Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

What remains of the other end of the High Line

April 24, 2017

High Line Park stretches along the West Side from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, following the original tracks of the 1934 elevated railway — which trucked raw materials and finished goods in and out of Manhattan’s once-bustling factories.

Then at Gansevoort Street, right beside the gleaming new Whitney Museum, the park suddenly ends in a steep drop.

But the High Line itself never ended here. It continued south to Spring Street, zipping in and out of factories along Washington Street until it reached St. John’s Terminal at Pier 40.

What happened to this southern end of the High Line — which could have extended the park another mile or so?

As Manhattan’s manufacturing base shrank and rail shipping declined, the steel trestle was demolished starting in the 1960s bit by bit. Most of the factories that relied on the line were bulldozed to make way for the West Village Houses.

(A shame, sure, but it would have been inconceivable to New Yorkers back then that anyone would want to keep the rundown elevated railway and turn it into a beautiful park overlooking Tenth Avenue).

More than three decades since the entire line ceased in 1980, almost nothing of the southern end of the High Line survives.

But take a walk down Washington Street, where a few of the surviving factories have been turned into housing. You can easily see where the rail cars went in and out of 812 Washington Street, once part of the Manhattan Refrigerating Company (top two photos).

Same with the enormous, block-long building a few blocks down the street at Bethune Street (above).

Before it was transformed into the artists’ housing complex known as Westbeth in 1971, this handsome building was part of Bell Laboratories.

Bell Labs was established here in the late 19th century; the company refitted their second floor to accommodate the High Line in the 1930s.

[Second photo: GVSHP; fourth photo: Friends of the High Line]

A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871

April 17, 2017

Every few years a shocking murder occurs in New York, one that overwhelms the city’s attention and provokes fear and outrage about the randomness of urban crime.

The “Car-Hook Tragedy” of 1871 was one of those murders.

It happened on the evening of April 26. Avery Putnam (below), by all accounts a mild-mannered Pearl Street merchant, was escorting a dressmaker family friend identified as Madam Duval to the Church of the Advent at 55 West 46th Street.

Madam Duval’s younger daughter was at the church singing in the choir. Putnam was taking Duval and her older daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, to the performance from their home on Broadway and Ninth Street.

The three boarded an uptown streetcar at University Place. The main form of public transportation at a time when elevated trains were still in infancy, streetcars were pulled by horses along steel tracks embedded in the street.

For a nickel fare, passengers could expect a sometimes noisy, smelly, bumpy ride — an increasingly in the Gilded Age, crime.

The streetcar carrying the three traveled up Broadway. At about 29th Street — as it passed the then-new Gilsey House (right), a hotel and now an apartment house still standing today — Jennie went on the car’s outside platform to look at the clock.

At that moment, a drunk, recently fired conductor named William Foster (below left) leered at Jenny, and then her mother, “in a most offensive manner,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Only a few other passengers were in the car. Putnam had words with Foster, asking him to leave the women alone. Foster began cursing him out, declaring that he would “fix [Putnam] when he got off.”

At 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, Putnam and the Duvals left the streetcar. True to his word, Foster followed behind them with a car-hook (an iron tool conductors used) and bashed Putnam over the head with it.

The merchant was left mortally wounded in the street, the Duvals shrieking in horror. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital two days later.

The savagery of the murder was rivaled by the callousness of passersby.

“None of the passers-by stopped to assist the ladies in dragging the body of their unfortunate friend to the sidewalk, out of the way of a down car, which was rapidly approaching,” wrote Harper’s Weekly.

Foster, a hulking New York native had a previous job working for Boss Tweed, was arrested and arraigned on murder charges. “Foster had very little to offer in his own defense,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“There had been several witnesses to the murder in addition to Madam Duval and her daughter, and at the time of his arrest, Foster admitted to the crime. He denied that the murder was premeditated and claimed he was too drunk to know what he was doing.”

As Foster himself put it: “Drink had crazed my brain, and to that cursed demon . . . I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

Prosecutors, however, said the murder was premeditated, in part because Foster forced the driver to give him the car-hook four blocks before Putnam left the streetcar.

At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs.

The focus of the car-hook tragedy now turned to Foster’s sentence. Many New Yorkers supported it; others felt he deserved mercy, as he was a husband and father.

There were also allegations that Foster’s wealthy father and friends tried to bribe Madam Duval to ask the governor to pardon the killer.

Foster got several reprieves. But in the end, he died for his crime, in front of 300 witnesses in the yard inside the Tombs (right).

[Top photo: typical streetcar in 1872, Alamy; second photo: Harper’s Weekly; fourth photo: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy; fifth photo: New York Times headline; sixth and seventh photos: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy]

Old subway signage of a less complicated city

April 10, 2017

It’s always fun to come across vintage subway signs at stations across New York—and often they can tell us something about how people got around underground in a very different 20th century city.

Take a look at this entrance at the Fulton Street Station downtown. The contemporary signage is functional and color-coded.

But it’s so much lovelier the old-school way, when the sign above the stairs simply tells you this will take you “down town.”

At the Lorimer Street stop in Williamsburg you can switch to the “crosstown line,” a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use when they say they’re about to jump on the G train.

It makes Brooklyn sound like one big town (or city, as it once was, of course) rather than collection of very different neighborhoods it is today.

“Subway Entrance” above this stairwell attached to the Trinity Building on Lower Broadway is done up in wonderful serif style. No train names or letters; its simplicity tells you everything you need to know.

Here’s one modern touch to get a kick out of: the stairs first lead you to a Subway sandwich shop.

A final elevated train shines on Ninth Avenue

April 6, 2017

You can almost hear this elevated train grinding against the tracks as it makes its way up (or down?) Ninth Avenue.

The Ninth Avenue El (which traveled along Greenwich Street to Ninth Avenue and then to Columbus Avenue) was the city’s first elevated railroad, ferrying passengers since 1868.

Andreas Feininger captured the solitary steel beauty of the tracks as they glisten under the sun in this photo in 1940, the year the line shut down.

The crowds inside a 14th Street subway station

April 3, 2017

Reginald Marsh painted everything in his New York of the 1930s and 1940s: Bowery crowds, showgirls, forgotten men, Coney Island beachgoers, tugboats, panhandlers, and shoppers.

So of course he would take his sketchpad and chronicle New Yorkers using mass transit underground. In 1930 he painted “Subway, 14th Street,” showing a crowd of city residents rushing en masse to or from the train, each absorbed in his or her own world.

If only the newspaper headlines were a little easier for viewers to read!

A March blizzard pummels New York by surprise

March 13, 2017

The day before it hit, the temperature (measured from the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway) was a balmy 40 degrees—and the forecast at the tail end of what had been a warm winter called for light rain.

The next morning, Monday, March 12, 1888, the rain had turned to snow, ferocious winds created heavy drifts, and temperatures dropped to the low 20s.(Below, Park Street in Brooklyn)

For the next 24 hours, “the city went into its gas-lighted rooms and its heated houses, and its parlors and beds tired, wet, helpless, and full of amazement,” reported the New York Sun on March 13. (Below, 14th Street)

Take a look at these scenes of the city during and after the “White Hurricane” that pummeled the metropolis at the start of a workweek in mid-March 129 years ago.

About 200 people were killed during the storm itself and many more succumbed to storm-caused injuries later, felled by heavy snow or left in unheated flats after coal deliveries ceased. (Below, Fifth Avenue at 27th Street)

The downed power lines, stuck streetcars and trolleys, and deep mounds of snow are reminders of all the damage a late winter storm can do when city residents have been tricked by a mild winter season into feeling spring fever before winter is officially over.

Exiled Cuban journalist Jose Marti chronicled the storm from his New York home for an Argentinian newspaper.

Marti captured the mood of the city paralyzed by snow in poetic, descriptive prose, more of which you can read in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

The colossal failure of a 1905 Bleecker Street bar

March 6, 2017

subwaytaverngettyimagesNew York is a city rich with bars: corner bars, dive bars, gay bars, sports bars.

Bar culture is so ingrained here, a tavern functioned as the colony’s makeshift city hall through the end of the 1600s.

But imagine a bar that downplayed its beer and liquor menu and hoped to lure patrons by offering soda, hot chocolate, ice cream sodas—and a dose of religious sermonizing?

That was the idea behind the Subway Tavern, which opened in 1905 in a Federal-style row house on Bleecker and Mulberry Streets near the new subway system’s Bleecker Street stop.

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Dubbed by a snickering Newspaper Row as a “moral bar,” the Subway Tavern was the brainchild of Bishop Henry Codman Potter (below), leader of New York’s Protestant archdiocese.

subwaytavernbishoppotterAt the turn of the century, saloons were under siege, with the temperance movement bearing down hard.

It didn’t help that in the 1890s, reform-minded police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt began enforcing the excise laws that forbid the sale of booze on Sundays.

Potter thought that outlawing alcohol was a terrible idea, because “the workingman,” needed a place to drink “without hypocrisy.”

“When the day is done,” remarked Potter in a magazine article of the era, “what is to become of those persons whose lives are given over to laborious toil?”

subwaytavernnytimes8311905“I belong to the Century and the Union League and other clubs, and can go to them. But where are these people going?”

“By inevitable necessity to the saloon, and if you place the saloon under the ban you make it one of the most tragic or comic failures in history,” he explained.

So Potter launched his family-friendly tavern. The business plan had it that the manager would make money off the sale of non-alcoholic drinks yet receive nothing for liquor sales. The thought was that he would push the sale of soda—and fewer men would stumble home drunk.

subwaytavernmcny“In the front men, women, boys, and girls are invited to buy soda, and the place has the appearance of an ordinary soda water store,” wrote the New-York Tribune.

“A curtain in the rear leads to a saloon, where liquors and free lunch abound.” There was also a restaurant on a lower level.

Even in a reform-minded city, the Subway Tavern was a flop. Temperance leaders and clergymen denounced Bishop Potter for supporting an establishment that served evil alcohol. Few patrons showed up.

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Thirteen months after the Subway Tavern earned national attention as a way to clean up tavern culture without shutting bars down totally, it was shuttered. (Here’s the site today, after the building was razed).

In a city that revels in the ritual of drinking as well as alcoholic debauchery, this saloon was doomed to fail.

[Top photo: Getty Images; second photo: MCNY, 1905, x1905.34.2181; third photo: Wiki; fourth image, 1905 New York Times headline; fifth photo: MCNY, x2011.34.2169]

The mystery man in a rowboat on the East River

February 27, 2017

The Hudson has its beauty. But New York owes its financial power to the East River—not really a river of course but a 16-mile tidal estuary that for most of the city’s history was one of the busiest ports in the world.

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This late 19th century painting of a pale blue East River thick with ships on both sides and a lone man in a rowboat apparently struggling in the current is credited by one source to Impressionist William Merritt Chase.

I haven’t been able to confirm Chase as the artist. But as a Brooklyn resident in the 1880s, he often focused on the city’s physical beauty as well as scenes of day-to-day life that suggest a bit of mystery.

The $20 million jewel in Grand Central Terminal

February 6, 2017

brassclockwikiSince Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, “meet me under the clock” has always meant one place: the magnificent four-faced brass timepiece on top of the information booth in the main concourse.

This iconic clock isn’t Grand Central largest or most commanding. That might be the Tiffany clock on the 42nd Street facade, the largest stained-glass Tiffany clock in the world.

But the “golden” concourse clock, as it was called in a 1954 New York Times story about the clock’s restoration, might be the most valuable, to the tune of $20 million.

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It’s not the brass that makes it so pricey. The four 24-inch wide faces are made out of opal glass.

grandcentralclocktwilightThat, as well as its history and the workmanship of the clock (built by plainly named Self-Winding Clock Company of Brooklyn!) have reportedly led appraisers from Sotheby’s and Christie’s to value it at $10-$20 million.

The clock also features an acorn on top—a symbol representing the motto of the Vanderbilt family (they built Grand Central, of course): “from a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

Finding beauty and poetry in a cold, snowy city

January 30, 2017

Not a fan of the chilly wet days that characterize a New York winter? Let these shimmering images from Saul Leiter of the city in the 1950s and 1960s give you a different perspective.

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Leiter, a longtime East Village resident who died in 2013 at age 89, was one of Gotham’s greatest (and mostly unheralded) street photographers, capturing the color of the mid-century metropolis in a subdued, tender glow.

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His soft-focus photos show us seemingly random, ordinary street scenes: pedestrians at a newsstand, a worker taking a break on the sidewalk, the visual poetry of people and buildings reflected in glass, around corners, and through a misty lens.

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Perhaps his most evocative photos showcase New York during wintertime. In a season when shades of gray typically mark the sky and sidewalks, Leiter’s camera manages to draw out the magnificent colors of the winter city.

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Yellow taxis, red umbrellas, and the white and red signage on a city bus contrast with snowed-in and rained-out streets.

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“I may be old-fashioned,” Leiter says in a 2014 documentary about his art and life, In No Great Hurry. “But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”

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He found that beauty in the slush, snowfall, and puddles of New York’s anonymous streets.