Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

All the ways to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in 1903

September 21, 2020

Here we are at Brooklyn Terminal in 1903, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge known as the “East River Bridge” during its long construction.

To cross the bridge, you had options. Taking a trolley car was one method; a horse-drawn cart was another. And of course, walking was a possibility. By 1903, it was free to be a pedestrian on the bridge, but when the span opened in 1883, the fee to walk was one cent!

What, no bike lane yet?

[MCNY F2011.33.1886]

The brick beauty of a 1902 East Side power plant

June 29, 2020

Walk along the East River Greenway on the Upper East Side—the breezy riverside path beside the FDR Drive—and you’ll pass hospital buildings, apartment residences, and parks.

But a remnant of a different New York appears as you approach 74th Street.

It’s a dirty red brick and stone fortress, a massive edifice with enormous Romanesque arched windows, the rare building that comes off as hulking and massive while also graceful and elegant.

This citadel could be a former factory or armory. But it’s actually a power plant—something of a companion to a similar power station built across Manhattan at roughly the same time on 11th Avenue and 59th Street.

Completed in 1902 and still in use today, the 74th Street coal-powered generating plant enabled elevated train steam locomotives running on Manhattan’s avenues to switch to electricity.

The debut of electric-powered el trains marked a huge shift in health and safety.

“At the turn of the twentieth century, the powerhouse enabled the transition from steam locomotives to cleaner electric trains, fundamentally improving conditions in the city,” states Columbia University’s Arts Initiative, about a 2014 New York Transit Museum exhibit focusing on the 74th Street power station.

“Before the switch, smoke, cinders, and soot from steam-powered elevated trains plagued Manhattan, blackening the air and dirtying the streets. With the opening of the Manhattan Railway Company’s 74th Street Powerhouse in 1902, those irksome steam engines soon became a thing of the past.”

I’ve passed this powerhouse several times recently, and though I didn’t know its backstory, it always looked familiar to me.

Turns out the red-brick building is in this 1934 painting of the East River, a favorite of mine. Painter Jara Henry Valenta gives us a still and solitary view of the coal boats waiting at the water’s edge, with no FDR drive in the way.

“Though the 74th Street Power Station is still in use today, it is no longer coal powered,” states the Museum of the City of New York.

“In 1959 the plant was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company and it continued to supply coal power to substations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In 1999 new boilers and gas turbine generators replaced steam ones and the station continues to contribute to the city’s electric power grid.”

MCNY’s digital collection of photos of the plant under construction is fascinating, as well as the images revealing the inside of this cavernous monument to power and energy.

[Third image: MCNY, F2012.53.270A; Fourth image, MCNY, F2012.53.308A]

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

Let the Brooklyn Bridge show you the way

June 8, 2020

The Brooklyn Bridge (or the East River Bridge, as this 1920 postcard charmingly calls it) is many things.

It’s a display of engineering might, a graceful web of wire over water, a symbol of New York’s unity, the embodiment of promise and possibility. Let it be a source of inspiration during this time when our city has been tested.

[MCNY F2011.33.1882]

The factories of Queens sparking to life in 1910

May 18, 2020

Born in Dublin and educated in Paris, Aloysius C. O’Kelly was a turn of the century painter whose body of work reflects time spent in Europe, Ireland, and England.

But he spent time in New York, too, where he captured the congestion and manufacturing happening on the Queens side of the new Queensboro Bridge in “Tugboats in the East River, New York.”

“The East River, circa 1910, stands apart as one of O’Kelly’s few industrial New York landscapes,” writes Heritage Auctions, where the painting is up for sale.

“Shaping the composition is the dramatic cantilever Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Long Island, considered an engineering marvel at its completion in 1909. Here, the viewer looks north from the East River toward Queens, with its dense cluster of factories and warehouses sparking to life in the early morning haze.”

A vintage neon garage sign lights East 76th Street

May 11, 2020

Fellow fans of New York City in gorgeous neon: feast your eyes on this vertical vintage beauty on quiet East 76th Street between First and Second Avenues.

The glowing sign tells us that the blond-brick garage is open to “transients.” That must mean short-term parkers, but it’s a word you don’t see on city garages anymore.

I don’t know how old the sign is. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s almost as old as the garage, which dates to 1930.

This might be part of the garage, in a 1940 tax photo. It’s on 76th Street but the building number is slightly off…possibly a typo? The smaller sign is to tiny to read.

[Third photo: Department of Records and Information Services]

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

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).

A surrealistic morning commute in the 1952 city

May 4, 2020

Yellow taxis fly by a red bus, and pedestrians in coats as gray as the pavement seem frozen on the sidelines. This is a New York intersection in 1952, and it’s the vision of Ernst Haas, a groundbreaking photographer who blended photojournalism with art.

“His style became known for marrying photojournalism with artistic expression and his work elevated color photography from tourist snapshots into the realm of high art,” wrote Curious.com.

It’s one moment in time in a very different New York. See more of Haas’ stunning photos of the midcentury city here.

A mob torches New York’s Quarantine Hospital

April 20, 2020

New York in the 18th and 19th centuries was a place of constant ship traffic. Ships helped make the city rich—but the passengers and crew aboard them also brought bacteria and viruses.

To prevent ships from sparking more disease outbreaks in a city that was regularly besieged by them, the state built the New York Marine Hospital in 1799, a complex of buildings behind a six-foot wall in Tompkinsville, a village on the north shore of sparsely populated Staten Island.

The Quarantine, as it was known, functioned as a first line of defense.

Ships headed for the city were required to dock there, and health inspectors would board the vessel and make sure no one showed signs of disease, especially yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, or typhus (so common it was dubbed “ship fever”). If all was well, the ship could continue on to Manhattan or Brooklyn.

But if inspectors suspected or saw evidence of disease, they would flag the vessel and “divert everyone on board to the Quarantine until they were cleared as disease-free,” wrote the New York Daily News in 2013.

Those who were not sick still had to go to the Quarantine. “If the healthy passengers and crewmen did not develop any symptoms of illness over a specified period of time—the period depending on the disease—they were released,” explains a 2004 article in Public Health Reports.

As for the sick passengers, their clothes were washed immediately. They were then loaded into wagons and brought to one of the hospital buildings. (Interestingly, there was a separate quarantine hospital building for first class passengers, which was described as more of a hotel.)

If they died, they were buried in a cemetery two miles away.

As immigration boomed in the 19th century, the hospital became busier. Throughout the 1850s, two million immigrants came to the city, and the Quarantine sometimes housed a thousand newcomers at a time, according to Public Health Reports.

While the Quarantine was necessary to help prevent outbreaks, the people who lived on Staten Island in the mid-19th century weren’t too happy about having it as a neighbor. A yellow fever outbreak that killed 11 Staten Islanders in 1856 was blamed on the hospital.

Residents of Tompkinsville and other nearby villages felt that the facility hurt the value of their property. They also called out the hospital for carelessly wheeling dead bodies through their town on the way to the cemetery.

In the late 1840s, Staten Island residents convinced the city to move the Quarantine to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, but the plan stalled. For the next decade, residents fought to close and relocate the hospital, but the battle was tied up in legislation.

Finally, in August 1858, tensions hit the breaking point, and “citizens began stockpiling straw, wood, and flammable camphene near the Quarantine,” wrote the Daily News.

On September 1, the local board of health approved a resolution that ended with “Resolved: That this board recommend the citizens of this county to protect themselves by abating this abominable nuisance without delay.”

That night, about 30 men went to the Quarantine, lit a pile of straw mattresses pushed against a building, and watched the facility burn. The next night, the mob had swelled into the hundreds. Arsonists continued to burn down buildings until nothing remained.

“Three fire companies lolled their way to the scene, then stood and watched, claiming their hoses had been cut,” stated the Daily News. “A contingent of harbor policemen who arrived by boat were driven off by boys throwing rocks. City police from across the harbor didn’t even answer the alarms.”

No one in the hospital was killed in the blaze; at the time, only 60 patients were inside. Newspaper headlines talked of the “Quarantine Wars.” Two ringleaders went on trial in front of a Staten Island judge but were acquitted.

Ultimately the mob got its way. A year later, a floating quarantine hospital was anchored off Staten Island as a temporary replacement. By the 1860s, quarantine facilities were moved to Swinburne and Hoffman Islands, both created by landfill in the lower end of New York Harbor.

[Top image: JStor; second image: NYPL; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: New York Herald; sixth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; seventh image: NYPL]

The men who took the Fulton Ferry in 1914

March 2, 2020

In 1814, Robert Fulton’s Fulton Ferry Company began regular steamboat ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. A century later, artist Herbert Bolivar Tschudy depicted the ferry and some of its riders in “Fulton Street Ferry, Evening, 1914.”

Tschudy’s ferry riders are men painted like a monolith in dark colors, the Manhattan skyline like a fortress in the distance.

None of the riders look our way or even at one another. It’s the pose all commuters take, whether they’re on a ferry or subway or bus: don’t make eye contact, get lost in your thoughts or the view, and wait quietly until the ride is over.