Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

A motorized fire engine draws a crowd in 1910

October 15, 2018

“New motor propelled fire engine” reads the caption of this 1910 postcard, which shows off what appears to be the Fire Department’s newest piece of equipment.

I’m not sure where we are in this image, but it looks like a handsome residential neighborhood with a bishop’s crook lamppost in the back. And as always when fire engines hit the street, a small boy stands nearby, perhaps checking out the machinery.

Postcard: MCNY/54.212.107

A painter who said the subway was his art school

October 15, 2018

New York artists have always found inspiration in the subway. But few were so taken by their fellow passengers that they whipped out a piece of newsprint and sketched faces in the middle of a ride.

Joseph Solman did. Born in Russia but an American since childhood, he studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design.

Despite his formal training, Solman maintained that “he had learned more by sketching on buses and subways,” according to his 2008 obituary in the New York Times.

(Solman died at age 99 that year in his studio above the Second Avenue Deli.)

“Claiming ‘the subway was his art school,'” stated the Danforth Museum in Massachusetts, he “documented dozens of passengers as he commuted to work as a part-time bookie at the Belmont Park race track in Long Island, NY, in the 1960s.”

“With pencil in hand and the daily racing forms as his paper, Solman used sparing, gestural lines to record random travelers engrossed in their private worlds amidst the public space of the commuter train,” the museum continued.

His gouache portraits are tender and poetic, and different from the more abstract urbanscapes he was known for in the 1930s. In 1935 he became a founder of the Ten, a group of Expressionist painters in New York City.

The Ten co-founder Mark Rothko was also inspired by the subway, envisioning the platform as a bare, silent place where people stand close but remain in their solitary worlds.

Solman shared a similar sensibility. “Solman’s subway paintings eloquently capture the tenor of the commuter train, which can be a metaphor for urban America: both crowded and noisy, yet ironically isolated and self-contained,” stated the Danforth Museum.

His 1960s subway riders don’t look all that different from today’s commuters, right? They stare ahead and avert their eyes, armed with an expression of disinterest or a preoccupation with whatever they are reading. I see them every weekday morning.

How things looked one wet night on the Bowery

October 8, 2018

A shapely woman holding (posing?) with an umbrella in front of a brightly lit store window. A statue outside a cigar store.

Car lights up ahead, under the hulking steel tracks of the elevated train, making the Bowery appear darker and more ominous than usual.

And in the background beyond the cigar store are at least two men, forced by the rain and probably circumstance into the shadows of New York’s most blighted skid row at the time.

This is how John Sloan saw the Bowery one wet night in 1911.

The sailing ships of the Columbus Circle subway

October 8, 2018

Whether you consider Christopher Columbus a hero or a villain, there’s one thing we can all hopefully get behind: some circa-1904 artistic images at the Columbus Circle subway station.

Behold the blue, green, and off-white faience plaques depicting the Santa Maria, the largest of the three sailing ships Columbus commanded on his first voyage in search of a shorter route to the Far East, according to this 1979 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

These restored sailing ship reliefs (the second image dates to 2011, as the restoration was in progress) line the platform of today’s 1 train, one of the original stops on the IRT that opened in 1904.

City subway stops celebrate all kinds of nautical images—like at Fulton Street, where Robert Fulton’s steamboat is immortalized on the platform of the 4 and 5 trains.

The old-school subway signs at Chambers Street

September 17, 2018

Walking through the Chambers Street IRT station on the West Side not long ago, I noticed these tile subway signs, pointing riders in the right direction to the 1, 2, and 3 trains.

The station itself opened in 1918, and the signs look a lot newer than that. It’s kind of nice that the old-school spelling of uptown and downtown remain—with both words broken into two, so the signs read “up town trains” and “down town trains.”

They’re charming touches that take you back in time to a different New York as you make your way to your train. Luckily, other examples of vintage subway signage can be found in and outside various stations through the city.

A 1906 dust storm beside the Flatiron Building

September 3, 2018

Ever notice that the area in front of the Flatiron Building—that triangular juncture where 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway meet, is kind of a windy spot?

John Sloan did. On a June day in 1906, he recorded this in his diary: “In the afternoon, walking on Fifth Avenue, we were on the edge of a beautiful wind storm, the air full of dust and a sort of panicky terror in all the living things in sight.”

This painting, “Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue,” is Sloan’s interpretation of that day. It “captures the mayhem of that afternoon, in which the Flatiron Building itself—the only skyscraper in a low-rise neighborhood—created the wind tunnel effect depicted by Sloan,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the painting resides today.

The windy effect on 23rd Street was the subject of a 1901 film clip and then another from 1903, the latter placing the camera at the foot of the Flatiron and capturing hats and skirts blowing in the gusts.

Surf Avenue lit up by electricity and moonlight

August 6, 2018

It’s a full moon on this summer night along Surf Avenue at Coney Island. It’s the late 1920s, electricity is illuminating restaurant and theater marquees; cars and trolleys cruise the road.

There’s a Nedick’s, the old hot dog chain, and a chop suey place, serving that invented Chinese dish. The moon shines bright over the Cyclone, which must have been just built; it dates to 1927.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.2119]

The “fear and anxiety” of approaching the city

July 30, 2018

Edward Hopper painted “Approaching a City” in 1946, making it one of his later works.

But it’s no less effective in depicting the isolation and stasis of the modern city—which visitors reach by traveling on a train, something usually associated with excitement and adventure.

Not here. A potential threat lies ahead for travelers to this city (which is presumably New York, based on the tenements flanking the railroad tunnel).

When asked about the painting in 1959, he answered tersely. “Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics,” Hopper replied.

“There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.”

Excavating Penn Station by fire and lamp light

June 25, 2018

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of the demolition of the original Penn Station from 1963.

Much more inspiring, however, is this painting, which chronicles the building of the Beaux Arts station in 1908. Construction hasn’t begun yet; social realist painter George Bellows gives us the excavation of the land where Penn Station will eventually rise and open in 1910.

There’s magic here—thanks to the lamps ringing the excavation site and tenements across the street. Slightly eerie is the orange glow of a fire deep in the pit and images of nearby figures keeping watch over things, perhaps.

Bellows must have had a fascination with the building of Penn Station, as he painted this daytime image as well.

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]