the stunning terminal to their board of directors, or to the city officials who cut through red tape to help make this third version of a central train station at 42nd Street on Manhattan’s East Side a reality.

They could have eschewed a dedication altogether, too. After all, do most rail terminals, or other major urban development projects, have dedications?

Grand Central in 1915, two years after opening

Instead, they decided to dedicate Grand Central to the people who actually labored to build it.

“To all those with head heart and hand toiled in the construction of this monument to the public service this is inscribed,” the dedication reads, above an entrance on the 42nd Street side and under one of the many spectacular clocks across all the halls of this city treasure.

Something about the modest inscription makes Grand Central even more of a spectacular place than it already is.

[Second image: MCNY, 1915, X2011.34.3570] 

Step Into the Morningside Heights rowdy resort district dubbed ‘Little Coney Island’

April 18, 2022

Since 1892, West 110th Street has also been known as Cathedral Parkway. It’s a heavenly name for a stretch of Manhattan that had a citywide reputation for vice and sin at the turn of the 20th century.

110th Street station on Ninth Avenue El, 1905

“Little Coney Island,” as this quickly developing enclave of Morningside Heights was dubbed by residents, police, and politicians, consisted of a few blocks of newly opened pleasure gardens set in wood-frame buildings that attracted carousing crowds of fun-seeking men and women.

A “pleasure garden” sounds pretty saucy, but it was simply a venue or “resort” where working class New Yorkers, often immigrants, went to drink, listen to popular ballads, watch vaudeville acts, and otherwise entertain themselves with the same kind of lowbrow attractions found on the Bowery or at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, minus the rides.

In a city of tight quarters and without air conditioning or paid vacations for working people, pleasure gardens were popular. Thanks to its breezy open roof and proximity to the Ninth Avenue El, one of the most frequented at Little Coney Island was the Lion Palace, spun off from the Lion Brewery on 110th Street and Broadway.

Little Coney Island’s dance halls and beer gardens existed in wood buildings like these

“While it’s unclear as to exactly when the Lion opened, by the end of the century the Palace had a summer roof garden and performers were regularly covered in newspaper entertainment listings,” wrote Pam Tice on the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group site in 2016. “It became a popular spot for the nearby Columbia men.”

Soon, saloons, music halls, and casinos sprang up, like Waldron’s Dance Hall at 216 West 110th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, per a 2021 piece by E.L. Danvers on I Love the Upper West Side. The Imperial Garden and Columbus Casino drew hundreds of revelers each night.

Berenice Abbott took this photo of a 110th Street wood house in 1938; it would have been in the center of Little Coney Island

Of course, such a concentration of “entertainment houses” also raised the hackles of neighborhood associations and social reformers. After a fire broke out at Philip Dietrich’s resort in March 1900—during a performance by an act called the Fowler Sisters, who sang the ballad, “Farewell, Love’s Dream Is O’er,”—the crackdown on Little Coney Island seemed inevitable.

First, liquor licenses were turned down. A year later, police raided Waldron’s and a dance hall owned by Herman Wacke on the grounds that it was illegal to dance on Sundays.

“The dance halls that remained open entertained only a few straggling patrons, and these were not allowed to dance,” wrote the New York Times on March 18, 1901. “The musicians sat listlessly around their instruments and watched the police as they sauntered through the rooms.”

A bill passed by the state prohibited the operation of a dance hall serving alcohol within half a mile of a church. The Riverside and Morningside Heights Association petitioned to get rid of Little Coney Island, saying the proprietors violated liquor tax laws and “brought a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality,” per a June 1900 Times writeup.

110th Street and 8th Avenue in 1898, up the street from Little Coney Island

In 1901, a judge deemed a series of law enforcement raids at Little Coney Island to be “police persecution.” But the end was near. Ultimately, Little Coney was a victim of real estate development.

“Here is a section which was notorious a few years ago as New York’s ‘Little Coney Island,'” stated a New York Times story from 1910 about the new apartment residences going up along 110th Street. “Both sides of 110th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, were lined with old wooden houses, groggeries, and summer beer gardens….”

“The cheap resorts managed to exist, however, until the natural order of things the builders saw that the land was better suited to towering edifices of stone and brick, and today but scant evidences remain of the former conditions.”

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Real Estate Record and Guide, 1911, via Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group; third image: MCNY 43.131.1.582; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: NYPL]

A midcentury printmaker celebrates machine age New York City

April 11, 2022

As the machine age took hold in the United States in the early 20th century, some artists took a darker view of the mechanization of urban society—seeing isolation and alienation amid skyscrapers, automobiles, and steel bridges. Painter and printmaker Louis Lozowick, however, found something to celebrate.

“Allen Street,” 1929

Lozowick isn’t a household name, but his backstory will sound familiar. Born in Ukraine in 1892, he immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s, according to Artnet. He took classes at the National Academy of Design, studying with Leon Kroll, a painter and lithographer who often depicted the industry of Manhattan from the city’s bridges and rivers.

“Through Brooklyn Bridge Cables,” 1938

After traveling in Europe, Lozowick returned to New York in 1926 and worked as an illustrator for the leftist social reform periodical, New Masses. Influenced by Bauhaus and precisionist artists, he was also producing his own photorealistic, sometimes Art Deco style works—many of which heralded “the power of men and machines,” as the National Gallery of Art put it.

“Backyards of Broadway,” 1926

Lozowick spoke about this theme in 1947. “From the innumerable choices which our complex and tradition-laden civilization presents to the artist, I have chosen one which seems to suit my training and temperament,” he said in a publication called 100 Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art website).

“Third Avenue,” 1929

“I might characterize it thus: Industry harnessed by Man for the Benefit of Mankind,” he continued.

Rather than isolation or alienation, there’s a sense of optimism in Lozowick’s wondrous, finely drawn images. His urbanscapes of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, many of which feature Manhattan, are dynamic and active. Might and power seem to be in the air.

“Slum Clearance,” 1939

Lozowick gives us a majestic city from soaring vantage points—the Brooklyn Bridge and the Third Avenue El—as well as forgotten pockets and corners under elevated tracks and along Manhattan’s industrial edges, where the new and old New York sometimes collide.

Though his focus is on how machines transformed the look and feel of the city, Lozowick doesn’t lose sight of the humanity driving the trucks and trains, powering the factories, and building the skyscrapers.

“57th Street,” 1929

“Following the advent of the Great Depression, Lozowick increasingly incorporated figures of laborers into his compositions—focusing less on the utopic promise of the machine and more on its impact on and relationship to the worker,” stated Emma Acker in a writeup about Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, a 2018 exhibit in San Francisco and Dallas that included Lozowick’s work.

“Traffic,” 1930

Of all the images in this post, only “Third Avenue” includes no human form. But humanity is there; someone is at the controls of the train.

Springtime in New York City once meant horse-drawn flower carts

March 21, 2022

If you want potted flowers in contemporary New York City, you head to a garden center or farmers market. In an earlier Gotham, however, you waited for the flower carts to come, laden with petunias and begonias and other beautiful varieties for replanting in front yards, back yards, and on terraces.

Artist Henry Ives Cobb Jr. was moved enough to capture this scene, somewhere on Fifth Avenue. The date is unclear, but it looks like the flower cart is the only vehicle still pulled by a horse.

[Kaminski Auctions]

The steerage passengers immortalized in a 1907 landmark photo

February 14, 2022

In June 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz left New York for Europe with his wife and six-year-old daughter. His “small family,” as he wrote years later, had first-class accommodations on the liner Kaiser Wilhelm II and were headed toward Bremen, Germany.

But Stieglitz felt stifled by the atmosphere in first class. “One couldn’t escape the nouveaux riches,” he explained in his account, reproduced in the 2012 book, The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz.

After three days he took a walk “as far forward on the deck as I could.” Looking down, he found a scene that left him spellbound: men, women, and children on the lower deck in steerage. These third-class passengers were biding their time by hanging laundry and playing on a staircase. Meanwhile, a man in a round straw hat watched the group amid the iron railings and machinery of the ship.

Stieglitz ran to get his camera. The resulting picture, “The Steerage,” wasn’t published until 1911. “I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life,” he said, per the Library of Congress (LOC) via Wikipedia.

Alfred Stieglitz in 1902, by Gertrude Kasebier

“The Steerage” has since become the most famous photo this pioneering photographer took, “proclaimed by the artist and illustrated in histories of the medium as his first ‘modernist’ photograph,” states Metmuseum.org, which owns a print of the photo. “It marks Stieglitz’s transition away from painterly prints of Symbolist subjects to a more straightforward depiction of quotidian life.”

The photo is also groundbreaking for viewers as well. It might be the first image offering a glimpse into what life was like in steerage class on an ocean liner. The people Stieglitz captured are headed back to Europe—possibly immigrants who were rejected at Ellis Island or “skilled craftsmen and their families heading home after working on temporary visas,” per the LOC.

[Images: Wikipedia]

A photographer captures a New York City of abstraction in the 1940s

January 10, 2022

The street photographers who point their cameras all over the city tend to focus on people in motion in recognizable places—the rush of crowds on a subway platform, barflies at a corner tavern, or the random strollers, workers, loafers, and others found at any moment in time on specific streets and sidewalks.

Brett Weston, on the other hand, used his camera to render a more abstract midcentury city. Instead of focusing on a city of people, energy, and vitality, he isolated ordinary objects and buildings and made them beautiful, haunting, even lyrical.

Weston, born in California in 1911 and the son of photographer Edward Weston, was already an established photographer before coming to Gotham in 1944. During World War II, he was drafted and sent to the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, according to the International Center of Photography (ICP). There, in a former studio owned by Paramount, filmmakers and photographers helped produce army training films. (Today it’s Kaufman Studios in Astoria.)

When he wasn’t working, Weston took to the streets of the city with his 8×10 view camera, per the ICP.

“Over the next two years, Weston took over 300 photographs, each distinguished by an attention to the formal values of linearity, depth, and contrast,” the ICP noted.

“Turning away from the documentary style that characterized much of the photography of New York in the preceding decade, notably Berenice Abbott’s project Changing New York (1939), Weston pioneered a highly subjective and abstract view of the city, often focusing on details such as the finial on an iron railing or ivy on the side of a building.”

The Danziger Gallery, which represents Weston’s work, stated that he “concentrated mostly on close-ups and abstracted details, but his prints reflected a preference for high contrast that reduced his subjects to pure form.”

Weston only spent a few years in New York, and his cityscape images are a small portion of his overall work. In the 1920s he apprenticed with his father in Mexico; most of his life he was based in California, where he had a studio and portrait business, according to The Brett Weston Archive (where his vast body of work can be viewed).

Weston died in 1993 at the age of 82. His New York images have a timelessness that brings them out of the 1940s to still resonate today. Like the work of the abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s, they reflect the quiet, solitary stillness of the modern city.

[First and second photos: artnet.com; third photo: International Center of Photography; fourth photo: artnet.com; fifth photo: International Center of Photography; sixth, seventh, and eighth photos: artnet.com]

Two 1930s tile signs point the way in a Bronx subway station

January 10, 2022

The B and D stop at Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx isn’t a particularly stunning station.

Opened as part of the IND Concourse Line, the station made its debut during the Depression year of 1933, when transit officials probably weren’t thinking of devoting extra money to beautify an outerborough subway station.

But the station does have two old-timey touches that give it a bit of loveliness and humanity: tile signs letting passengers know which way to go depending on what side of the Grand Concourse—the Bronx’s answer to the Champs Elysees—they needed to get to.

Vintage subway signage like this can still be found on some platforms. Here’s an example at Chambers Street on the West Side, and another at the Cortlandt Street R train stop telling riders where to go to get to the “Hudson Tubes.” And of course, the stop at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue is a treasure trove of forgotten subway signage.