Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway

November 9, 2020

Edwin Arlington Robinson earned his place in the literary canon with early 20th century poems like “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.”

He was awarded three Pulitzers in the 1920s, and his verse, themed around loss and failure, is a staple of American poetry anthologies.

But before this, Robinson was a broke downtown poet so desperate for money, he took a job in the New York City subway—and he was dubbed “the poet in the subway” once recognition came his way later in life.

It wasn’t the kind of life Robinson seemed destined to live. Born in 1869 in Gardiner, Maine, to a wealthy family that discouraged his literary ambition, he attended Harvard (below photo, at age 19) and had some early success self-publishing his poetry.

Then in the 1890s, a recession claimed his family’s fortune. His parents and a brother died, and his brother’s wife, who Robinson was in love with, rejected him.

So Robinson left Maine and relocated to New York City, dedicating himself solely to writing poetry. He lived for some time in Greenwich Village at the Judson Hotel (above ad, 1905)—today’s Judson Hall, part of NYU, according to nycatelier.com.

In New York, “he lived in dire poverty and became alcoholic,” states a biography by the chairman of the Gardiner Library Association. “He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.”

One of those odd jobs was in the subway. One source says Robinson was a “time checker” working with a construction crew, Americanpoems.com has it that he inspected loads of shale during the building of the subway system, which opened in 1904. (Below, subway construction at Christopher Street and West Fourth)

Finding time to write was a struggle, especially for a poet who described himself as “doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me,” according to the Gardiner Library Association biography. (Subway excavation, below, at Park Avenue and 42nd Street)

Robinson’s days toiling in the subway would come to an end—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s son Kermit.

“Kermit Roosevelt had studied some of [Robinson’s] poems at Groton and had been transfixed by their chilly beauty,” wrote Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex.

“The President had read them too, at his son’s urging, and agreed that Robinson had ‘the real spirit of poetry in him.'” (Above: Kermit Roosevelt with his dad and brothers, second from left)

Kermit discovered that Robinson was in dire poverty and struggling to support himself with his subway job. So the President, “in strict secrecy waiving all civil-service rules, had offered Robinson jobs in the immigration service or the New York Customs House, which latter the poet accepted.”

[Robinson was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support himself]

“A tacit condition of employment was that, in exchange for his desk and $2,000 a year, he should work ‘with a view toward helping American letters,’ rather than the receipts of the U.S. Treasury.”

Roosevelt, a fanatical reader, even wrote a positive review of Robinson’s ‘Children of the Night,’ the volume Kermit had given him (above left). “A poet can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory,” TR once said.

With a steady source of money, Robinson could devote himself more to his largely solitary life of writing poetry. He died of cancer at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1935.

[Top image: Lila Cabot Perry, 1918; second image: New-York Tribune; third image: wikiwand; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: Corbis; seventh image: bookedupac.com; eighth image: Wikipedia]

An old IRT subway sign still in view at City Hall

October 12, 2020

This site has crazy love for vintage signs. But what a treat to come across a faded and worn remnant of the old time New York City subway—like this Lexington Avenue IRT sign, spotted at the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station after a trip on the 6 train.

The IRT—or Interborough Rapid Transit Company—was the independently owned subway system that launched the first trains in 1904. August Belmont founded the IRT in 1902, though it was soon dubbed the “Interborough Rattled Transit” by riders frustrated by late and overcrowded trains.

Illustration by W.A. Rogers, via Wikipedia

The IRT company disbanded in 1940, and the city bought the line. For decades, New Yorkers would still refer to numbered trains as the IRT, but I doubt you’ll find any straphanger who still uses the old-school name.

The Gilded Age beauty of the Sixth Avenue El

October 5, 2020

Last week, Ephemeral New York created a post around a moody, magical nocturne of an elevated train on the move in 1938 Manhattan. The artist is Jack Lubin, a WPA painter whose work reflected the Art Deco/Modern style that took shape during the Depression.

“The El, New York (Sixth Avenue El-Nocturne)” by Childe Hassam, 1895

Almost 50 years earlier, Childe Hassam also painted a Manhattan elevated train making its way through the cityscape. In his vastly different Impressionist style, Hassam gives us a nocturne of the Sixth Avenue El under the blue glow of Gilded Age New York.

“Created during the artist’s most prolific and creative period, The El, New York (Sixth Avenue El–Nocturne) is emblematic of the artist’s quintessential 1890s style with its loose, yet controlled, brushstrokes conveying the energy and motion of the city,” wrote Christie’s in 2018, when this wondrous painting was up for sale. “Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages occupy the wide street as the El Train passes on the left. The smoke from the train billows into the night sky, already lit by the glowing orange and yellow streetlamps.”

Two very different paintings with the same theme, both enchanting and hypnotic in their own ways.

An elevated train ride through the nocturnal city

September 28, 2020

Painter Jack Lubin, born in New York in 1907, might be best known as an abstract-style muralist.

Two murals this WPA artist painted in a garment district building were removed by developers in 2011, and a mural he completed in 1956 in the Statler Hotel in Dallas was rediscovered and restored in 2012.

In 1938, he painted this magical nocturne of an elevated train in a noir-ish nighttime New York, capturing the yellow light from inside the train and apartment windows, as well as the blue glow of the sky in a Manhattan that even on a moonless night never goes black.

The painting looks like a dream—what I wouldn’t do to travel back into that scene and experience the screeching and rumbling of an elevated train gliding three stories over the sleepy city!

[Painting: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

The ox head mosaic fountain hiding on First Avenue

September 28, 2020

The Queensboro Bridge is an architectural treasure, with some of its loveliest features off to the side or under the bridge approach, at least on the Manhattan side.

Two examples: the original lamppost dating back to the bridge’s opening in 1909, and the blue and white tiles on a First Avenue ramp leading to the bridge.

But there’s another little-known gem built alongside the bridge, accessible through a gate on 59th Street or from the exit of the TJ Maxx store on First Avenue.

It’s a small, park-like plaza decked out with benches, flowers, and trees—and a granite water fountain with an ox head spout and a kaleidoscopic glass mosaic of a dreamy woman rising from a pile of produce.

With a description like that, you just know this plaza and the fountain inside it must have a pretty interesting backstory.

First came the mosaic fountain, in 1919. It was conceived and funded by a woman named Evangeline Blashfield.

A feminist, writer, and intellectual, Blashfield (below left) decided to install a fountain on what was then one of the city’s largest open-air farmers markets.

She wanted the vendors (and their horses), who came over the bridge from the farmlands of Queens with their wares, to have fresh water.

In the 1910s, Blashfield “noticed that the market under the ramp at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge had only one unsightly water faucet for all of its vendors,” wrote John Tauranac in his book, Manhattan’s Little Secrets.

Blashfield, who would have been described as “strong-minded” by men and women of her era, was also a supporter of public art.

“Inspired by the beauty she saw in European cities, Mrs. Blashfield championed for changes in the urban environment, particularly the installation of public art in this country,” states the Municipal Arts Society of New York (MAS).

Blashfield’s husband happened to be an artist (and a founding member of the MAS). She served as his model for the fountain, lending her image to the allegorical figure Abundance.

“The nine-by-four-foot mosaic panel, composed of thousands of brilliant colored tesserae, depicts a regal female figure reclining on a cornucopia laden with fruits and vegetables sold in the marketplace,” explains the MAS.

The ox head and granite basin (a drinking bowl also or horses, something the city sorely needed in the still-equine-powered early 20th century) was designed by another MAS member.

Unfortunately, Evangeline didn’t live to see its completion.

She died in 1918 at age 59, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, six months before the fountain was given to the city and dedicated in her honor.

The fountain may have been a welcome addition to the farmers market. But once public art is installed, of course, it isn’t always maintained properly.

By the 1930s, the farmers market under the bridge had been cleared away in the name of progress. (Open-air markets created sanitation issues.) Until the 1970s, the space served as a warehouse for road signs and garbage trucks.

After decades of debate about what to do with the space (and the fountain that badly needed repair), the retail complex known as Bridgemarket finally opened in 1999.

“Florence D’Urso, an MAS member and compassionate philanthropist for several art restorations here and in the Vatican, provided a generous grant to restore the mosaic, Abundance, in memory of her husband Camillo who appropriately had been in the food and supermarket business,” states the MAS.

In June 2003, the restored mosaic returned to what was now known as Bridgemarket public plaza, installed once again on a granite base with its ox head fountain. (When I visited, the fountain wasn’t working, sadly.)

“Abundance, restored to its jewel colorings, once again graces the public streetscape, carrying the history of public art, public space, and food into the twenty-first century,” wrote MAS.

And Evangeline Blashfield, looking like a goddess rising out of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, towers over this former farmers market once again.

[Third image: Find a Grave]

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.”