Category Archives: Planes Trains and Automobiles

The story of how Idlewild Airport was renamed for John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was memorialized in dozens of ways following his assassination on November 22, 1963. None of these are more vital to the daily lives of New Yorkers than John F. Kennedy International Airport — or Kennedy Airport or simply JFK — the busiest airport in the Northeast.

You may not realize how quickly it was renamed for the fallen president. On November 15, 1963, President Kennedy left Idlewild Airport (the airport’s former name) after a short stay in the city. Six weeks later, that airport would be named after him.

New York joined the nation in mourning following the televised funeral of President Kennedy on November 25, 1963. Thousands watched the ceremony from a large television screen hanging in Grand Central Terminal. Traffic stopped in Times Square and Boy Scout buglers played taps from atop the old Hotel Astor. All airport traffic at Idlewild stopped at noon.

New York Like A Vast Church ran the headline in the New York Times.

Calls immediately rose to memorialize the president in the city. On December 4, less than two weeks after Kennedy’s death, Mayor Robert Wagner announced that he would submit a bill to the city council to honor Kennedy with a name change to Idlewild.

Unfortunately, these ultimately successful calls to rename New York’s largest airport came at the cost of obliterating the memory of another notable American.

Wired New York

Idlewild was the popular name for the airport which opened on July 1, 1948, because it was built upon a former golf course and luxury accommodation of that name. According to the Times, “The name Idlewild is believed to have been inspired by the fact that the site at that time was wild and that the hotel and park constituted a recreational facility for the idle rich.”

But its full, official name was New York International Airport, Anderson Field, named for Major General Alexander E. Anderson, a decorated World War I veteran and Queens businessman. Unfortunately Anderson had few proponents fighting to keep his name on the airport by 1963.

The following week, “[i]n an action marked by solemnity and silent prayer, the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to change the name of New York International Airport at Idlewild, Queens, to the John F. Kennedy International Airport.” [source]

It was revealed then that city officials wished to name the airport after Kennedy even more quickly than that. Indeed, the idea had been unofficially suggested hours after Kennedy’s assassination but it had taken the extra time to get the official approval from his widow (and future New York City resident) Jackie Kennedy.

Photographer Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times

By Wednesday, December 18, the name change had been formally approved and workmen busily rushed to change all the signs at the airport.  Idlewild officially became John F. Kennedy Airport in a ceremony held on Christmas Eve 1963.

The president’s younger brother Edward Kennedy was in attendance, helping to unveil a 242-foot-long sign emblazoned with the new name. Their brother Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to attend but canceled.

You would think such a name change to be relatively uncontroversial but this was not the case.

In an editorial which ran a few days after the ceremony, the New York Times remarked: “The speedy change of name — whether it be of an airport or a bridge or a park or a cape — reflects the love that millions of people all over the world had for Present Kennedy; but, as we have previously stated, it is only debasing the subject of our grief to attach his name so hastily to a miscellaneous collection of public works, almost as if we were afraid that without these tangible reminders he would be soon forgotten. “

Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times

And President Kennedy almost got his name upon a newly built bridge in the New York City area, too.

That same month, a Staten Island politician filed a bill to the New York state legislature to name a new bridge being built in the Narrows after Kennedy. “Assemblyman Edward J. Amann Jr … profiled at Albany for introduction into the Legislature in January a bill calling for changing the name of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the John. F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge.” [source]

By the time it officially opened the following year, the Verrazano had kept its tribute name to the 16th century European explorer. But New York does have a bridge named for a Kennedy — the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (the former Triborough Bridge).

Below: A month after the dedication, Robert did stop by the airport named after his brother. 

JFK International Airport Chamber of Commerce

The Hindenburg Over New York: The Airship Age Comes To An Abrupt End

PODCAST The era of the Zeppelin, how it shaped the New York skyline and the disastrous crash of the Hindenburg on an airfield in New Jersey.

On the afternoon of May 6, 1937, New Yorkers looked overhead at an astonishing sight — the arrival of the Hindenburg, the largest airship in the world, drifting calmly across the sky.

New York City was already in the throes of ‘Zeppelin mania’ by then. These rigid gas-filled airships, largely manufactured by Germany, were experiencing a Jazz Age rediscovery thanks in part to the Graf Zeppelin, a glamorous commercial airship which first crossed the ocean in 1928. Its commander and crew even received two ticker-tape parades through lower Manhattan.

In size and prominence, the Hindenburg would prove to be the greatest airship of all. It was the Concorde of its day, providing luxurious transatlantic travel for the rich and famous. In Germany, the airship was used as a literal propaganda machine for the rising Nazi government of Adolf Hitler.

But dreams of Zeppelin-filled skies were quickly vanquished in the early evening hours of May 6, 1937, over a landing field in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Its destruction would be one of the most widely seen disasters in the world, marking an end to this particular vision of the future.

But a mark of the Zeppelin age still exists on the New York City skyline, atop the city’s most famous building!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #227: THE HINDENBURG OVER NEW YORK

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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An announcement in Scientific American of the first airship designed by Count von Zeppelin.

An early illustration from Scientific American (June 26, 1909) showing an early prototype of the Zeppelin airship.

Scientific American

In the 1920s people imagined putting mooring masts on everything!

Scientific American

The ZR3 Los Angeles, made for America by the Germans as part of post-war reparations, flies over New York, above the construction of the Empire State Building.

Dr Hugo Eckener and the crew of the Graf Zeppelin receive  ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan.

Getty Images

People gather around the Graf Zeppelin in an old file photo. Perhaps they’re boarding or are simply gathering in awe to view the marvelous airship.

SDASM Archives

Video of the Graf Zeppelin entering over the skies of New York, photographing the city.

A diagram of the mooring mast atop the Empire State Building — at least as it was supposed to have worked.

In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a retro-futuristic film, the mooring mast is effectively used to deposit Gwyneth Paltrow on top of the Empire State Building.

The Hindenburg flew over Manhattan on a few occasions. The photograph below is from August 8, 1936.

Courtesy AP

 

The Hindenburg had actually safely docked at the Lakehurst facility a few times in 1936. From the photo caption: “Various news crews covering the landing of the Hindenburg, in 1936, in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The man perched atop the vehicle on the left is Albert Emanuel ‘Al’ Gold, of Fox Movietone News, who would eventually capture footage of the famous Hindenburg disaster, in 1937.”

Source: Amanda Emily, Looking Back: The Lesson of Lakehurst, TV News Storytellers, August 5, 201

 

The Hindenburg ignites over Lakehurst and so hurtles to the ground in a horrifying burning mass.

Newsreels featuring the Hindenburg and Herbert Morrison’s distraught play-by-play.

 

 

Deconstruction Of The Third Avenue El: A new exhibit at the Transit Museum

Who knew the dismantling of something so filthy and monstrous could be so beautiful?

Sid Kaplan is a master print-maker and photography teacher who the New York Times recently called “the darkroom equivalent of the session man, the go-to guy famous musicians revere and want to work with.” Kaplan has been fascinated with photography since his teenage years, a prodigious capturer of urban mood and light upon black-and-white prints.

In 1955, when he was 17, Kaplan became fascinated with workmen taking down the Third Avenue Elevated Railroad, a relic of the Gilded Age. He reached for his camera. But he caught more than history being taken down.

Sid Kaplan/Courtesy Transit Museum

The Transit Museum Annex in Grand Central Gallery Annex presents a selection of Kaplan’s early work in  Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El: Photographs by Sid Kaplan, less an elegy for a day gone by and more a celebration of a changing New York.  For the secret spell imbued within these images is the lively and captivating street life, the diners, delis and dry cleaners peeking over the corners. 

Naturally the IRT Third Avenue Elevated (first opened in 1879) was not placed on a fashionable street, nor did it attract magnificent urban architecture. The Third Avenue of Kaplan’s images is of the ephemeral, everyday variety. You may vaguely recognize the street corners but not the businesses.

The elevated train itself adds to the glorious disorientation. Although sections of the El began closing down in 1950, it would not entirely close in areas of the Bronx until the 1970s. In these images, Kaplan captures a city in transition, metal and architecture warping itself along familiar bends and sight lines.

Sid Kaplan/NYC Transit Museum

 

Currently on view at the New York City Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex (it’s on the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the building, next to the Station Master’s office). It’s free! The exhibit runs through July 9, 2017.

Those crazy kids! This Friday learn all about the Great Subway Race of 1967

Here’s an event for you this Friday that’s a little bit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and an iota of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — with a New York City touch, of course. It’s The Great Subway Race of 1967!

Fifty years ago M.I.T. computer whiz kid Peter Samson programmed a mainframe computer about the size of a passenger elevator to calculate the most efficient route to ride the entire NYC subway system in the least amount of time.

This Friday, Samson will recount to Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione his team’s outrageous attempt to break the existing riding record using payphones, runners, and a teletype hook-up between a makeshift “data center” in midtown Manhattan and the mainframe in Cambridge.

Come out to this FREE event this Friday at Hunter College! Advanced registration REQUIRED.  Details are below. Book your tickets here

DATE AND TIME

Fri, April 21, 2017
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM EDT

LOCATION

Hunter College West Building
SW corner 68 St. & Lex. Ave.
Manhattan
Here’s a little video preview of the event:

Great Subway Race of 1967 Video Preview from Michael Miscione on Vimeo.

A Brief History of Subway Cinema

Decades in the making, the Second Avenue Subway finally opened to the public this week, its glimmering new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets heralded with the pomp and circumstance of a movie premiere.

Of course, the subway doesn’t immediately come to mind as a photogenic movie star, but in fact, the various tunnels and stations of the New York City Subway have appeared as the backdrop for hundreds of movies.

Its route diversity — from deep under midtown to elevations above the outer boroughs — and its longevity have allowed filmmakers to turn the subway into a rolling sound stage.

So, in a tribute to the Second Avenue Subway, I recently revisited a post I wrote back in 2010, binging on a variety of subway films from several eras and noticing a definite pattern in their development. I suspect the gleaming new stations will find themselves irresistible as filming locations for future filmmakers in the years to come…..

The First Subway Movie: I posted this just a couple weeks ago, but the subway makes its first appearance at the inception of the very first IRT line, with a 1905 short (they were all short back then) called ‘Interior New York Subway‘. filmed by the Edison company, which was simply a camera following behind the first subway from Union Square to Grand Central. The film’s cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, went on to innovate standard filming techniques, like the soft focus and the fade out, and made his reputation working with D.W. Griffith on The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance.

A bit  later, in City Hall to Harlem In 15 Seconds, a slight plot would be added to the subway atmosphere.

The Musical Subway: Fiction films wouldn’t be shot on-locaton in the subway until the 1940s, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from transforming it (via a backlot) into a romantic set piece.

The most unusual of these is certainly the 1934 hokey gangbuster Dames, featuring an exotic dance number by Busby Berkeley as psychedelic as any 60s counter-culture movie. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler put on a wacky show — they’re always puttin’ on a show back then — featuring a crowded ride on an uptown train. Powell falls asleep and his dreams burst into hundreds of chorus girls.

BONUS: Earlier in the film, the pair woo each other on the Staten Island ferry with the song “I Only Have Eyes For You” (making its debut).

ALSO: Although it’s an elevated train — not a subway — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that King Kong (1933) didn’t much enjoy them rumbling down Sixth Avenue on an elevated train either.

Below: ‘Dames’ on a Train: Keeler and Powell dream of the innocent days

The Romantic Subway: On The Town (1949) is a candy-colored, on-location race through New York nostalgia, with our three dancing sailors skimming through the city’s greatest landmarks. A subway ride provides the impetus for the central romance, as Gene Kelly falls for a poster of Miss Turnstiles (a play on the mid-century’s quaint beauty pageant contest Miss Subways). Daydreaming similar to Dames produces an equally dance-filled response:

The Dark Subway: I’m not sure why more film noirs weren’t set on the subway — that would be remedied in the 1970s — especially when they’re as juicy as the 1953 Pickup on South Street.

The opening scene is one of its most famous, as an eerie Richard Widmark hovers over ditzy Jean Peters in a crowded subway car, gingerly relieving her purse of what proves to be a very troublesome item. From there, the action shifts to the piers of South Street — nearly unrecognizable, not an elevated highway in sight — before submerging back into the subway tunnels for a spectacular finish. Here’s a clip of the opening scene:

ALSO: With intrigue rumbling below, even the breeze from a passing subway train could elicit a sexual response as a defenseless young woman in a white dress stands above a grating in the 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch. Unfortunately, the actual footage of Marilyn Monroe standing above the subway grate was replaced with a studio-filmed version.  Here’s a clip of the film, and a still from the original Manhattan photoshoot.

 

 

The Hostage Train: That glowing sheen of the Berkeley musicals — even the somewhat clean shadows of ’50s crime dramas — would slowly fade by the 1960s, along with the conditions of the subway itself.

Presaging a rich future as a moving hellcar of violence and death, the 1967 film The Incident presents a group of unwitting passengers terrorized by two young, stereotypical ’60s sadists. Surreptitiously filmed and very low budget, The Incident would introduce the subway car-as-trap motif that would fuel the 1974 thriller The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 and open its possibilities for urban horror.

A clip from The Incident:

 

Vengeance Underground: The movies hardly sugar-coated New York City’s hard times in the 1970s and rendered the subway into a place where anybody, at any time, could be shot, stabbed and assaulted. In Death Wish (1974), the subway is one of several locales of seething, bald-faced criminal activity, but it’s so dangerous that Charles Bronson goes down there twice to pick off bad guys. In the universe of this unsubtle action flick, you could be mugged and raped five, six, seven times a day, so best to be proactive and pick them off before they get you. Ten years later, Bernhard Goetz would reinvent this hyper, fictional fantasy by actually doing it.


ALSO: The greatest movie ever made using the subway, The French Connection (1971), actually has its most notorious moment that runs underneath an elevated line in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a breathless chase scene filmed famously without the city’s permission.

The Fantasy Detour: The reputation of the New York subway system was so poor in the 1970s that depictions went from the ultra-realistic to the absurd without missing a stop. In The Warriors (1979), the train becomes a virtual yellow-brick-row for a costumed Coney Island gang escaping a host of absurd villains. The Union Square subway station holds one of their deadliest challenges: suspendered, roller-skating pretty boy toughs with feathered hair.

It’s only a tiny step into pure fantasy and an actual yellow brick road in The Wiz (1978) with a creepy collection of gangly puppets, a pair of Scarecrow-eating trash cans, and living subway posts most certainly not designed by Heins & Lafarge.

Local Lines: While the mainstream movie depictions would get even more outrageous, the growth of independent filmmaking and thoughtful, locally filmed productions in the 1980s depicted the subway in more realistic tones — as a confusing place to lose a child in Gloria (1980), as an underground wild west for graffiti artists and hip hop dancers in Wild Style (1983) and Beat Street (1984, in the clip below), and as a restless throwback to film noir in King of New York (1990).

The Sequel Subway: With the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster came a restoration of the subway’s reputation — sorta. The subway in the cinematic 1980s and 1990s was still dangerous, but in wild, sensational and very unrealistic ways. The tunnels underneath Manhattan harbored rivers of ectoplasmic ooze (Ghostbusters 2, 1989), a train booby-trapped with explosives (Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995), a supernatural danger zone of runaway trains and alien warriors (Superman 2 AND Superman 4), and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (who hole up in that abandoned City Hall subway station).

Midnight Horrors: As the subways became safer to ride, the usual tropes of knife-wielding thugs and rapists no longer made sense as objects of menace. Soon the subways were filled with supernatural beings, starting with the relatively sedate Jason from Friday The 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan and slowly elevating into humanoid insects (Mimic, 1997), monsters from the sea laying large lizard eggs (the Godzilla remake, 1998), and humanoid insect monsters from the sea (Cloverfield, 2008)

 

ALSO: For a more intriguing take on subway horror, I recommend Jacob’s Ladder (1990) which uses the Brooklyn Bergen Street Station to surreal effect.

The Worst Subway Depiction Ever: Of course, films are allowed to manipulate train lines, distort direction, even put trains next to landmarks that are, in reality, miles away. It’s fantasy.

But somewhere out there in the vast universe of fiction there is a vague, undefined point where a film steps over the line, and the movie which does this most shamelessly is the otherwise great Spider-Man 2, which inserts a vast, fantasy elevated R line through the heart of Manhattan, rebuilding what the city so painstakingly tore down in the 1940s and 50s. If they wanted a picturesque elevated through a dense downtown landscape, why not just put Spider-Man in Chicago?

21st Century Redux: In the last forty years, Hollywood has had a nasty habit of replicating itself, and that goes for subway movies, with rehashed old themes like vigilantism (in 2007’s The Brave One) and even remakes the older films, like the sorry remake to The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. (Incidentally, that remake’s two stars have two important subway films on their resumes — John Travolta in one of the greatest New York films of all time, Saturday Night Fever, and Denzel Washington, in an uncredited, unceremonious moment in Death Wish.)

But the most enchanting recent use of the subway in a motion picture happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, where a misbegotten cat experiences the rush of mass transit for the first time:


A version of this article first ran on this blog in 2010.

The First Subway: Alfred Ely Beach’s Marvelous Pneumatic Transit

PODCAST The unbelievable story of Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Transit, a curious solution from 1870 to New York’s growing transporation crisis.

The first subway in New York — the first in the United States! – traveled only a single block and failed to influence the future of transportation. And yet Alfred Ely Beach’s marvelous pneumatic transit system provides us today with one of the most enchanting stories of New York during the Gilded Age.

With the growing metropolis still very much confined to below 14th Street by 1850, New Yorkers frantically looked for more efficient ways to transport people out of congested neighborhoods. Elevated railroads? Moving sidewalks? Massive stone viaducts?

Inventor Beach, publisher of the magazine Scientific American, believed he had the answer, using pneumatic power — i.e. the power of pressurized air! But the state charter only gave him permission to build a pneumatic tube to deliver mail, not people.

That didn’t stop Beach, who began construction of his extraordinary device literally within sight of City Hall.  How did Beach build such an ambitious project under secretive circumstances? What was it like to ride a pneumatic passenger car?  And why don’t we have pneumatic power operating our subways today?

FEATURING: Boss Tweed at his most bossiness, piano tunes under Broadway and something called a centrifugal bowling alley!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #207: THE FIRST SUBWAY: BEACH’S PNEUMATIC MARVEL

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

Alfred Speer’s moving sidewalk concept would have lifted pedestrians off the street and onto a moving ribbon that would have stretched up and down Broadway.

Alfred-Speer-Moving-Sidewalk-Main.jpg.662x0_q70_crop-scale

Read more about this curious proposal over at Scientific American.

From Scientific American
From Scientific American

 

An 1880 issue of Scientific American, the publication owned by Alfred Eli Beach that provided the impetus for many extraordinary inventions during the Gilded Age.

NY-119

 

The ‘atmospheric railway’ which ran during London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1864.

Crystal_Palace_Athmosperic_Rly.1864

Another idea which transfixed New Yorkers (and in particular Boss Tweed) was the elevated viaduct which would have sliced through dozens of city blocks, creating an epic piece of architecture throughout Manhattan.

From the Tribune, July 8, 1871.  Courtesy Columbia University
From the Tribune, July 8, 1871. Courtesy Columbia University

 

Alfred Ely Beach, mastermind of the Broadway pneumatic tunnel project:

Alfred_Ely_Beach

Beach’s ‘passenger tube’ which was displayed to great acclaim at the American Institute Fair in 1867:

18wwjrgv1uilsjpg

Some images from Beach’s 1870 pamphlet on the pneumatic system:

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An illustration from a newspaper of Beach’s workers ‘testing the position’ late at night over Broadway:

Testing the correctness of position at night-inkbluesky

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4

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1

How an underground pneumatic tunnel would have been situated under Broadway.  Pictured here in relation to the new post office (which sat at the spot of the southern end of today’s City Hall Park).

3

Had the Broadway Underground Railway actually been fully developed, here’s what a station would have looked like:

From NYC Subway
From NYC Subway

Stereopticon images of Beach’s pneumatic transit tunnel under Broadway, taken in 1870:

M2Y7289

WP_Beach_Pneumatic_Transit

Beach’s later invention — the centrifugal home bowling alley:
fig24-2

 

Later application of pneumatic power in New York — shipping office tubes at a location at Franklin and Greenwich Streets (1905) and the series of mail tubes at the National City Bank, 1910.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

 

Start with Joseph Brennan’s excellent research and presentation online.  Then jump into one of these great books on the history of New York City transportation — 722 Miles by Clifton Hood, The Race Underground by Doug Most, The Wheels That Drove New York City by Roger P. Roess and Gene Samsone and New York Underground by Julia Solis. There’s even a children’s book on this subject called The Secret Subway by Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio.

For some original documents from the period, look to an Illustrated Description of the Broadway Pneumatic Underground Railway (which we read from on the show), an 1873 presentation of the Broadway Underground Railway, and a very curious publication by Beach himself called The Pneumatic Dispatch from 1868.

 

A city of bridges: One century ago, Scientific American predicted a future of elevated sidewalks

sci

Imagine a city where the High Line isn’t just a novel park, but the primary form of urban conveyance.

In 1913, with the proliferation of the automobile, it seemed humans were being crowded out at ground level.  People were beginning to think of themselves as removed from the street.  Daredevils were experimenting with flight, and small, single-man crafts began appearing over the skies of Manhattan.  The world’s tallest building, the Woolworth Building, had been completed a few months before.  Perhaps the streets themselves could elevate, granting pedestrians a space of their own?

Scientific American suggested the possibilities of a city of elevated layers in its July 26, 1913 issue. “The Elevated Sidewalk: How It Will Solve City Transportation Problems,” written by engineer and science writer Henry Harrison Suplee, posits that humans and automobiles are simply incompatible and opposing engines upon ground level, and that one will have to give way to the other.

“One of the greatest impediments to city transport today is the continuance of the obsolete method of attempting to conduct foot and vehicular traffic upon the same highways.”

Below: Cars and people seem to co-exist peacefully on Fifth Avenue (pictured here in 1913). But, darn it, automobiles are meant to go fast! 

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy

After all, cars are meant to go fast.  “In nearly every large city today there appears a tendency to enforce traffic regulations intended to permit the most conflicting elements to be operated together and the result is naturally the impeding of the very traffic which it is desired to help.”

By keeping people and automobiles on the same plane, one risks lives, sure, but more importantly, it slows progress by keeping the potential of auto motion on a short leash.

Suplee’s solution: “Take the foot passengers off the surface of the street entirely, and leave the highways solely for vehicles!”

Below: Evidence of the incompatibility of foot and automobile was being amply displayed all over New York City, most notably on “Death Avenue,” the trecherous tangle of roads on Manhattan’s West Side. Eventually the elevated freight railroad today known as the High Line was built to relieve this issue.

death-ave-thehighline-org

 

New York had many precedents for this.  The great passages over the East River (the Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges) had all been completed with elevated pathways for pedestrians, situated over or alongside those paths for vehicular traffic.  Trains were either elevated overhead along the avenues, or buried underneath the ground.

Suplee doesn’t imagine a world were pedestrians become smarter, or any type of place with sophisticated traffic lights or crosswalks.  Instead, elevated sidewalks would hover over the major thoroughfares; “[S]uch sidewalks might be built on Broadway from the Battery to Union Square, there sloping down to the surface level until further extensions were required,” he writes.

In a city of skyscrapers, bridges could be constructed several stories above the street.  Store fronts would appear on the second or third floors, while the ground floor would be exclusively used for delivery and store.  Life would essentially reside many feet above the ground.

Bicycles figure nowhere in his model, but he does carve out one exception to his pedestrian only level.  “The power vehicles should be kept absolutely to the surface, and there given unrestricted facilities for speed, weight, and numbers; and the foot levels maintained for absolute freedom for pedestrians, with the possible exception of carriages for small children.”

As commenter Boris mentions below, while New York City never adhered to this suggestion, other cities certain did — to a certain extent.

You can read Mr. Suplee’s article here.

(A shorter version of this blog post originally ran June 2013)

PODCAST REWIND: Remembering the original Pennsylvania Station

PODCAST The story of Pennsylvania Station involves more than just nostalgia for the long-gone temple of transportation as designed by the great McKim, Mead and White. It’s a tale of incredible tunnels, political haggling and big visions. Find out why the original Penn Station was built to look so classical, why it was then torn down, and what strange behaviors the tunnels that connect it to New Jersey exhibit every night.

ORIGINALLY RELEASED APRIL 10, 2009

THIS IS A SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED PODCAST!  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#79), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

The view of Penn Station from the roof of Gimbels Department Store.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

 

For this round of photographs, let’s focus on the inside of the station, shall we? To look at other shots pertaining to Penn Station, please refer to the original post from this podcast from 2009.

Images of the spectacular main waiting room and the classical Corinthian columns. Read here about something very mysterious and tragic which occurred near here in 1914.

Penn_Station_interior pennstation1911waitingroom

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

This is what greeted you as you got off the train and headed for 33rd Street.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Crowds await the arrival of superstar preacher Billy Sunday in 1917. Read all about his visit here.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

 

The interior from the 1950s during rush hour. Getty has a terrific collection of Penn Station photographs over the years.

Getty Images
Getty Images

From this angle of the waiting room (taken in the station’s early days) you can see a statue of Alexander Cassatt, Penn Railroad’s former president, in its wall niche. Cassatt, brother of impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, never got to see the completed station, as he died in 1906. (The station opened in 1910.)

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

 

From this angle, you can really see the relation of the train platforms with one of the entrances. Seems easier to navigate than the current Penn Station, don’t you think?

penn38

Here are a few ‘cleaned up’ hi-res images from the fine folks over at Shorpy, who have a bit of a thing apparently for old Penn Station. Go over to their blog to check out the rest of their work.

Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy

 

100 years ago today: Seventh Avenue collapsed under rush hour traffic

One hundred years ago today, — a horrifying disaster on Seventh Avenue endangered the lives of New Yorkers on their way to work.

Excavations for the new Seventh Avenue subway line (the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue line, aka the 1-2-3 trains) were proceeding well below an active thoroughfare.  On the morning of September 22, 1915, two detonations inside the tunnel dislodged planking that was holding up the street between 24th and 25th Streets.  Dangerously weakened, the temporary roadway folded into the earth, creating a chasm and swallowing up everything on the surface.

The men working below didn’t stand a chance, buried beneath a deluge of automobiles and debris.   Among the vehicles thrown into the 30-foot hole was a streetcar filled with passengers. “Heads and arms were thrust from the windows, and those who looked on helplessly could hear the cries of the ones caught in the wreckage.” [NY Sun, 9/23/15]

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Both the water main and gas pipes burst open in the tumult, and trapped streetcar passengers panicked as the enclosure began filling with water.

“Witnesses of the accident quickly recovered from the shock of seeing nearly two blocks of city street sink from sight, carrying down all traffic within reach of the cave in.” [NY World, 9/22/15 late edition]

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Courtesy Library of Congress

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Seven people were killed in the disaster with dozens injured. Most of the deaths were workers in the tunnel although two passengers in the streetcar also died.

Eyewitnesses describe a scene of utter chaos and total confusion.  A man named Joseph Urban was standing on the street and got pulled into the hole.  “There was a funny feeling on the planking — a trembling, jerking sort of sensation — and then the whole street seemed to slide down into the hole. There was so much dust that I couldn’t see anything for two minutes. When I could see I appeared to be in a forest of tangled timbers, pointing every which way.” [source]

Police went searching for the culprit. Although it was later deemed an accident, an intentional detonation could not be ruled out especially given the fact that terrorist bombs were going off all over the city. (Back in March, detectives thwarted a second attempt to bomb St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Below: Seventh Avenue as it looked 100 years ago

7th

Fingers quickly pointed to the IRT’s inadequate ‘cut-and-cover’ method, identifying other possibly deadly roadways along Seventh Avenue. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel ordered additional supports be constructed at many excavation sports, and ‘heavy trucking’ was banned from these problem areas.

This wasn’t the city merely being over anxious. In fact, just three days later, another excavation collapsed at Broadway and 38th Street, swallowing a taxicab and killing its passenger.  What makes this especially hazardous was its proximity to the popular Knickerbocker and Casino theaters.

As you might imagine, the collapse snarled street traffic for weeks with street closures and detoured routes turning the Tenderloin and Herald Square districts into a mass of congestion.

Below: An illustration from the New York Sun, showing the location of the 24th Street street collapse and a Google Maps screen capture of this street today.

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1

 

 

TAXI: A History of the New York Taxi Cab

PODCAST The history of the New York City taxicab, from the handsome hansoms of old to the modern issues facing the modern taxi fleet today.

In this episode, we recount almost 175 years of getting around New York in a private ride.  The hansom, the romantic rendition of the horse and carriage, took New Yorkers around during the Gilded Age. But unregulated conduct by ‘nighthawks’ and the messy conditions of streets due to horses demanded a solution.

At first it seemed the electric car would save the day but the technology proved inadequate.  In 1907 came the first gas-propelled automobile cabs to New York, officially ‘taxis’ due to a French invention installed in the front seat.

By the 1930s the streets were filled with thousands of taxicabs. During the Great Depression, cab drivers fought against plunging fare and even waged a strike in Times Square. In 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia debuted the medallion system as a way to keep the streets regulated.

By the 1970s many cabdrivers faced an upswing of crime that made picking up passengers even more dangerous than bad traffic.  Drivers began ignoring certain fares – mainly from African-Americans – which gave rise to the neighborhood livery cab system.

Today New York taxicab fleets face a different threat – Uber and the rise of private app-based transportation services. Will the taxi industry rise to the challenge in time for the debut of their ‘taxi of tomorrow’?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #189: TAXI: The history of the New York City taxicab

Top picture: Photo by Albert Fenn/Office of War Information, Cleaned up image courtesy Shorpy (Get a print of it here)

FSA/8d21000/8d216008d21658a.tif
FSA/8d21000/8d216008d21658a.tif

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A snugly dressed cabbie awaiting some fares at the Battery Park elevated train station — 1895. Note that the poor horse too is swaddled up for a bad winter.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

A hack from 1896.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

A hansom cab from 1906. This was still the dominant cab ride in New York during the period despite the introduction of the ‘horseless carriage’ onto the city streets.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

A fleet of electric cars in 1896, and a couple Electrobats in action outside the Metropolitan Opera House 1898. Compare these with the picture of the hansom above.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst

 

A taxicab waiting outside Alwyn Court (West 58th Street/7th Avenue)

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

A cab waiting passengers at West 150th Street.

Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A view of the bustling street life of Herald Square, 1935. The horses are off the street but there are many other kinds of transportation options joining the taxicab.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Grabbing a Checker Cab on Park Avenue 1944

Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images
Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images

 

A row of Checker Taxis, sitting idle during a taxicab strike in 1940.

: Keystone/Getty Images)
: Keystone/Getty Images)

 

Some vivid 1960s photography by Ernst Haas capturing the mystery and allure of the New York taxi.

Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images
Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images

Ernst Haas (9)

Some scenes from the 1970s…

Courtesy City Noise
Courtesy City Noise

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