Sunday, February 27, 2011

Signs of Life


Signs of Life : or, Post 100


Hyacinth : You do not push aside last year's cast off leaves with your new green life / but push through / Emerging a surprise from under cloak of snow.

Marsh Marigold : Coming up from your green beads under the soil / soon carpeting the ground with yellow star flowers before the trees overshade you / only to turn to dust as summer comes, and wait again.

Daffodil : I garden only as a clown, tripping over rocks on hills / when all at once I saw you there, you sprouting daffodils / challenging my words' worth.

Snowdrops : The first bulb to flower, small and hiding yourself in the back lot / lost among the brown leaves and ivy / waiting for someone to notice when you set out your hanging white flowers.

Feverfew : You never die back, no matter the snow, and flourish in the crack between pavement and wall / Some take your leaves for herbs / Some would remove you from here.

Rhododendron : Broken to pieces by storms a year ago and your remnant bent by this year's snows / what we left standing in hope held its buds all winter / You look like summer on a sunny winter's day.

Laughing : Your cement body shattered / we have said we will discard you / You sit by the symbol of fertility and life, laughing.


All photos taken on the property, January 26, 2011.  Words inspired by SHolsted.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Riding the El - 12 - Second Avenue


We're going to the Bronx on the Second Avenue El, about May 1940.

137-3. Second Avenue El sign.

The Second Avenue El ran to the Bronx only in rush hours. There were two services: express to Bronx Park via the Third Avenue (Bronx) El, and express to Freeman St via the elevated subway line in Westchester Ave and Southern Blvd. The former supplemented Third Avenue El service and the latter supplemented subway service.

The routing in the south Bronx was peculiar in that it did not run over streets. The reason was that the Bronx system was begun in the early 1880s by a company that planned to build entirely on private right of way. Suburban Rapid Transit bought land and began construction as far as 143rd St. However even while doing so, the directors formed and merged another company that obtained permission to build a more conventional elevated railway over Third Ave. The result in the end was that the Third Ave El left Third Ave at 129th St only to return to it about fifteen blocks farther north in the Bronx.

In hopes of clarifying this, I'm inserting below part a Hagstrom street map of the Bronx dated 1943. The elevated lines are shown as solid black lines.

From the bottom, the Second Avenue Bridge is noted as ELEV R R BR. Notice from there how the line swings over the New Haven freight yard and then turns north running halfway between Alexander Ave and Willis Ave. At 143rd St was a planned junction in the original Suburban Rapid Transit route. The west branch was used in 1887 to bring the line into Third Ave, and the east branch was finally used in 1917 for a new link partly over Bergen Ave to connect with the elevated subway line. If you follow the red subway line from there you will get to the Freeman St station where Second Ave trains terminated.

135-5. Second Ave north from 125th St station.

This a repeat from Riding the El - 11. This time we will ride up the ramp to the upper level of the bridge on an express to Freeman St.

136-1. Second Ave El approaching Second Ave Bridge.

Photo 137-5 in Riding the El - 11 was a similar view from the lower level. It showed the same little train yard on the east side of the structure. Here we can see that the derricks are not for the elevated railway but for The Clark and Wilkins Company's wood yard.

On the left are the tops of buildings in the 129th St elevated railway property.

136-1 detail.

Clark and Wilkins had a very short railway line from the edge of the water, with four-wheeled carts, possibly pushed by hand. You can see a couple of carts there with very evenly cut logs like the ones stacked behind their fence.

136-1 detail.

Beyond the derricks we can see a seven-car express train on the upper level of the elevated railway in the Bronx. Below that is the New Haven Railroad freight yard, and some barges (not car floats) in the Harlem River.

136-2. Second Ave El approaching Second Ave Bridge.

The Third Ave El express track joins from the left.

Ruppert Beer was once a major New York brand. Its second owner, Jacob Ruppert, is best known for owning the New York Yankees from 1924 to 1939. Also promoting themselves in the Bronx by large signs are the Arctic Hygeia Ice Manufacturing Company and Mathushek Pianos.

137-1. Second Ave Bridge looking south.

If we now ran quickly through the crowded rush hour train, we might be able to get this view out the back. On the left is the ramp down to the Second Ave line, and 125th St station is just about in view. The track curving to the right leads to the Third Ave El express track over 129th St station.

137-2. Station on private right of way, 133rd St or 138th St or 143rd St.

The sign directs passengers downstairs for the street and local trains. The Third Ave El ran a full-time service to the Bronx on the lower level, and Second Ave express trains to the Bronx Third Ave El also took the lower level.

The upper level on the private right of way was used only for rush hour trains. The Second Avenue El's Freeman St express trains were stored along this stretch the rest of the time, as seen here. These are Composite cars, the original equipment of the subway when it opened in 1904. They had wooden bodies with copper sheathing that was indented to look like wood slats.

The Composites weighed more than the other el cars, and were allowed to run in passenger service only on portions that had been built or rebuilt in the 20th century. That ruled out almost anything besides express trains. For example the Second Ave express to Freeman St ran on: the completely rebuilt City Hall branch of 1915, Second Ave third track installed in 1915 on new girders, the replacement Second Ave Bridge of 1917, the rebuilt portion on private right of way of 1917, the new Bergen St link of 1917, and the elevated subway line of 1905. The cars were allowed to run empty in the opposite direction on the Second Ave local tracks from 1880.

136-3. Willis Ave looking north at 147th St.

The Hagstrom map (above) is slightly incorrect about the route of the so-called Bergen St Cut. The line left private property at 145th St and ran north over Willis Ave for two blocks. The view above shows where the el then turns into Bergen Ave. Straight ahead is the Third Ave El station at 149th St.

136-3 detail.

There are a lot of people waiting for uptown trains at 149th St station, in the evening rush hour. The six points of Third Ave, Willis Ave, and 149th St was long called "The Hub", and some of the people may be leaving work in the area. Others have probably used the transfer from the subway and want to continue on the el.

Two Third Avenue Railway System trolleys are in the inky shadows under the station. And you might be able to spot the subway stairs with a globe on a pole on each side.

136-4. Westchester Ave looking northeast from Brook Ave.

You can see almost this same scene today. The two tracks coming up on the far left and right are still in use for subway routes 2 and 5. This is right after the subway comes up from underground, where it turns into the elevated line running over Westchester Ave. You can still see support girders for the elevated connection between the subway tracks.

The Bergen St elevated link ran directly over the subway where it comes out, and eagle eyed riders may notice the cut-off elevated columns embedded in the concrete side walls of the cut.

At the bottom of this view are switches for the original elevated connection that ran from Third Ave at Westchester Ave. It was no longer in passenger service in 1940 but still in place (the Hagstrom map does not show it). The Bergen St connection was built solely to avoid congestion at the level junction and the 149th St station.

136-7. Second Ave Bridge looking south.

We're returning to Manhattan on the lower level. The position of the switch shows that we will turn right into the 129th St station rather than run straight into the Second Ave line (which only morning Second Ave express trains would do). The other switch on the left is set for a Second Ave train to run north, meaning one just passed or is just about to come into view.

Near the bottom of the image is the end of the draw. The portion we are on could swing 90 degrees to allow a tall ship to pass up the Harlem River.

136-8. 129th St station looking west.

Same train. We have come around the curve and see 129th St station. The single express track for Third Ave Through Express trains passes overhead with no station platform.

136-8 detail.

The platform on the right was not used in passenger service. The far right track ends at a bumper.

The platform on the left was used for Third Ave trains running to and from the Bronx. The full-time service was by local trains, with rush hour express service by Local Express, a nomenclature that meant they ran express in Manhattan up to 125th St and then local in the Bronx. Through Express trains continued to skip local stations for some distance in the Bronx.

To the left of that was the Third Ave terminal platform, for some rush hour trains that ended here, and finally to the left of that was the Second Ave terminal platform.

And we'll stop here.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Riding the El - 11 - Second Avenue


Last time we went uptown on the Second Avenue El to 125th St, about May 1940.

At the end of the Second and Third Avenue Els was a joint terminal filling the city block between 128th St and 129th St. The full-time Second Ave service was a local that turned left into that terminal. Another service of express trains, rush hours only, instead turned slightly right and went over the now-gone Second Avenue Bridge to the Bronx. We'll take a look at the terminal in this set of images.

Here's an aerial photograph of the area from 1924 with my annotations.

This comes from NYCityMap, provided by the City of New York. Evidently the City had the entire city photographed from the air, and fitted the images together into a mosaic. Who knew? The big '6A' is from the mosaic makers.

First we'll ride from 125th St station on Second Ave around the bend into the terminal.

135-5. Second Ave north from 125th St station.

Nobody's in sight as we look north to the Bronx. Downtown local track on the left, uptown local on the right. Only rush hour expresses take the ramp to the upper level of the bridge.

It's not a sunny day, so the striped awnings of the control tower are up. The switches here would not be in regular use outside rush hours.

135-5 detail.

The mundane pipe fittings of the lamp stands and station name sign must have been familiar sights to riders. And there's the sign about not riding on the front or rear platforms.

The photo tour will go up the local track on the far right.

137-5. Second Ave north at 128th St.

We'll be taking the track that curves left into 129th St terminal. The path straight ahead leads to the lower level of the bridge, and on the right is a small yard with cranes hanging over the Harlem River. The Ruppert Beer works was in the Bronx. Just below the sign is Second Avenue Bridge, a double-deck swing bridge for four tracks. (We'll get a closer look at it next time.)

137-5 detail.

I'd like to tell you the purpose of the small yard but I can't. As you can see, the sidings are only long enough for one or two rail cars. My guess is something to do with shipping or receiving from river barges, but it's hard to say what. This area was rebuilt around 1915, well after the steam locomotive era on the el, but would it be to get coal for stations and other buildings on line?

137-7. 129th St Yard shop building.

As the train turns into the block of private property, it passes a shop along the 128th St side. It's hard to see but there may be pits under the tracks to allow staff to see the underside of cars.

135-4. 129th St station looking west.

The platform straight head is the Second Avenue El terminal. The lefthand track continued, turning left to join the Third Avenue El, but no passenger trains made that move.

The next platform to the right is a terminal for Third Avenue El trains not going to the Bronx. A third platform barely visible to the right of that was the main platform for Third Avenue trains. The platforms are connected by an enclosed overhead footbridge.

The train on the left is on a non-passenger track alongside the shop building. Ahead, on a higher level, is the Third Avenue El single express track, which passed over the 129th St station without a platform.

135-4 detail. Second Avenue El station at 129th St.

Train men swap a few stories, hidden from view of passengers on the platform, if there are any. Things look pretty quiet in the station.

135-3. 129th St station looking west to Third Ave.

Seen from the uptown end of a Second Ave train, this is the track that connects to the Third Avenue El. It's the same track seen straight ahead in the previous view. The other Second Ave track ends at the bumper on the right.

And this seems to have been a good place to keep spare frogs and points.

137-6. 129th St station looking east.

Almost the opposite view to 135-4. We are on the Second Avenue platform looking back toward Second Ave. The train that was on the left in 135-4 is gone, so we can see the side of the shop building with its platform for staff. Notice the control tower in the distance.

137-4. 129th St station looking east.

The same tower. The tracks turn right to go downtown on Second Avenue.

Like 135-4, the photograph is framed by the roof and posts of the rear platform of the train. The photographer was shooting out the end door of the car body. After all he must have seen the nicely lettered warning sign about going out on the rear platform!

135-2. 129th St looking east.

Something a little different. This is the Third Avenue El through express track over 129th St, used only in rush hours. The platform below to the right is for most Third Ave trains running to the Bronx. To its right is the other shop building that was located beyond the end of the Third Ave terminal platform.

Second Avenue Bridge is ahead and to the left ; Willis Avenue Bridge (from the end of First Ave) is in the distant haze at center.

One of the things I've enjoyed about this whole series of pictures has been seeing the people living their lives in their 1940 clothes in their 1940 world with their 1940 ads. We sure didn't get much of that this time.

Maybe the photographer felt the same way, because while shooting roll 135 he tried to capture the interior of a train.

135-6. Elevated train interior.

The long exposure shows. I've had the same problem myself shooting in dark spaces without flash or tripod. The movement here is probably only the photographer's hands.

This is a wooden car, with rattan seats. Rattan is a kind of palm, by the way. Look at the wood trim in the panel on the left. Just amazing. Wood sash windows, open on a warm day.

The seating arrangement was known as the Manhattan plan. It had seats parallel to the sides near each end of the car, where people were likely to stand, and a few rows of cross seats in the middle of the car. Notice the leather straps for standees, the origin of the term straphangers.

The blurred woman in the middle has possibly a straw hat and possibly a floral print dress. She has some sort of bag next to her. Sitting in the end seat makes me think she's not going far.

Next time, the track less taken: Second Avenue El to the Bronx.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Less Is More


We'll get back to the elevated railway pictures next week.


subway diagram

I've written a lot about subway diagrams over the past year. One of the meta issues I keep tossing around is how much detail to include.

The pressure in favor of more detail is generosity. Why withhold information that could be put on the diagram? As a diagram fan wrote me a few weeks ago:

The line numbers and letters. Without them, the map is much less useful, despite being perfectly printable now. Even a person closely familiar with the system needs them from time to time, and certainly all newcomers need them desperately.

It's a question of informational completeness of the diagram. Without line numbers/letters, it is not a diagram of subway lines, but simply an abstract piece of art with very little relationship to the actual subway. Clutter can be avoided by showing each colored line number/letter only once between any two junctions of that color. Then the line topology will be clear. Currently it is not. A major piece of information is missing.

But the opposite pressure to simplify, simplify, simplify, is to me both a question of esthetics and also of making the big picture comprehensible. I made some comment on the letters and numbers in the first half of Subway Map III and I think I mentioned it a few times in the course of the Making a Subway Map series.

I made the new diagram originally without the letters and numbers, and then in version 5.02 I gave in to my doubts on the subject and put them in. Here's an excerpt.

But I really didn't like those blobby circles all over the place. I thought they distracted the eye. So I took them back out for 5.03.

Then I thought about it some more, and tried another approach for 5.06, the one that's up now.

I think that's a lot better. At a glance you can ignore those little notations. Then if you look close at an area of interest you might start to notice them.

If you look at the whole diagram you'll see that I went all out and even labelled the mainline railroads and the ferry services. Those labels were inevitably longer, but they tend to be in parts of the map that had whitespace to spare. To keep them manageable near the city terminals I just put 'Metro North' and so forth, and farther out I named the 'lines' or 'branches' too.

Believe it or not I'm still not sure about it.


less is more

At any rate 'tis easy, all of it!
No sketches first, no studies, that's long past:
I do what many dream of, all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.

I never read that before this week. It's an excerpt from an ironically long poem by Robert Browning with an ironically long title, "Andrea del Sarto (called the 'Faultless Painter')", 1855.  Emphasis by me.

When I hear "less is more" I think of the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I wanted to find the source of his quote, so I could ponder the context, but here we go again. I've been down this path before. Is just what he should have said? The Wikipedia article on Mies cannily states, "He is often associated with the aphorisms 'less is more' and 'God is in the details'". Associated. I take that to mean that they couldn't find a source either!

At any rate, Mies certainly is on record to the effect that it's harder to make something simple than it is to make it ornate. Browning's artist knows he can fill a painting with perfectly rendered detail but he envies the simplicity of a lesser artist. I side with Mies though. Simplicity, well done, is hard. When you use simple lines, you have to get them just right. Design a glass-box building without getting it right, and you've got the architectural version of Nester's subway map.

Yes. I am still thinking about the subway diagram.


Northern Railroad

I never plug my Wikipedia writing. Oops, is the first rule of Wikipedia that you don't credit your writing?

I recently spent what felt like a lot of time expanding the History section of Northern Branch. Now that I look at it the parts I touched I realized it was only seven paragraphs (the first two sections under History).

But hard won! I tried to keep it simple and that does take longer. On the other hand, under Wikipedia rules I needed to decorate the text with the little <ref> footnote things, which meant pulling out books and papers from the Collection to verify the factoids.

Why this article? A bit of nostalgia maybe. One of the places I used to live was a block from the Northern track. I guess I thought of it as my little railroad. Three trains to Hoboken in the morning, and three back in the evening. And then that ended.

I never did ride it. Really Joe, just get your ass out of bed early enough some weekday morning and walk a mile to Sparkill and ride it while you can. That's me talking to Younger Self. If we only had time travel perfected by now. This is the 21st Century, right? What's the deal anyway? There are so many occasions where I'd be giving myself a flick in the back of the head for something I did or did not do. I'd be a different person today. A different person, always looking out for Old Joe to show up and give him another dope slap. Maybe that would not make me a better person. So I will accept what I cannot change. I did not ride the Northern Branch.

I walked it sometimes, after it had gone to just one freight train a day. If I went south, I had to go on a small bridge over a creek, walking on the ties.

And I have this:

I consider this a beautiful piece of design. Take it in.

The most important words are dead center in large letters in a pleasing clean typeface. Right below is an aid to finding the track at Hoboken. The wording is left-aligned with the name, and the little diagram of lights hangs out to the left. That's the practical stuff, and it's presented so clearly.

The most eye-catching thing in the upper portion is the railroad's symbol, one that I always found very attractive. The Erie had the same circle in a diamond, with 'ERIE' in the center, but after the merger it became an 'E' 'L' monogram. I wonder whether they paid big money for that, or somebody in the company just doodled it. Whatever. Its origin doesn't affect how good it looks. And it's just the right size here. It doesn't pull your eye away from 'NORTHERN BRANCH' but it still makes its presence known.

I'm not done! The slogan, in a script that screams '1960' at you, is a good one. And the city skyline at the bottom is, like the rest of this, just right. Its horizontal bottom anchors the design of the whole cover, and it looks a little exciting. It's funny that we're looking at Manhattan from the East River (see the United Nations buildings?) instead of the Hudson, but what could they do? That was the city's good side.

And the use of whitespace (bluespace?) is well done. The only nit I'd pick is whether 'LOCAL TIME' should have been set closer to the effective date. They seem to have pulled it out by itself to give it a little emphasis. But what other time would they use? Did the unfriendly service routes mess with people's heads by using a distant time zone?

The inside listing of a whopping six trains is a letdown after that cover.

A bigger letdown is the rest of the same series of timetables. Here are two.

What happened?

Granted, the names of these two timetables had to be longer. But that should be the only difference. The layout uses the same template but these are just wrong. Does simple design require more complex instructions? Somebody followed the plan. There's the same header material down to 'LOCAL TIME', and then there's a large space for the name, and under that the colored light symbol and the indication. Yet these come up wanting, once you've seen the Northern Branch. My little railroad was the best one.

Less is more.


Elevated railways next week.