Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Grand Central is filled with acorns and oak leaves

February 1, 2016

Even when you’re rush through Grand Central Terminal, it’s impossible not to glance up and notice its breathtaking treasures, like the beautiful light fixtures, clocks, and painted or tiled ceilings.

Acorntracks28272

But there’s a decorative theme running through the station that’s a little more subtle and easy to miss: acorns and oak leaves.

AcornswaterfountainAn acorn tops the iconic brass clock above the information booth.

Marble garlands of oak leaves and acorns decorate the original 1913 water fountains. They’re also on the ceiling, chandeliers, and staircases.

So what’s with all the harvest images?

It’s a Vanderbilt thing. The Vanderbilt heirs financed the construction of the terminal, and the family crest is all about acorns and oaks leaves.

Acornflourishcloseup

“From a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” was Grand Central builder Cornelius Vanderbilt’s motto, according to Christopher Winn’s I Never Knew That About New York.

AcornclockinterestingamericaI’m not sure if any of the Vanderbilt homes that lined Fifth Avenue in the Gilded Age also featured acorns and oaks. Those flourishes may not have gone with the decor in this chateau-style mansion, for example.

But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Newport, Rhode Island summer “cottage,” the 70-room palazzo-inspired Breakers, is also decorated with acorns—a symbol of strength and long life.

[Third photo: via newyork.com; fourth photo: via interestingamerica.com]

Magical color lights of a New York City night

January 25, 2016

Vienna-born photographer Ernst Haas turned his camera to New York City’s skyscrapers and suspension bridges, creating a kaleidoscope of blurry color in this painterly 1970 image, Lights of New York.

Lightsofnewyork

Haas started his career as a photojournalist for Life, Vogue, and other magazines. In 1962, he was celebrated with a retrospective show of his color photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Over the years he captured a postwar, midcentury New York in all its poetic, weird, magical glory.

Why Midtown has a tiny Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue

January 25, 2016

Sixandahalfavenuesignwiki“Meet me on Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

But Six-and-a-Half Avenue is a real street (inspired by Harry Potter?) tucked among the silver and gray office towers of Midtown between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

It was the Department of Transportation’s idea, apparently. In 2012, DOT officials wanted to encourage pedestrians to use the string of existing public plazas and covered passageways running almost in a straight line from 51st to 57th Streets.

So Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue, ruled by stop signs rather than traffic lights, was born—the first fractional street in the city’s grid system.

Half avenues, though, aren’t a new idea.

Sixthandahalfavegaynornyt1910

In 1910, Mayor William Gaynor floated the possibility of building a half avenue between Fifth and Sixth Avenues from Eighth Street to 59th Street, bisecting Bryant Park.

The unnamed half-avenue would help reduce traffic, said Gaynor. But like so many other ideas and proposals, it never went past the concept stage.

[Image: New York Times]

Catching a West Side horse car in a winter storm

January 18, 2016

With its network of privately owned horse cars, elevated railroads, and trolleys, New York in the mid- to late-19th century had a relatively decent public transit system.

Streetcar34thbroadway1899mcny

But getting around could be rough in bad weather, especially in one of the horse cars—the way thousands of workingmen, shop girls, and other New Yorkers regularly traveled.

Streetcardriverchristmas“The cold, bitter gale from across the Hudson River nearly swept me into the sunken lots, as I waited at the lower corner of 57th Street for the horse car to come down Eighth Avenue,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor, of an episode that happened during his boyhood on the West Side in the 1860s.

“The wail of the wind through the telegraph wires on the lofty poles gave additional dreariness. Then the sharp scrape of horses’ shoes on the cobblestones seemed to add to the tingling cold.”

Each horse car had a driver, who sat on top and wore a wool cap and “a soldier’s overcoat with the cape brought up over his head,” wrote Kelly. A conductor was also in the car, clad in “a large fur cap” and “a huge seedy overcoat, ragged and patched at the pockets from being worn away by making change.”

The cars seated 13 passengers on each side; a trip generally cost a nickel. Riders could also sit up front with the driver or stand outside on front and rear platforms.

There was no heat in the cars, of course. Piles of straw thrown across the floor, like a barnyard, offered some insulation from the elements. Two kerosene lamps at each end of the car glowed weakly at night.

Streetcarblockadebowery

“The window panes were so encrusted with ice and frost that one had to scratch it off to see the street,” Kelly remembered when the car was on its way to Vesey Street. “I began to get restless, so I went out on the front platform, where I found great pleasure in watching the straining muscles of the lean horses.”

Streetcarsnow1872nyplThe “fumes of the kerosene mingled with those of the wet straw and damp clothes of the passengers made it hard breathing … I worked my way up and out to the front beside the driver, who by this time looked like a snowman.”

During rough trips like this one, Kelly recalled that passengers became very friendly. “They would talk and laugh with one another like villagers, and occasionally, someone would start singing, in which many would join.”

“Some of the conductors were very jolly, and the men who were generally smokers on the front platform, had a cheerful, if storm-beaten trip.”

Their good cheer came in handy. Cars sometimes jumped track; male passengers would exit and lift it back on the rails (horse cars followed iron rails laid down on the street).

Streetcar1899lexand34thmcnyIt wasn’t easy for the overworked, underfed horses. Of a fallen horse, Kelly wrote, “its lean flanks heaving and sighing was the only response it gave to the beating, howling, and yelling” of passengers who tried to help the animal. Once the horse had been taken off the road, a new team was hitched to theirs.

“The snow seemed to make the passengers unusually sociable,” he wrote. “The men began hobnobbing … while the clear air rang with the girls’ merry laughter…. So it went on till we reached the 49th Street stables.”

[Top photo: 34th and Broadway, 1899, MCNY; second-fourth images: NYPL; fifth photo: snow all cleared at 34th and Lexington Avenue, 1899, MCNY]

Two Brooklyn memorials to one 1960 plane crash

January 11, 2016

Newspaper headlines described a horrible scene. “Air crash rains death on city” screamed the New York Daily News on December 17, 1960.

Brooklynpubliclibrary1

At 10:30 a.m. the day before, two passenger planes heading to LaGuardia collided over New York City.

A TWA airplane from Dayton, Ohio came down on Staten Island. A United DC-8 from Chicago hit the ground at Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

Aircrashstephenbaltz

The final death toll of what was then the city’s worst air disaster would reach 134, including six victims in Brooklyn who were going about their day when the TWA craft plunged out of the sky.

AircrashstephenbaltzToday, Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue has long been cleaned up, though a few signs of the destruction of the crash remain. There’s no memorial at the intersection—but there are two not far away in Brooklyn.

One honors an 11-year-old boy who survived the initial crash. Stephen Baltz (left) was flying on his own to join his mom and sister in Yonkers, where they were planning to spend Christmas.

Baltz was badly burned, but he survived through the night before dying at Methodist Hospital up Seventh Avenue the next morning.

Inside the hospital’s Phillips Chapel is this understated plaque, above. “Our tribute to a brave little boy” it reads, next to the bronzed dimes and nickels Stephen had in his pocket. His parents put them in the hospital donation box after he died.

AircrashdailynewsIn Green-Wood Cemetery, a newer memorial marks the burial site of the bodies burned beyond recognition in the fiery aftermath of the crash.

“In an era before DNA identifications were possible, three caskets of ‘Fragmentary Human Remains’ were filled from the Park Slope crash site and were buried in a grave in lot 38325 that was purchased by United Airlines,” according to Green-Wood Cemetery.

Fifty years later in 2010, a granite memorial went up on the site. Inscribed on it are the names of all the victims.

Aircrashgreenwoodplaque

Nearby a bronze and granite stone poking out of the grass simply says, “In this grave rest unidentified remains of victims of the airplane crash in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, December 16, 1960.”

[Top photo: Brooklyn Public Library/Irving I. Herzberg; third photo: New York Times; fourth photo: airliners.net/moose135photography]

Alienation and anxiety in a 1950s subway station

January 4, 2016

Brooklyn-born painter George Tooker depicts the disquietude of a mundane trip into a contemporary subway station in The Subway, on display at the Whitney Museum.

Georgetookersubway1950

“Made in 1950 with egg tempera paint, George Tooker’s The Subway, takes as its subject the alienating effects of modern life,” states the museum website.

“Just as the positioning, color, and facial expressions of figures in the painting suggest a dark side to modern life, so too does Tooker’s choice of subject matter: a subway station,” according to the website.

“This location emphasizes feelings of alienation, as any New York subway passenger knows. Subways are labyrinthine and almost prison-like, with low ceilings and barred areas. Tooker accentuates this effect by removing all signs from the subway station of his imagination, so that a person who is lost might never find his or her way out.”

Welcome aboard the “muggers’ express” train

December 21, 2015

If you weren’t around to experience it yourself, you’ve probably heard all about the New York City subway system in the 1970s: gritty, practically bankrupt, and a lot more dangerous than it is today.

Muggersexpress1973wiki

How bad was it? In 1978 alone, there were nine murders on the subway. By 1979, felonies occurred on trains and in stations at a rate of 250 incidents each week.

Muggersexpress4trainwikiCity officials were so alarmed by the number of thefts, beatings, and murders underground, Mayor Ed Koch responded by having a uniformed cop ride every train that ran between 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

But one subway line had a dicier reputation than the others. The IRT Lexington Avenue line—today’s 4, 5, and 6 trains—earned the nickname the “muggers’ express” because so many passengers were robbed on board.

Muggersexpressarticle

Some sources have it that only the 4 train was the muggers’ express. It’s hard to say if the 4 was worse than the 5 or 6, though; all three lines went through some pretty rough neighborhoods in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the 4 and 5 went deep into Brooklyn too, just as they do today.

[Top photo: Jim Pickerell/US National Archives and Records Administration; second photo: UPI; third photo: Wikipedia]

The coolest neon green subway sign in Brooklyn

November 30, 2015

At the Jay Street-MetroTech station in downtown Brooklyn, you’ll see subway signage like this one lining the entrance.

Jaystreetsubwaysign

It lights up lime green, and the typeface and design has an Art Deco or Modernist look to it. I don’t think there’s another sign like it anywhere in the city.

The insane 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River

November 30, 2015

Tired of New York’s terrible traffic and lack of housing options?

It might be time to revisit one of the nuttier ideas for reshaping and redeveloping Manhattan ever proposed: draining the Hudson River and then paving it over.

Fillinginthehudson

This idea doesn’t seem to be a hoax. It was covered in the March 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix in a wild article entitled “Filling in the Hudson.”

FillinginhudsonmagcoverThe terrifying illustration on the opening page shows the Hudson River dammed up and filled in from Lower Manhattan to the tip of Harlem.

The plan, proposed by “noted publicist and engineering scholar” Norman Sper, would “reclaim” from the Hudson River 10 square miles, which would “not only provide for thousands of additional buildings, but also for avenues and cross streets,” to ease congestion.

“Today there are ten avenues laid out along the length of Manhattan,” proclaims the article. “These are crossed by 125 streets. It is the lack of up-and-down arteries which has given rise to the existing traffic crisis. Sper would double the number of avenues.”

The water from the Hudson River would be diverted into the Harlem River and the East River. The entire project was supposed to cost the city a cool $1 billion.

Fillinginthehudsonpage2

It’s unclear how far this idea went; it doesn’t appear to have been covered in any of the major dailies. And since there is no 15th Avenue running through the middle of the Hudson, obviously no one ever took it seriously.

Check out more crazy plans and proposals for New York City that thankfully never made it past the blueprint stage.

A New York painter’s magical wintertime city

November 30, 2015

There’s no snow in the forecast just yet. But winter is right around the corner.

And even New Yorkers who have no love for cold weather concede that the city blanketed in snow, especially at twilight illuminated by streetlamps, is magical and enchanting.

Wigginsawinterseveninginny

Guy Carleton Wiggins saw something enchanting about snow too.

An Impressionist painter who was born into an artistic Brooklyn family in 1883, Wiggins created many lovely scenes of a snowy 20th century Manhattan. (Above: “A Winter’s Evening in New York”; below: “The Circle”)

Wigginsthecirclenewyorkcity

He depicted blue-gray skies above snow-dusted horses and carriages, skyscrapers and statues, and masses of pedestrians, huddled under umbrellas or tucking their chins into their necks to stay dry.

The son of painter Carleton Wiggins, Guy Wiggins studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri and found early success. His snow scenes take place at Columbus Circle, along Wall Street, on Fifth Avenue, and at other less recognizable points on the cityscape. (Below: “Brooklyn Bridge in Winter”)

Wiggins452 Wiggins' "Brooklyn Bridge in Winter"

In an interview with the Detroit News (by way of the Rehs Galleries Inc), Wiggins explained how an elevated train chugging through a blizzard outside his studio window inspired his work. (Below: “A Winter Night in New York”)

Wigginsawinternightinny

“One cold, blustering, snowy winter day (1912) I was in my New York studio trying to paint a summer landscape,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins1910“Suddenly I saw what was before me—an elevated railroad track, with a train dashing madly through the whirling blizzard-like snow that made hazy and indistinct the row of buildings on the far side of the street.”

“In a week, so to say, I was established as a painter of city winter scenes, and I found it profitable. Then suddenly I felt a revulsion against them and I stopped. . . . I couldn’t go on with winter stuff and that was all there was to it.”

[Wiggins, 1910]


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,384 other followers