Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Springtime in New York City once meant horse-drawn flower carts

March 21, 2022

If you want potted flowers in contemporary New York City, you head to a garden center or farmers market. In an earlier Gotham, however, you waited for the flower carts to come, laden with petunias and begonias and other beautiful varieties for replanting in front yards, back yards, and on terraces.

Artist Henry Ives Cobb Jr. was moved enough to capture this scene, somewhere on Fifth Avenue. The date is unclear, but it looks like the flower cart is the only vehicle still pulled by a horse.

[Kaminski Auctions]

The steerage passengers immortalized in a 1907 landmark photo

February 14, 2022

In June 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz left New York for Europe with his wife and six-year-old daughter. His “small family,” as he wrote years later, had first-class accommodations on the liner Kaiser Wilhelm II and were headed toward Bremen, Germany.

But Stieglitz felt stifled by the atmosphere in first class. “One couldn’t escape the nouveaux riches,” he explained in his account, reproduced in the 2012 book, The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz.

After three days he took a walk “as far forward on the deck as I could.” Looking down, he found a scene that left him spellbound: men, women, and children on the lower deck in steerage. These third-class passengers were biding their time by hanging laundry and playing on a staircase. Meanwhile, a man in a round straw hat watched the group amid the iron railings and machinery of the ship.

Stieglitz ran to get his camera. The resulting picture, “The Steerage,” wasn’t published until 1911. “I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life,” he said, per the Library of Congress (LOC) via Wikipedia.

Alfred Stieglitz in 1902, by Gertrude Kasebier

“The Steerage” has since become the most famous photo this pioneering photographer took, “proclaimed by the artist and illustrated in histories of the medium as his first ‘modernist’ photograph,” states Metmuseum.org, which owns a print of the photo. “It marks Stieglitz’s transition away from painterly prints of Symbolist subjects to a more straightforward depiction of quotidian life.”

The photo is also groundbreaking for viewers as well. It might be the first image offering a glimpse into what life was like in steerage class on an ocean liner. The people Stieglitz captured are headed back to Europe—possibly immigrants who were rejected at Ellis Island or “skilled craftsmen and their families heading home after working on temporary visas,” per the LOC.

[Images: Wikipedia]

A photographer captures a New York City of abstraction in the 1940s

January 10, 2022

The street photographers who point their cameras all over the city tend to focus on people in motion in recognizable places—the rush of crowds on a subway platform, barflies at a corner tavern, or the random strollers, workers, loafers, and others found at any moment in time on specific streets and sidewalks.

Brett Weston, on the other hand, used his camera to render a more abstract midcentury city. Instead of focusing on a city of people, energy, and vitality, he isolated ordinary objects and buildings and made them beautiful, haunting, even lyrical.

Weston, born in California in 1911 and the son of photographer Edward Weston, was already an established photographer before coming to Gotham in 1944. During World War II, he was drafted and sent to the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, according to the International Center of Photography (ICP). There, in a former studio owned by Paramount, filmmakers and photographers helped produce army training films. (Today it’s Kaufman Studios in Astoria.)

When he wasn’t working, Weston took to the streets of the city with his 8×10 view camera, per the ICP.

“Over the next two years, Weston took over 300 photographs, each distinguished by an attention to the formal values of linearity, depth, and contrast,” the ICP noted.

“Turning away from the documentary style that characterized much of the photography of New York in the preceding decade, notably Berenice Abbott’s project Changing New York (1939), Weston pioneered a highly subjective and abstract view of the city, often focusing on details such as the finial on an iron railing or ivy on the side of a building.”

The Danziger Gallery, which represents Weston’s work, stated that he “concentrated mostly on close-ups and abstracted details, but his prints reflected a preference for high contrast that reduced his subjects to pure form.”

Weston only spent a few years in New York, and his cityscape images are a small portion of his overall work. In the 1920s he apprenticed with his father in Mexico; most of his life he was based in California, where he had a studio and portrait business, according to The Brett Weston Archive (where his vast body of work can be viewed).

Weston died in 1993 at the age of 82. His New York images have a timelessness that brings them out of the 1940s to still resonate today. Like the work of the abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s, they reflect the quiet, solitary stillness of the modern city.

[First and second photos: artnet.com; third photo: International Center of Photography; fourth photo: artnet.com; fifth photo: International Center of Photography; sixth, seventh, and eighth photos: artnet.com]

Two 1930s tile signs point the way in a Bronx subway station

January 10, 2022

The B and D stop at Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx isn’t a particularly stunning station.

Opened as part of the IND Concourse Line, the station made its debut during the Depression year of 1933, when transit officials probably weren’t thinking of devoting extra money to beautify an outerborough subway station.

But the station does have two old-timey touches that give it a bit of loveliness and humanity: tile signs letting passengers know which way to go depending on what side of the Grand Concourse—the Bronx’s answer to the Champs Elysees—they needed to get to.

Vintage subway signage like this can still be found on some platforms. Here’s an example at Chambers Street on the West Side, and another at the Cortlandt Street R train stop telling riders where to go to get to the “Hudson Tubes.” And of course, the stop at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue is a treasure trove of forgotten subway signage.

What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window

November 15, 2021

“The elevated railroad, perpetually ‘tearing along’ on its stilted, aerial highway, was ‘an ever-active volcano over the heads of inoffensive citizens,” wrote one Australian visitor who came to New York in 1888.

38 Greenwich Street in 1914

That description gives us an idea of the feel of Gotham in the late 19th century, when steam-powered (later electric) elevated trains carried by trestles and steel tracks ran overhead on Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues.

The upside to the elevated was obvious: For a nickel (or a dime during off hours), people could travel up and down Manhattan much more quickly than by horse-drawn streetcar of carriage. New tenements, row houses, and entertainment venues popped up uptown, slowly emptying the lower city and giving people more breathing room.

Bronx, undated

The downside? Dirt and din. The trains and tracks cast shadows along busy avenues, raining down dust and debris on pedestrians. (No wonder Gilded Age residents who could afford to changed their clothes multiple times a day!) And then there was the deafening noise every time a train chugged above your ears.

Now as unpleasant as the elevated trains could be in general, imagine having the tracks at eye level to your living quarters. Life with a train roaring by at all hours of the night was reality for thousands of New Yorkers, particularly downtown on slender streets designed for horsecars, not trestles.

Allen Street north of Canal Street, 1931

“The effect of the elevated—the ‘L’ as New Yorkers generally call it—is to my mind anything but beautiful,” wrote an English traveler named Walter G. Marshall, who visited New York City 1878 and 1879.

“As you sit in a car on the ‘L’ and are being whirled along, you can put your head out of the window and salute a friend who is walking on the street pavement below. In some places, where the streets are narrow, the railway is built right over the ‘sidewalks’…close up against the walls of the houses.”

Second Avenue and 34th Street, 1880s

Maybe these unfortunate New Yorkers lived in a tenement before the trains came along, and they couldn’t find alternative housing after the elevated was built beside their building. Or perhaps in the crowded city teeming with newcomers at the time, a flat next to a train was the best they could find with what little they had to spend.

Wrote Marshall: “The 19 hours and more of incessant rumbling day and night from the passing trains; the blocking out of a sufficiency of light from the rooms of houses, close up to which the lines are built; the full, close view passengers on the cars can have into rooms on the second and third floors; the frequent squirting of oil from the engines, sometimes even finding its way into the private rooms of a dwelling-house, when the windows are left open—all these are objections that have been reasonably urged by unfortunate occupants of houses who comfort has been so unjustly molested….”

Allen Street, 1916

Eye-level elevated trains continued into the 20th century, with above ground subway tracks as well as older els making it more likely that New Yorkers could find themselves with a train rattling and shaking their windows.

And it’s still an issue today, of course, even with those original el lines long dismantled. Tenements and apartment buildings near bridge approaches, tunnel entrances, and above ground subway tracks are still at the mercy of mass transit in a city still of narrow streets, single pane windows, and rickety real estate.

Convergence of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Els, 1938

[Top photo: MCNY x2010.11.2127; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: MCNYx2010.11.4; fourth photo: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth photo: MCNY MNY38078; sixth photo: MCNY MN11786]

A moment in time somewhere on the Bowery

November 1, 2021

An abandoned street cleaning cart. Men in hats walking alone. A streetcar traveling on dusty Belgian block pavement, an elevated train overhead, a succession of store signs and advertisements.

It’s just a glimpse in time around the turn of the century on the Bowery. But where, exactly? One of the buildings has 57 on it, suggesting 57 Bowery. That address no longer exists; it would have been near the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge.

There’s another sign that might give us a clue: the ad propped against a pole at the edge of the sidewalk. It looks like the first word is “London.” A theater with that name existed at 235 Bowery, where the New Museum is today between Stanton and Rivington Streets.

Whatever the exact address is, you can practically feel the energy and vitality—the pulse of a street now synonymous with a lowbrow kind New York life.

These ‘automobile stables’ on 75th Street might be the city’s first garages

October 25, 2021

Back in the days when New Yorkers got around town by horse and carriage, wealthy Gothamites built separate private carriage houses blocks away from their own mansions.

Inside these carriage houses (many quite lovely), broughams and phaetons were parked and horses cared for. In a small second or third floor area, a coachman and groom could live and work, making sure the carriage was ready when the owner wanted to use it.

By the turn of the century, however, the motor car hit the scene. Though some thought these “devil wagons” were just a fad, others realized they would soon replace horses and become the preferred mode of transportation for posh city residents (who were the only people who could afford a car at that time).

In 1902, a man named Edmund C. Stout was one who saw the future. That year, Stout bought five brownstone houses at 168-176 East 75th Street and converted them into what he dubbed “automobile stables,” according to a 2013 paper by Hilary Grossman from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture.

“Soon after completion, they were noted in the New York Times as the first automobile garages erected for private use in the city,” stated the Upper East Side Extension report by the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

Stout gave his automobile stables an architectural makeover, adding a fourth floor, removing the stoops, and trading the out-of-fashion brownstone style for a more arts and crafts look with fanciful rustic red brickwork.

“The buildings were sold off to New Yorkers who sought a place to keep their automobile and house their chauffeur,” wrote Christopher Gray in a New York Times column from 1988. “Each building originally had a charging station for electric automobiles.”

The automobile stables weren’t just for cars. The LPC report had this to say: “According to the New York Times, each building was initially outfitted with ‘a living room, which the owner may use if he feels so disposed, a dining room, and small kitchen, in which suppers or light meals may be prepared, and a billiard room.’ Other sources indicate that the upper-stories may have actually housed the private chauffeurs of the owners.”

Who were these owners? Millionaire C.G.K. Billings owned number 172, per the LPC report; Billings is best remembered as the man who arranged a black tie dinner party on horseback at Sherry’s in 1903. George F. Baker, a financier and philanthropist, owner number 168. Banker Mortimer Schiff purchased number 174.

Though the popularity of automobiles soared in the early 1900s, some of the automobile stables were converted for other uses. By 1912, number 172 was thought to have been used for an embroidery business, according to the LPC report. Numbers 172 and 176 may have been turned into residences.

Number 176 housed a physician’s office for more than a decade, from 1966 through 1979, per the LPC report, “while number 172 hosted a number of different businesses simultaneously in 1964, including an antiques store, custom dress-making store, and
artist studios.”

Today, the five former automobile stables are residential units, and only numbers 168 and 174 still have a first-story garage, the LPC report states.

A small number of Manhattanites are lucky enough to have private garages, including the owners of the house next door to this row at number 178—the rest do without or fork over big bucks to park underground.

[Fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

There’s a lot going on outside the Third Avenue Railroad Depot in this 1859 painting

October 18, 2021

Sometimes a painting has so much rich detail, it just knocks you out. That was my reaction to this magnificent scene of the Third Avenue Railroad Depot between 65th and 66th Streets, painted two years after the depot opened in 1857.

Amazingly, the painter of this “precise representation” of the depot, William H. Schenck, was also the company’s superintendent, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the work.

In 1859, this stretch of what would become the Upper East Side (near the Treadwell Farm Historic District) was mostly untouched by developers, though some wood houses are off in the distance. Street lamps stand on corners, however, and the road looks paved.

The streetcars pulled by horses follow the rails in and out of the depot. People are scattered about; some are on horseback, and one man steers a wagon full of goods. A hot air balloon sails through the sky, what’s that about?

“In addition to highlighting the contemporary popularity of the horse-drawn streetcar, Schenck also included a hot-air balloon in the sky, identified in tiny letters as the Atlantic,” the Met states. “The balloon’s owners, John Wise and John LaMountain, hoped to fly it across the Atlantic Ocean to initiate an entirely new form of transportation, but they never succeeded.”

Sadly, the Third Avenue Railroad Depot was destroyed by fire four years later.

Going back in time to 1930s Columbus Circle and Central Park

October 11, 2021

Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus, you have to admit the circle named for him at 59th Street looks pretty spectacular in this 1934 postcard.

It’s a rich and detailed view looking toward Central Park South and into the park itself. There’s the Columbus monument, the Maine monument at the entrance to the park (no pedicab traffic, wow!), the Sherry Netherland hotel all the way on Fifth, and a streetcar snaking its way to Broadway.

[postcard: postcardmuseum]

A sleek 1937 poster of New York City’s two public airports

September 27, 2021

Doesn’t this poster make you excited to fly? Well, considering the state of commercial flights today, maybe not. But in 1937, when the poster was created, it would have…the era of air travel was a thrilling development.

Air travel surged in popularity in the 1930s. Only 6,000 people took a commercial airline in 1930; by 1938 that number rose to 1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Ready to serve those air travelers were New York City’s two municipal airports. Floyd Bennett Field, near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, began to handle commercial passengers in 1931.

North Beach airport was named for the North Beach amusement resort developed by the Steinway company in Queens in the late 19th century. Opened in 1935, North Beach was eventually renamed for Fiorello LaGuardia.

What about Idlewild, aka JFK Airport? That one didn’t open until 1948.

[Poster: LOC]