Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

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.

The brilliant future of Broadway at 179th Street

January 12, 2017

In 1910, not long before the production of this pretty postcard of Broadway above 179th Street, newspapers were singing the praises of Washington Heights and its “brilliant future.”

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“The completed buildings and those in course of construction are of a far higher class than formerly built, and the advent of fireproof construction brings Washington Heights into direct competition with the downtown residential sections,” noted the New York Times in April of that year.

As for the proposed bridge at 179th Street (which would be completed in 1931), it “will be the means of bringing many residents from New Jersey to the upper part of Washington Heights to do their shopping…” the Times added.

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Here’s the same view today. The 1960s-era George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal wiped out an entire block to the south of the 1915 view—helping to turn Washington Heights’ brilliant future into one of urban blight.

But otherwise, save for those early model devil wagons and the Papa Joes on the left corner, the intersection hasn’t really changed. However, those shoppers from New Jersey? I think they’ve long since stopped coming.

[Postcard: MCNY, 1915, x2011.34.2296; image: Google]

Now this is a subway station worth celebrating

January 5, 2017

I’m as thrilled as any other New Yorker about the opening of the first leg of the Second Avenue Subway last weekend.

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And while the three new stations on the line are bright, clean, and easy to navigate, they just don’t hold a candle to the sublime and triumphant City Hall subway station, opened to an excited and celebratory public in October 1904.

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Though the tile-and-chandelier station closed to commuters in the 1940s, you can still view it.

Either sign up for an official tour sponsored by the New York Transit Museum (here’s a peek at what you’ll see) or look hard out the window of the 6 train as it turns around after the Brooklyn Bridge stop to head back uptown.

[Postcards: NYPL]

An ode to the original Second Avenue subway

December 30, 2016

True, it wasn’t actually a subway. The steel road bed of the Second Avenue Elevated put belching trains two stories in the air from Chatham Square downtown to 127th Street.

But this lurching, unglamorous el, as it was called, was Second Avenue’s very own rapid train from 1880 to 1942.

It was a latecomer as far as els go. The Ninth Avenue line opened in 1868, while the Sixth Avenue and Third Avenue els were up and running in the 1870s.

secondavenueel125thstreetnyplNew Yorkers welcomed this el, which made the trip from City Hall to 59th Street in just 28 minutes, half the time it took via a horse-pulled, jam-packed streetcar.

But it had drawbacks. Loud and gritty, the train ran day and night, raining ash on pedestrians and blocking out the sun.

Still, the Second Avenue el helped colonize the northern reaches of Manhattan, transporting residents from crowded downtown slums to newer housing in areas such as Yorkville and Harlem.

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Unlike the Sixth Avenue El, which was memorialized by poets and depicted by painters, the Second Avenue line didn’t get much love.

It did earn a gritty, gangland rep: Under its tracks at Allen and Rivington Streets in September 1903, the Five Points Gang and Monk Eastman’s Gang drew their guns and duked it out in a deadly turf battle.

Through its 62 years, the Second Avenue el saw lots of changes. Powered by steam early on, the tracks were electrified around 1900. Ridership dropped when faster, more convenient subways arrived.

The city took the el over in 1940, and the end came in 1942. Miles of tracks were cleared away and the steel girders removed, making way for sunlight again.

Now, the first leg of the Second Avenue subway is opening January 1. Think about the old el and how it shaped the East Side of Manhattan when you take a ride from one of the sleek new stations.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo: MCNY, 1939, X2010.7.1.1789; third image: The Third Rail; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: YouTube]

Why 1970s New York was nicknamed “Fun City”

December 30, 2016

New York City has had some colorful nicknames over the years—from Gotham and the Empire City in the 19th century to the Big Apple in the 1920s jazz era.

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But the “Fun City” moniker of the 1960s and 1970s?

The term was supposed to be a joke, a take on a phrase used by Mayor John Lindsay during a 1966 interview with sports journalist Dick Schaap, who was then a metro columnist with the New York Herald Tribune.

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“Soon after the city was crippled by a transit strike on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s first day in office in 1966, Mr. Lindsay was asked if he was still happy to be the mayor,” wrote the New York Times in Schaap’s obituary in 2001, recounting how the nickname was coined.

funcityplaybill1972Lindsay responded, “I still think it’s a fun city.”

Schaap put the term in his column, using it “as an affectionate, if snide, gibe at the overwhelmed city,” stated the Times.

The phrase caught on with New Yorkers, who were unimpressed with the new mayor’s upbeat tone in a metropolis that over the next four years would endure a sanitation strike, a teacher walkout, a crippling blackout, and increasing financial distress.

Soon, the nickname was emblazoned on Times Square strip club marquees, city bus ads, and even on Broadway, where a short-lived play starring Joan Rivers debuted in 1972 (and closed a week later).

The term has mostly disappeared today—though a few critics dubbed Mayor Bloomberg’s New York of the early 2000s the “no-fun city.”

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But we still have Fun City Tattooing on St. Marks Place near Avenue A, going strong since the height of the Fun City era in 1976!

[Second photo: Fun City Peep Shows circa 1988: Michael Horsley/Flickr; third photo: playbill.com; fourth photo: unknown source]

Peek into a travel diary of colonial New York

December 27, 2016

sarahkembleknightNew York in 1704 was barely a city at all.

Under British rule for only 40 years, about 5,000 people called it home. Not much existed past Maiden Lane. Industry focused on the harbor. The original Trinity Church had just been built. Yellow fever was epidemic.

And in autumn of that year a boardinghouse keeper named Sarah Kemble Knight (at left) set out on horseback from her hometown of Boston to journey to Manhattan and back, helping a friend handle legal issues.

Traveling via horse through colonial New England’s primitive roads and bunking in public houses would be rough for anyone, let alone a 38-year-old woman (she did have the help of a guide).

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But what makes the trip extraordinary is that Knight kept a journal, which was published as a book in 1825.

“The Cittie of New York is a pleasant well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River [which] is a fine harbor for shipping,” Knight wrote on her arrival in December 1704.

sarahkembleknighthouses1700She only stayed in the city for a “fortnight”—two weeks. Yet some of her impressions of New York as a place of fashion, stately houses, flowing alcohol, and high-speed fun might sound familiar.

“[New Yorkers] are not strict in keeping the Sabbath as in Boston and other places where I had bin,” she writes. “They are sociable to one another and courteous and civill to strangers and fare well in their houses.”

“The English go very fasheonable in their dress. [But] the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women, in their habitt go loose. . . .” Knight says, explaining that the Dutch women wear a caplike headband that leaves their ears sticking out “which are sett out with jewels [with] jewells of a large size and many in number.”

sarahnyin1700Dutch women also have fingers “hoop’t with rings.”

New Yorkers are great entertainers, she says, and taverns “treat with good liquor liberally, and the customers drink as liberally and generally pay for’t as well….”

The 18th century city knew how to have a good time. “Their diversions in the winter is riding sleys about three or four miles out of town,” Knight writes, “where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends houses who handsomely treat them.”

sarahfrauncestavernnyplWhile out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart.”

Sounds like modern city traffic and bad taxi drivers!

[Top image: National Women’s History Museum; second image: New York in 1695; NYC Tourist; third image: NYC in 1700, Wikipedia; fourth image: Fraunces Tavern, built by Samuel DeLancey in 1719 on Pearl and Broad Streets; NYPL]

Times Square before it became Times Square

December 27, 2016

Here’s a look at Times Square in 1900, seven years before the neighborhood became famous for the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop—and in fact, before it was even called Times Square.

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At the time, the nexus of avenues that would soon be dubbed the Crossroads of the World was known as Longacre Square, the sleepy center of the city’s carriage industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, New York’s theater district had edged up against the area—see the burlesque house on the left. In four years, the New York Times would relocate to that spot in the center of the card.

And starting in 1907, New Year’s Eve in New York would never be the same.

[Photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17932]

This street by the East River needs a better name

December 19, 2016

New York City’s street grid was laid out in the 1811, part of the Commissioners’ Plan that shaped the cityscape of contemporary Manhattan north of Houston Street.

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But changes are always made, and new roads crop up to accommodate new buildings, parks, and drives.

But couldn’t the New York City Department of Transportation come up with something more descriptive than this street name above, for a small road beside the FDR Drive in the East 20s?

Even if this street really is brand new—it’s not on Google maps, so it’s hard to tell—we can be more creative than this!

East 26th Street: New York’s “Misery Lane”

December 12, 2016

It was in a part of Manhattan, at the edge of a poor neighborhood of tenements and groggeries, where no one wanted to end up.

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But thousands of city residents did found themselves on Misery Lane, as the short stretch of East 26th Street between First Avenue and the East River was known in the turn-of-the-century city.

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This block was a dumping ground for the sick, alcoholic, and mentally ill, who sought treatment at Bellevue Hospital, which bordered East 26th Street (above).

Some New Yorkers had a sense of humor about it, as this rhyme from a 1917 medical magazine demonstrates:

miserylane19142T.B., aneurysm, and gin-drinker’s liver;
Tabetics, paretics, plain drunk, and insane;
First Avenue’s one end, the other’s the river;
Twenty-sixth Street between they call Misery Lane!

Criminals showed up on Misery Lane as well.

Men and women convicted of a range of crimes were deposited via police wagon on a dock known as Charities Pier at the end of East 26th Street (below).

From there, they were ferried to the workhouse and penitentiary across the East River to Blackwell’s Island to serve their time.

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The poor also stood in line at Charities Pier. Unable to afford rent, food, coal, and other necessities, their last resort was the Blackwell’s Island almshouse.

Misery Lane was the site of the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 to house mostly homeless, often derelict men (top and second photos), but also women and children.

trianglefireoutsidemorgueWith the city morgue on 26th Street as well, Misery Lane was the last place New York’s unknown dead went before being interred in the potter’s field on Hart Island.

And when mass tragedy struck the city, Misery Lane was involved as well.

Bodies found after the General Slocum disaster were brought here to be identified—as were the horribly burned corpses of Triangle Fire victims (above right).

Misery Lane is long gone, of course.

miserylane2016

Today, 26th Street ends not at a charity-run pier but with a lovely view of the deceptively placid river . . . all the way to Blackwell’s, er, Roosevelt Island (above).

[Top and third photos: NYC Municipal Archives; second and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: LOC/Bain Collection]