Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

The curious el train in the nocturnal 1930s city

April 5, 2021

When this lithograph was made by Leonard Pytlak in 1935, Manhattan’s elevated train lines were still screeching and lurching up and down the city’s major avenues.

Already made obsolete by subways and buses and soon to be dismantled, the el trains were noisy pieces of machinery that operated high above sidewalks yet helped transform late 19th century Gotham from a horse-powered town to a mighty metropolis of steel tracks.

But if the trains were emblems of the modern machine age, why is the lone figure crossing the nighttime street below the tracks so much larger than the train itself? And why is the street no wider than an alley?

My guess is that Pytlak might be trying to humanize the el train, giving us a Modernist scene of out of proportion shapes with the soft light of Post-Impressionism. There’s also the influence of Ashcan social realism here: a Belgian block city street lined with a hotel and tenements.

Born in 1910, Pytlak was a lithographer who studied at the Art Students League and worked for the New York City WPA Graphics Program from 1934 to 1941, according to the Illinois State Museum. The museum has this strangely alluring lithograph, titled “Uptown,” in its collection.

Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way

March 22, 2021

You can always spot a New York newbie by their pronunciation of wide, bustling Houston Street—as if they were in Texas rather than Manhattan.

But the way New Yorkers pronounce the name of this highway-like crosstown road that serves as a dividing line for many downtown neighborhoods begs the question: Why do we say “house-ton,” and what’s the backstory of this unusual street name, anyway?

It all started in 1788 with Nicholas Bayard III, owner of a 100-acre farm located roughly in today’s SoHo (one boundary of which is today’s Bayard Street).

Bayard was having financial difficulties, so he sold off parcels of his farm and turned them into real estate in the growing young metropolis, according to a 2017 New York Times piece. “The property was converted into 35 whole or partial blocks within seven east-west and eight north-south streets, on a grid pattern,” explained the Times.

Bayard decided to name one of those east-west streets after the new husband of his daughter Mary, William Houstoun (above)—a three-time delegate to the Continental Congress from Georgia. Houstoun’s unusual last name comes from his ancient Scottish lineage, states Encyclopedia of Street Names and Their Origins by Henry Moscow.

The street name, Houstoun, is spelled correctly in the city’s Common Council minutes from 1808, wrote Moscow, as well as on an official map from 1811, the year the grid system was invented. (It’s also spelled right on the 1822 map above).

In the 19th century, the city developed past this former northern boundary street. East Houston Street subsumed now-defunct North Street on the East Side and extended through the West Side (above photo at Varick Street in 1890). At some point, the spelling was corrupted into “Houston.”

The Times proposes a possible reason why the “u” was cut: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, thought it could have to do with Sam Houston emerging in the public consciousness in the 1840s and 1850s as senator and governor of Texas.

Whatever the reason, the new spelling stuck—with the original late 18th century pronunciation.

[Top Image: Danny Lyon/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia; Second image: Wikipedia; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY 1971 by George Roos x2010.11.763]

Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery

March 15, 2021

After spending the 1920s as a cutting edge portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott returned to the United States to find that her documentary-like style of photography was out of fashion.

In New York, Abbott “was unable to secure space at galleries, have her work shown at museums, or continue the working relationships she had forged with a number of magazine publications,” states the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Lucky for Abbott—and for fans of her unromanticized images that speak for themselves—the Federal Art Project came calling. In 1935, it gave her the means to photograph the streets, buildings, and people of New York City. More than 300 resulting images were collected in Changing New York, published in 1939.

Though Abbott aimed her camera all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, she was especially drawn to the Lower East Side, specifically the Bowery. At the time, the Bowery was a “Victorian entertainment district turned skid row, which she likened to ‘wandering through hell,'” according to the text of a 1997 edition of the book by the Museum of the City of New York.

Retracing Abbott’s steps through the Bowery, as documented in Changing New York, is possible today because she kept track of the addresses of the three storefronts she captured.

The top photo, at 103 Bowery, might be one of Abbott’s most famous New York images. This “hash house,” as the Blossom Restaurant was known per the MCNY’s Changing New York, occupied the ground floor while Jimmy the Barber worked out of the basement. The two men in the shot have the harsh expressions expected of men who catered to Bowery bums.

Below it is the storefront today. It’s still a food establishment, but the space has been remodeled. The aura of danger and depression are gone.

The striking storefront—and colorful claims designed to lure men of few means—of the Tri-Boro Barber School (“world’s most up-to-date system”) probably appealed to Abbott. The school was at 264 Bowery, which was lined with barber shops at the time, states the MCNY’s updated Changing New York: “Upon completion of a 10-week course, a student was a ‘full-fledged professional barber’ and could find a job at a starting union wage of $22.50 per week.” Below it is 264 Bowery now, with its similar doorway but ghostly, empty space.

This hardware store at 316-318 Bowery has the crammed feel of a dollar store, proving that the tradition of an overload of seasonal merchandise and lots of sale signs lives on in 21st century New York. “Hardware emporiums, catering to tradesmen from all over the city and day laborers who lived nearby, flourished on the Bowery,” states the MCNY’s Changing New York. The storefront today appears to be another COVID casualty.

Would Abbott be as drawn to the Bowery of 2021 as she was to the Bowery of the 1930s (above, under the elevated at Division Street and Bowery)?

Probably not. This storied main drag that had a brief fling as an elite address in the early 19th century before becoming synonymous with tawdry entertainment, flophouses, and cheap bars now resembles many other Manhattan streets of the 21st century—lacking the signs of desperate humanity Abbott was attracted to.

[Top photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History; third photo: Artnet; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MutualArt]

A short-lived road named for a female scientist

March 8, 2021

Since its creation in the 1880s, it was unceremoniously called Exterior Street—a slender road east of York Avenue between 53rd and 80th Street that ran closest to the East River. It existed primarily to provide access to the river for industry.

But in 1935, a prominent New Yorker came up with an idea. She wanted to rename a stretch of Exterior Street in honor of Marie Curie, the Polish-born, Nobel Prize–winning scientist who discovered the elements polonium and radium and died a year earlier from the effects of radiation from her own research.

Mayor LaGuardia had already held a ceremony honoring Curie in City Hall Park in November 1934. There, he and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, unveiled a plaque dedicated to Curie (fourth photo below) as well as a tree planted in her memory, according to a 1999 article in The Polish Review by Joseph W. Wieczerzak.

A rare female scientist at the time, Curie was a heroic figure worldwide but especially in America, thanks in part to her development of mobile X-rays brought to the front line in France during World War I that “did much to lessen the suffering of wounded soldiers,” wrote Wieczerzak.

Mary Mattingly Meloney, the influential editor of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday magazine and a personal friend of Curie’s, appealed to Mayor LaGuardia to create a Marie Curie Avenue in Manhattan. The idea was quickly brought to a vote before the Board of Alderman, and it passed unanimously.

Why was Exterior Street chosen for the honor? First, “Exterior” was really just a generic name for an industrial, riverfront road. But also, several medical facilities—like Rockefeller Institute, later University—built their headquarters nearby on York Avenue, states Wieczerzak. It seemed fitting to have an avenue to the east named for a scientist, even though that street wasn’t always so attractive, as the photos suggest.

The official renaming took place on June 8, 1935, in a ceremony attended by 5,000 people, according to the New York Times. Despite the fanfare, Marie Curie Avenue would only officially last for five years.

The street was doomed in 1935, when plans were unveiled for the East River Drive. “Construction of the drive began in 1937,” wrote Wieczerzak, adding that parts of Marie Curie Avenue were widened, leveled, and elevated before being covered in 1939 or 1940 by the “rubble from bomb-destroyed buildings of British cities carried as ballast in ships docking in New York Harbor to load wartime cargo.”

The East River Drive opened in 1940…and it was eventually renamed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I don’t think a trace of Marie Curie Avenue—the first major street named after a woman in New York City—remains.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Nobelprize.org; third photo: MCNY X2010.11.2542; fifth photo: NYT July 10, 1935; sixth photo: NYPL]

Two men, an el train, and a produce market in a 1945 mystery painting

March 1, 2021

Figuring out the location of a long-ago image depicting some part of New York City is a fun challenge. So when a reader sent me this painting—the basis for a 1945 Mack truck ad—looking for information on where the scene was set, I was intrigued.

“The caption for the ad said ‘An old AC Mack Bulldog Nose truck at the New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market,'” explained the reader.

“Peter Helck, the artist who painted this scene (also my grandfather) was born in Manhattan and lived or worked there most of his life, so he knew the city very well. I believe this represents an actual location and I am hoping you might be able to identify it.”

References to the ‘New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market’ turned up vague information. But considering that Manhattan’s main produce market in 1945 was the sprawling Washington Market (above, in 1962), centered on Washington Street and spilling over from Fulton to Chambers Streets and beyond in today’s Tribeca, I figured that was the location of the painting.

The confusing thing, though, was the elevated train—which appears to be a true el, not the High Line, which ran a mostly straight line in and out of warehouses. The closest elevated train to Washington Market would have been the Ninth Avenue Elevated. which ran a block over on Greenwich Street. Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover any images of the Ninth Avenue El on the Lower West Side with such a pronounced curve in it.

But could that curved track run farther up Ninth Avenue beside what’s still known as the Meatpacking District (above in 1938)—a 19th century wholesale market that by the 1940s primarily handled meat and poultry? The Belgian block street certainly look like today’s Little West 12th or Gansevoort Street.

Turns out at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street (below, in 1940), the el does make a curve similar to the curve in the painting. Problem is, the Ninth Avenue el was dismantled in 1940.

Could the artist have added an el train per artistic license? Is the date of the painting earlier than thought? A little more detective work needs to be done.

[Painting: courtesy Tim Helck; first photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 43.131.6.152; third photo: MCNY X2010.26.171]

What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life

February 22, 2021

At first glance, “Winter Scene on Broadway” does what colorized engravings are supposed to do, which is to offer a dramatic, romantic view of life in New York City, mainly for nonresidents.

In this case, the overview is the hustle and bustle of Gotham’s most famous thoroughfare between Prince and Spring Streets in wintertime: icicles hanging from handsome buildings, pedestrians of all stripes navigating the sidewalks, and a jam-packed streetcar fitted with sled rails and pulled by three teams of horses making its way through the snow.

But when you look a little closer, a series of mini stories appear. And these small narratives tell us a lot about how New Yorkers experienced day-to-day life in the mid-1850s—the time period when French painter Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron completed his depiction of the wintry city. (The colorized engraving was done in 1857.)

Take a look at the carriage sleigh on the far right, with four well-dressed individuals chauffeured by a coachman. New York was prosperous at the time of the painting, and the ability to afford a private carriage was a signifier of true wealth. The coachman is African-American, as coachmen often were; it was one of the few professions open to Black New Yorkers at the time.

These folks in their elegant carriage would have no idea that the Panic of 1857 was about to hit, shutting down banks and throwing thousands of New Yorkers out of work. Right now, they could be on their way to a party.

See the firemen in the center and an engine in the street? The three men appear to be responding to an alarm. One blows what looks like a horn—likely a device called a speaking trumpet, which firemen used to amplify their voices while giving orders.

In the 1850s, firefighters were still an all-volunteer crew, and engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies were more like fraternal organizations. They could be fierce rivals who wanted to get to the scene of a blaze first, which these two in Sebron’s painting might be rushing to do.

Meanwhile, two women in hoop skirts with hand muffs stroll up Broadway. (How heavy all their skirts and coats must have been!) They’re probably shopping, as this part of Broadway in the 1850s would have been lined with fine shops and emporiums. Grand Street was the center of this shopping district, but stores were inching northward below Houston Street.

Two men are walking on the sidewalk holding signs. I can’t read what the signs say, but the George Glazer Gallery explains that they are “Chinese immigrants [carrying] advertising signs for P.T. Barnum’s nearby museum.” Barnum’s American Museum was several blocks down Broadway at Ann Street. Kind of a cross between a zoo, theater, and sideshow, it was one of the premier attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Chinese immigrants didn’t settle in the city en masse until the 1870s, which of course doesn’t mean these sign holders didn’t arrive earlier from China. But it does raise the possibility that they are men simply dressing up to look Chinese—the kind of stunt Barnum’s Museum wouldn’t object to.

One more small story in the painting is about the streetcar. Though New Yorkers routinely complained about them—they were crowded and dirty, among other problems—horse-pulled cars were the only mass transit available in the 1850s city. This one looks like it says “Broadway” on the front, and it’s standing room only with some people hanging off the side. Straw likely lines the floor, the only insulation available.

Sebron’s painting captures just a moment during one decade in New York. Quickly, things change: a recession arrives, and then the Civil War. Taller cast-iron buildings replace the three- and four-story walkups. (Though the five-story building on the right is still with us, as the photo of the same stretch of Broadway in 2021 above reveals.)

The Broadway shopping district will relocate uptown, and shops and emporiums will line 10th Street to 23rd Street. Barnum’s Museum burns to the ground in 1865, and newer forms of entertainment will replace it.

Understanding New York subway routes in 1966

February 8, 2021

The New York City subway of today has much in common with the subway of the mid-1960s: most of the train numbers and letters are the same, and they generally follow the same routes they did more than 50 years ago.

But some things have changed, as this guide to the various subway routes (included with a 1966 folded subway map) shows. For one thing, I don’t think anyone born after the 1960s knows the different lines as the IND, IRT, or BRT, though these initials remain on some old station signage.

The double letters indicating a local train are also long gone. And what happened to trains like the HH, or the T? The MTA seemed to offer more shuttles back then, like for 145th Street. And I’m guessing the Myrtle Local is today’s M train?

A snowstorm on Broadway in the Theater District

February 1, 2021

Painter John Sloan, born in Philadelphia, moved to New York City in 1904. Throughout his life he depicted scenes of city residents doing everything from dreaming on rooftops to commuting on the elevated to hanging laundry to partying on Election night.

But “The White Way,” from 1927, is the first Sloan painting I’m aware of that shows the action and activity of Broadway’s Theater District, specifically at 53rd Street. It belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which states this about Sloan’s New York subjects and this work in particular:

“The bustling city streets and crowded tenements supplied the artist with stimulating new subject matter, as seen in this work, which depicts bundled-up pedestrians on a snowy evening at the corner of Broadway and Fifty-Third Street. Recalling the chilly evening in which he sketched this scene, Sloan later commented, “The realization of my surroundings had been frozen in my memory, but I feel that my suffering has been compensated for.”

A site called The Art Story has this comment: “The inspiration for this work was made from a sketch he actually drew in the freezing cold, capturing the atmosphere and energy of a spontaneous moment. While the subject of city life had been a recurring theme for Sloan, this later work celebrated the city as bright and dynamic, with less attention on the individual experience than his earlier Ashcan School paintings. The work is more observational in nature, rendered in a lighter palette and looser brushstrokes that gives it a more impressionistic feel. This represented a general shift in Sloan’s work; soon after this painting was finished, he would shift much of his attention to landscape paintings, portraits, and nudes.”

A crowded workday street scene in the 1950 city

January 18, 2021

Benjamin Eistenstat was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and the few biographies I found about him suggest that he spent much of his artistic career in Pennsylvania.

But in 1950 he was in New York City—where he created this lithograph of a street scene in a very masculine Manhattan. Perhaps this view is of a truncated Grand Central Terminal/42nd Street and Park Avenue Viaduct?

See the image closeup here; with such rich details, it’s easy to get lost in it.

[1stdibs.com]

Old Penn Station’s women-only waiting room

January 4, 2021

The original Penn Station, opened in November 1910, had many things: a beautiful, spacious building, arcades for high-end stores, 21 tracks for arriving and departing trains…and separate waiting rooms for men and women.

Huh? I’d never come across this until I found this postcard of the women’s waiting room, via the NYPL Digital Collection. It sounds very strange to contemporary sensibilities, but apparently single-sex options for travelers existed.

“In addition to the main waiting room, there were separate waiting rooms for ladies and gentlemen, and a smoking room off the men’s,” stated Jay Maeder in his 1999 book, Big Town, Big Time: A New York Epic 1898-1998.

This diagram of the original station shows the upper part of each single-sex waiting room. No word on when these were phased out, if ever, before the old station was torn down in 1963.

Interestingly, the city considered something similar around the same time as Penn Station opened: single-sex subway cars, so women didn’t have to be subjected to “brutes,” as this 1909 New York Times article about the possibility of female-only subway cars called them. That idea was ultimately abandoned.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia]