Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Two magical views of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

August 19, 2019

What’s more inspiring than an old color postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge?

An old color postcard of this “eighth wonder of the world,” as it was called on its opening day in May 1883, at night—with the city skyline and the lights of the bridge casting an enchanting glow across the East River.

The earliest postcard of the nighttime bridge is from 1906 (above), and I’m not sure I recognize what appears to be the Brooklyn side in the foreground.

Buildings are short and squat. Pedestrians walk the bridge as they do today, though the trolleys are gone; they were discontinued in 1950.

This second Brooklyn Bridge postcard gives us the bridge three decades later, in 1930.

The bridge itself doesn’t seem to be the focus so much as the magnificent Manhattan skyline of gleaming, towering buildings.

And wow, an airship! I hope it’s not planning to dock at the top of the Empire State Building; that idea didn’t exactly pan out when it was proposed in the 1920s as the building was under construction.

Mystery monuments on the “East River Drive”

July 29, 2019

It towers above the FDR Drive at about 93rd Street: a rectangular monolith facing the parkway.

A forgotten Yorkville war memorial or monument to a long-gone neighborhood leader? I went to the end of East 93rd Street on the grounds of the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses to take a look.

Composed of stone blocks and set inside a small garden, the monument reads, “East River Drive” and then “Triborough Bridge Approach.”

The East River Drive part makes sense; this was the original name of the FDR Drive, built in the 1930s to run along the length of Manhattan’s East Side.

The “Triborough Bridge Approach” is more of a question mark. The bridge, opened in 1936 under the auspices of legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, connects Manhattan to Randalls Island via 125th Street.

So why a sign announcing the approach to the bridge at 93rd Street?

It might be because the Triborough (now called the RFK Bridge), was supposed to be built at 103rd Street and be a direct conduit to Queens, according to NYCRoads.

“Moses originally proposed that the Manhattan arm of the Triborough Bridge be constructed at East 103rd Street so as to avoid the mental institutions on Randall’s Island,” the site explains. “However, the East 125th Street location that was previously procured for the Triborough Bridge was used instead.”

Why? Because of William Randolph Hearst, according to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of Moses.

“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there [at 103rd Street] and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. Not willing to tangle with Hearst or his newspaper empire, Moses “left the terminus at 125th Street.”

The FDR Drive monuments, then, may have been built with 103rd Street in mind.

The earlier name for Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway

July 15, 2019

While browsing old postcards of Brooklyn recently, I came across this lovely image from 1905, which features a bicyclist on the then-new cycling path on Ocean Parkway.

Then I looked closer at the postcard. Ocean Boulevard? This was apparently the name for the street in the late 19th century.

Newspaper articles in 1869 announced that the “Grand Ocean Boulevard” from Prospect Park to Coney Island was in the works. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it was to be modeled after the grand boulevards of Europe, with a pedestrian path on the grassy median.

Thanks to the popularity of cycling in the late 19th century, the bicycle path came into the picture in 1894.

Ocean Boulevard? The term seemed to fall out of favor, and by the 1890s, most news stories called it Ocean Parkway.

When summer arrived, so did open-air streetcars

July 8, 2019

New York summers were as stifling, sultry, and sweat-soaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries as they are today.

In that pre-AC city, the last place you wanted to be on a July afternoon was in a horse-drawn streetcar. (At right, traveling on First Avenue and 67th Street in 1904).

Sure you might be able to open the windows, but you were basically crammed into a group of perspiring passengers inside a metal box under the broiling sun.

“In summer the packing-box system makes comfort impossible,” complained the New York Herald of streetcars in 1876.

So with summertime comfort in mind, streetcar companies—especially the John Stephenson Streetcar Company, a leading manufacturer on East 27th Street near Fourth Avenue—began making “summer cars,” which showed up on city streets in the 1870s and 1880s.

These open-air streetcars had rows of seats but no side panels, so taking a ride in one offered fresh air and something of a breeze, depending how fast the horses were traveling.

While they were most certainly a relief from the heat, these summer cars seemed to be a lot less safe than the regular streetcars.

New York and Brooklyn newspaper archives contain many stories of people falling off them and getting injured or killed. Seat belts, needless to say, were nonexistent.

Of course, taking a streetcar in the winter wasn’t danger-free either, as this firsthand account from a boy in the 1860s demonstrates.)

[First image: unknown; second image: MCNY, 44.295.142; third image, MCNY, 44.295.119; fourth image: MCNY, 44.295.155]

The Grand Street bus cruising 1970s New York

June 24, 2019

This is Park Row and Broadway in 1972. John Lindsay was the New York’s mayor; that year, he launched a short-lived quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Transit strikes, teacher strikes, and a sanitation workers’ walkout in the 1960s continued to cripple the 1970s city. By the end of the decade, almost a million people had left Gotham and resettled elsewhere.

But New York kept going, just like this “fishbowl” style bus is doing—cruising its way downtown back to Grand Street. The photo was taken by Joe Testagore and is part of a large collection of vintage transit photos at the wonderful nycsubway.com website.

“Human alienation” on the Manhattan Bridge

June 10, 2019

Countless artists have painted the Brooklyn Bridge. But not Edward Hopper.

Instead of focusing on the city’s most beloved and beatified bridge, Hopper in 1928 used the nearby but less-loved Manhattan Bridge to depict the isolation and solitude of modern urban life.

“In his powerful and evocative painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hopper has frozen this transportation nexus of bridge, streets, railways, and crowded tenements in lower Manhattan in an eerie stillness and bathed it with cold crystalline light,” states the Addison Gallery of Art in Massachusetts, where the painting is on display.

“A solitary figure, trudging along under the shadow of the blank embankment, suggests the human alienation possible within the urban life.”

This is how to decode any Manhattan address

May 20, 2019

These days, New Yorkers need only to whip out their phones to figure out the cross street for any Manhattan address.

But in the pre-Google Maps era, city residents had another way of deciphering cross streets. Not to scare you, but it involves a little math.

This guide, the size of a business card, sums up the formulas, which varied depending on what street address you wanted to decode.

Ephemeral reader Rich L. found this old-school gem while going through old papers and thinks it was printed in the 1960s. Try it, it really works!

A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones

May 6, 2019

Franklin Place is another one of those delightfully hidden alleys you stumble upon in Lower Manhattan—a one-block thread connecting Franklin and White Streets between Church Street and Broadway.

 Somehow, a new luxury condo managed to get an address on Franklin Place.

But no other business or residence opens onto this former 19th century lane, known as Scott’s Alley until the early 1850s, according to the Tribeca Citizen.

Long lined with loft buildings used for manufacturing, Franklin Place is actually a private street, owned by the property owners whose buildings run along either side of the alley, the Citizen reported in 2017.

Franklin Place is an evocative place to stand and imagine what today’s Tribeca was like almost 200 years ago. (Above, looking toward Franklin Street today; at right, the same view shot between 1970-1990.)

One aspect of the street that makes it even more redolent of the post-colonial, antebellum city?

The Belgian block paving stones, which nearby alleys like Cortlandt Alley and Benson Street don’t have.

The blocks are appropriately worn down and broken in some places, a testament to the industry Franklin Place (below, looking toward Franklin Street) has seen.

That’s not to mention the horse hoofs, wagon wheels, and foot traffic pounding the blocks day after day after day.

New York City still has roughly 15 miles of granite block streets, according to a 2017 Historic Districts Council report.

It’s unclear why these paving stones are called Belgian block, but the city began laying them down as early as the mid-1850s.

“The surviving stone we refer to as Belgian block began to be used in the 1870s,” notes the HDC report.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—’a very solid and impervious roadbed,’ according to an 1895 report in The City Record,” the report explains.

“Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.”

“By 1900, the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe.”

Still, Belgian blocks had their problems. In the rain, they became slick and slippery. And they were especially noisy, according to the HDC.

Asphalt came into use in the 1890s, and slowly, Belgian blocks disappeared from the cityscape. You can still find them downtown, though, and Franklin Place contains a treasure trove of them.

[Third photo: MCNY, 2013.3.1.285; Fifth image: NYPL, 1925]

All the ways to get around Brooklyn in 1915

April 22, 2019

I count six transportation options Brooklynites had in 1915, according to this rich and detailed postcard of Flatbush Avenue.

There’s the elevated train, of course, as well as a streetcar, automobile, bicycle, horse and wagon, and of course, getting around on foot, as most of the crowd seems to be doing—when they’re not mugging for the camera against streetlights.

[MCNY F2011.33.2138C]

Upper Manhattan once resembled a country town

February 11, 2019

It looks like a country scene: a slender iron bridge, green bluffs across the river, groups of women strolling while shielding themselves with straw hats and sun umbrellas, a couple wheeling a child in a stroller, two men in a carriage led by a single horse.

A Midwestern village? Actually it’s 155th Street on the Harlem-Washington Heights border circa 1900, after the Macombs Dam Bridge opened in 1895 and before this section of Manhattan attracted industry, traffic, and a tidal wave of new residents looking for space and better housing.

The wonderful thing is that Macombs Dam Bridge still stands today, flanked by the same stone sentry towers.