New York City Subways

New York City Subways by Tom Range Sr. is from the Postcard History Series, and is essentially a collection of postcard images with captions underneath. Although the title made me believe when I first picked up this book as an unwanted library donation that the entire book would be about the New York subway system, the author devoted chapters to other methods of mass transit that preceded the subways, such as horse-drawn omnibuses and elevated railways.

The els were in operation from 1867 to 1955 and judging by the numerous photos, they were an eyesore. The ironwork structures, tracks and trains kept pedestrians underneath in an eternal state of darkness. The multi-storey els also obstructed the architecture at ground level. Thus for at least six years the art deco facade of Radio City Music Hall was hidden behind the el station, only made visible once the station was dismantled.

Aside from showing how the subway system was constructed, we were also treated to chapters on the art and architecture within the system. One common feature depicted on the postcards were the subway entrance or exit kiosks. These featured domed tops (for the entrances) or pyramid tops (for the exits) and were monstrous constructions. No wonder so many of them had to be pulled down because they obscured the sightlines of motorists. I wonder how many subway passengers upon exiting a station were mowed down by a car that didn’t see them.

Range used real postcard images and in some of them the inky postmarks and cancellations bled through. I used a magnifying glass to read the text in each postcard photo, whether it was on billboards, signs or posted within elevated or subway stations. The author provided then and now photos to compare the New York streetscapes over the years. Since he relied on images already produced on postcards he was not able to include any scenes from the time of publication in 2002. He also included postcards that showed artistic impressions of some building designs that were never constructed.

The cover depicts the City Hall station, while the image on the back (seen below) shows the ghastly elevated line at 110th Street. How’d you like to be getting dressed, or trying to fall asleep, in your fifth-floor apartment only to be disturbed by yet another train passing by?

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