Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

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.

A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light

February 24, 2020

Martin Lewis’ masterful etchings—which offer shadowy, poetic glimpses of 1920s and 1930s New York—have been featured on Ephemeral New York many times before.

[“Dock Workers Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” 1916-1918]

But just when I’d given up on finding new examples of the way he illuminates the darker (and sometimes darkly humorous) edges of the cityscape, I came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s digitized collection—which includes a trove of Lewis’ etchings.

[“Tree Manhattan,” no date]

His street scenes demonstrate a deep understanding of the city’s many moods. Yet Lewis wasn’t a New York native. Born in Australia, he made his way to Manhattan in the early 1900s.

[“Derricks,” 1927]

By 1905, he was living on West 14th Street and making a living as a commercial artist, according to a biography on The Old Print Shop website, where his work is featured.

[“The Great Shadow,” 1925]

His first surviving etchings date to the mid-1910s. But his compositions from the 1920s and 1930s are the ones that made his name, giving him access to galleries and shows.

[“Subway Steps,” 1930]

These are finely detailed illustrations—mostly nocturnes—of solitary figures or crowds. People are coming and going along sidewalks and subway staircases, on their way home from a night out or heading to work in the morning.

[“Break in the Thunderstorm,” 1930]

Some are on rooftops or in alleys, others portray people working the night shift as the rest of the city is safe in well-lit apartments. Laundry hangs on lines; tenements are dwarfed by the glowing interiors of towering buildings.

Lewis often featured kids playing and young women dressed for a night on the town. He didn’t always indicate the exact setting of his street scenes, but he sometimes put a neighborhood or bridge in the title. (The locations of the work in this post, unfortunately, are shrouded in mystery.)

It’s hard to explain why Lewis’ surviving prints still resonate today. A New York Times review of his work from 1929 suggests that he captures the contradictions inherent in New York—the shifting light and darkness, the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

Interestingly, the faces of his figures are often hidden from view. But based on their body language and the surrounding street scene, we can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.

[All images: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

Old subway sign beauty on a 23rd Street platform

February 17, 2020

You won’t notice them as you descend the grimy stairs into the 23rd Street station.

But once you’re on the platform waiting for your R or W train, the uniqueness of the individual tiles and swirly typeface hits you.

These are the original mosaic tile bands and tablets added to platform walls when this station opened in 1918, per Subway.org.

What is it about the tiles themselves, as well as the curlicue numbers and serif lettering, that are so much more magical than the helvetica signage used in many stations today?

They turn an otherwise drab local station beneath Broadway into a time machine to the early days of the subway system, when architects were brought in to refine and beautify rough, industrial-looking platforms.

This is the station with the beloved hat tiles as well, a recent installation that’s a nod to the area’s history as an entertainment and shopping district.

But there’s just something about the colors and craftwork of those “23” and “23rd Street” tiles that really enchant and delight.

Who is taking the steam ferry to Brooklyn in 1836

February 10, 2020

This was how you crossed the East River in the 1830s: by a steam-powered ferry sporting an American flag and a belching smokestack. Perhaps you’d be accompanied by some horses, one attached to a covered wagon.

That’s what this hand-colored 1836 engraving from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, by G.K. Richardson after William Henry Bartlett, tells us. It’s simply titled, “The Ferry at Brooklyn, New York.”

You might take this river crossing all in stride and not demonstrate any excitement about it, as the ladies talking in a circle on the left side of the ferry seem to be doing. Or the ferry ride might thrill you or make you ponder things, as you rest against the railing like the figures on the right.

Go to the Smithsonian site via the link above and use the zoom button to really see the ferry riders.

The neighborhood leveled to build Penn Station

February 3, 2020

Mention the original Penn Station, and most New Yorkers simply sigh—resigned to the cold reality that in 1963 the city allowed a demolition crew to tear down the 1910 “Roman temple to transportation,” with its doric columns and two-block waiting room at West 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue.

Everyone mourns that Penn Station. But what about the neighborhood that was leveled by 1904 so Penn Station could be built and completed six years later?

Four entire blocks were demolished to make way for the station, blocks bounded by West 31st and 33rd Streets and Seventh and Ninth Avenues. (At right, West 30th and Seventh Avenue, 1903—not in the demo zone but still a good idea of the surrounding neighborhood.)

These blocks were on the western edge of the Tenderloin: by day a functional to rundown walkups and tenements, and by night Gilded Age New York’s rollicking sin district roughly between 23rd and 42nd Streets and Sixth to Ninth Avenues.

[Above, John Sloan’s Haymarket, the name of a popular club in the Tenderloin circa 1908]

Formerly known as “Satan’s Circus,” the area got its new colorful name after a crooked cop named Alexander “Clubber” Williams transferred to a police precinct in the Tenderloin.

“I have had chuck for a long time, and now I’m going to eat tenderloin,” Williams supposedly told an associate—a reference to the riches in protection money he planned to seek from local madams and gambling den owners.

But one person’s vice district is another’s home sweet home. While the Tenderloin met wealthy New Yorkers’ needs for gambling, dancing, and sex, thousands of working class and poor residents went about day-to-day life there.

“Many respectable and hard-working folks lived and toiled here, as the recent census recorded, and by day it appeared to be just another shabby city enclave,” wrote Jill Jonnes in Conquering Gotham: a Gilded Age Epic.

“When night enveloped Gotham, and Manhattan’s skyscrapers and grand hotels glowed with the wondrous electric light, the streets here became a hotbed of vice.”

Immigrant Jews, Irish, and Italians lived in crowded, sketchy apartments, working as tailors and waiters.

African Americans also resided here in relatively large numbers. (As seen in the three images on West 30th Street in 1903.) “They toiled as railroad porters, hotel porters, waiters, launderers, stable hands, and cooks,” wrote Jonnes.

Few of the people who were involved with acquiring and then demolishing these blocks saw the humanity of the residents.

The rundown area was “given up to the French and Negro colonies, to much manufacturing and to buildings that grow more and more shabby as they approach the river, finally degenerating into a slum…this section today is one of the most troublesome in New York,” Jonnes quotes one source.

In 1901, after the site for Penn Station was selected, Pennsylvania Railroad operatives began identifying property owners and buying them out, or began getting them condemned.

It probably wasn’t difficult. With a progressive city cracking down on prostitution and drinking in the early 1900s, Gotham was less likely to tolerate a vice district with, for example, an entire row of brothels like “Soubrette Row” on West 39th Street.

By 1903, many of the properties were condemned; the people who lived there dispersed to Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, or San Juan Hill, in the West 60s.

By 1905, they were gone—replaced by an enormous pit the New York Sun called “the biggest hole ever dug in New York.”

“Where only three or four years ago something like 400 houses, shops, and other structures stood, and their 5,000 or 6,000 lived and trafficked, to-day there is nothing but earth and rock and devastation—and a small army of laborers working day and night with drills, steam shovels, and several lines of narrow gage railroad, working incessantly to make a big hole in the ground bigger and deeper,” wrote the Sun.

Five years later, Penn Station opened and dazzled New Yorkers.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18076; third image: Haymarket, 1908 by John Sloan; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15396; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15398; sixth image: New York Sun, 1905; seventh image: George Bellows, 1907-1908; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: Wikipedia]

The slight curve of the platform at Spring Street

February 3, 2020

Ever notice that the subway platform at the Spring Street 6 train station has kind of a curve?

Instead of a straight platform from end to end, it’s shaped like a slight C, so when the train cars pull in, they almost curl a bit against it.

Is it an IRT thing on the entire East Side line? In any case, it makes the station feel a little less cold and grimy—a little more bouncy.

All the ways to get to 23rd Street in 1910

January 20, 2020

By foot, streetcar, horse-driven carriage, automobile, or elevated train, New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th century came to do its shopping on 23rd Street—the northern border of the Ladies Mile shopping district, which boasted eminent stores such as Stern Brothers and Best & Co.

23rd Street was such a busy shopping corridor, postcards showing the commercial hustle and bustle were printed for sale. This one, dated 1910, looks to capture the street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

See the “toys” sign hanging off a building on the left? That might be the original FAO Schwarz, which operated at 39 and 41 West 23rd Street from 1897 to 1935, when the store moved uptown.

[Postcard: MCNY X2011.34.504]

A Manhattan train station had a potbelly stove

January 13, 2020

Imagine how much better your winter workday commute would be if your station had a potbelly stove—which you could wait beside in toasty comfort?

Train riders at this West Side station had that luxury, as seen in one of the wonderful photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for her legendary book, Berenice Abbott’s New York.

The potbelly stove photo was captured on February 6, 1936. We know the exact date—but which train station is this?

Over the years, it’s been misidentified as a subway station. But it’s actually an above ground El station, per Abbott’s photo caption: “”El station Interior, Sixth and Ninth Avenue lines, downtown side, 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.”

How Edward Hopper sees the Manhattan Bridge

December 30, 2019

Edward Hopper has painted the Manhattan Bridge before; “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, depicts this least-celebrated East River crossing with “eerie stillness” and a sense of solitude and isolation.

Two years earlier, he captured something similar in “Manhattan Bridge” (owned by the Whitney Museum). It’s a scene free of human beings and any clue about the time of day or season of the year.

The Manhattan Bridge span (only 17 years old in 1926) is flowy and graceful. The low-rise red building at the water’s edge is literally on its last legs; it leans away from the bridge like it’s afraid of it.

The scene seems so passive, it’s almost as if time is standing still…but time is rushing forth. The old city of wood shacks is bowing down to the modern metropolis of steel bridges that are supposed to connect people in an urban landscape that actually isolates.

The magical “blue hour” in rainy 1940 New York

December 9, 2019

It’s the blue hour in “Rainy Day, New York,” a 1940 painting by Leon Dolice—a Vienna-born artist who came to Manhattan in the 1920s.

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and sidewalks and buildings are cast in a blueish glow, illuminated by streetlamps, car headlights, and the reflection of rain-slicked streets.

I’m not sure where Dolice painted this moody, magical scene. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the city at twilight he’s captured here—an enchanting, slightly eerie few moments whether in the middle of Times Square or on a lonely side street.