Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Art and history below the streets of Newark

Below Newark's Raymond Boulevard and University Heights, there's a step back in time that many people outside of the city don't know is there. I recently took a few hours to check it out, and as with most of our jaunts, I found more than I expected.

First, I have to confess to being somewhat of a transit enthusiast. If you've read my tribute to Newark Airport's 1935 terminal, you already know I have a fondness for vintage places where you can get from point A to point B in some sort of conveyance. Newark Penn Station is another 1930's-era Art Deco masterpiece, and when I worked in the city, I loved my twice-daily walks through the heavily-used but little appreciated gem. 

My first trek on the City Subway was in 2001, prompted by the impending retirement of the old 1950's era trolley-like cars in favor of 21st century light rail. NJ Transit opened the system up one night, giving free rides to all comers who wanted a last dose of nostalgia. Yup, it was me and a bunch of foamers -- do I know how to have fun on a Friday night, or what? Despite the fact that the old cars were painted in bright NJ Transit colors, the whole experience was a throwback. It wasn't hard to imagine the times when Public Service Transport operated surface trolleys, and commuters from Bloomfield and the 'Newark suburbs' counted on the City Subway to get to their jobs at New Jersey Bell or an afternoon of shopping at Bambergers.

The Newark City Subway runs on the former bed of the Morris Canal, which originally ran through the city on its route between Phillipsburg and Jersey City. Abandoned by 1924, the canal had become a mosquito-infested trough and a barrier to the flow of increasing downtown traffic. Where barges had once transported the products of Newark's factories to points west, trains would now move people underground, allowing motor traffic on the new Raymond Boulevard above. Public Service had already built an extensive transit center on Park Place, providing a convenient transfer point to trolleys and buses going virtually anywhere in the state. Subway construction began in 1929 and was completed in 1935, with an extension to Penn Station finished a few years later. Beyond the Warren Street station that serves Rutgers and NJIT, the line goes to surface, making one grade crossing and hugging the edge of Branch Brook Park before terminating at Grove Street in Bloomfield.

As was the case with many major public works during the Great Depression, WPA artists made their mark on the City Subway. The line's four underground stations are graced with tile murals created by Newark native Domenico Mortellito, who'd grown up not far from the Morris Canal. Each depicts one of his childhood memories of the waterway, except for the Penn Station murals, which portray the transformation from barge to railway, complete with steam shovels and laborers moving iron beams into place. Together, the 10 murals represent the first instance of public art used in an underground transit system. Yup... you've got it: another New Jersey first.

I wasn't just there for the vintage stuff: there's more contemporary art to be found, too. As you enter the system at Penn Station, you're met by life-sized bronze commuters sculpted by Russian-born Jersey City artist Grigory Gurevich. A metal clerk stands inside a sizeable booth, presumably offering change for the turnstiles that once marked entry below.

My personal favorites are found sitting unobtrusively at the Branch Brook Park station. Sculptor Tom Otterness pays tribute to Mortellito with white tile representations of two of the underground murals, attended to by small brass workmen. It's a whimsical memorial to an accomplished artist whose works also graced Rockefeller Center and the 1939 World's Fair, among others.

Inadvertent as it may be, NJ Transit has done a pretty good job of maintaining a vintage feel on some aspects of the underground. They've added modern signage as necessary, but they've left the old tile signs that direct riders to surface streets and other destinations. Disembark at the Military Park station, and you might see a tile pointing in the direction of the Public Service Terminal. It's been more than 30 years since that building was demolished, but the sign will still direct you toward PSE&G's headquarters location.

Oh, and one last thing: if you're going to play tourist on the City Subway, you can do it really economically. The system works on the fare ticket system, where you validate your own ticket at your entry point, rendering the ticket useful for 60 minutes. A ride from Penn Station clear out to Bloomfield takes less than half that time, so you could potentially get off at a given stop, take a quick look around the neighborhood and pop back onto the next train without having to pay another fare. As far as I can tell, it's perfectly legal.

1 comment:

  1. I have a friend who works as a conveyancing solicitor in the Prudential Center business area. He knows the history of the place and the real estate story.

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