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New York, New York

Crooks and Longarms

Barring Times Square, nighttime New York is awash in a warm glow. Who do we thank for this? Why, our streetlamps! Investigating the rich history of light in the city.

It is a New York paradox: We live in a city steeped in history, but how many of us know anything about its past? Famous buildings and noteworthy street corners don’t concern us; we’re too busy. The skyscrapers, the parks, they’re all backdrop to the hustle and bustle of the here and now. But if we give it more than a passing thought, we’ll admit that when it comes to New York history, we feel a bit like a janitor in a physics lab. We don’t know anything about it, and there’s so much there we wouldn’t have the foggiest where to begin.

Which is too bad, because unlike most cities, where local history is bottled up in a civic center or a dusty and forgotten museum, New York’s streets are so overflowing with history that the city is, more or less, its own permanent exhibit. History is to New York City as bird watching is to anywhere else—if you have some idea of what to look for and a good pair of eyes, it won’t matter where you are. You’ll see something.

And not just something, but something with a story behind it, something that someone has probably written volumes about, has studied from every angle and can present a five-hour disquisition on with short notice. Something that you have most likely never, until now, given a second’s worth of thought to. Something like streetlamps.

Those who have read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist know that even an item as banal as an elevator carries with it an entire culture, a body of knowledge, a taxonomy to rival Linnaeus. The New York streetlamp is no different—there are experts, intricate histories, bizarre trivia, and baroque typologies. Familiar with the Type 24A-W ‘bishop’s crook?’ There are people obsessed with it.

And they should be. New York streetlamps, particularly the old, cast-iron variety, are doubly fascinating: Not only are they beautiful works of art, but they’re rare; today New York’s streets are dominated by octagonal-based, curved-mast aluminum jobs, efficient but homely grandchildren of the baroque masterpieces that dominated the city during the first half of the twentieth century.

Like dinosaurs, they used to dominate the landscape in a variety of sizes and shapes. There’s the aforementioned bishop’s crook, so named because its tall shaft bends in on itself at the top, the curve filled with intricate filigree, resembling a bishop’s staff. There’s the corvington longarm, a right-angled post used to illuminate boulevards and avenues. There’s the twinlamp, a bulky workhorse often placed in parks and medians. And behind each of these, and others, trail a retinue of sub-categories and hybrids, all distinct, if you know what to look for.

The old breed is still around, though in far less numbers. Of the 76 types in existence in 1934 only 19 remain, and many of those are close to extinction. Hence the bird-watching analogy. They’re there, you just have to look; and when you find one you feel a tiny surge of bittersweet joy, because in all likelihood it won’t be around in a few years. But you have to know where to look, which is why it’s a good idea, before you go streetlamp-hunting, to do a little research.

The best place to begin is Kevin Walsh’s www.forgotten-ny.com. A Macy’s copywriter by day, Walsh has spent the bulk of his spare time over the last several years compiling an encyclopaedic guide to lesser-known but infinitely engrossing aspects of New York’s urban history. Walsh, who claims a special affection for streetlamps, dedicates an entire section of his site to them. ‘For me there’s something soulless about the new ones,’ says Walsh, not one to glamorize the present. ‘I have a trained eye and can pick out the really old ones, the ones that have somehow survived possibly nine decades. I suppose once these new ones have survived nine decades, then we can give them their due.’

But on matters of urban lighting Walsh defers final authority to Jeff Saltzman, the self-proclaimed ‘litenut’ whose website is a virtual shrine to the anachronistic. Saltzman isn’t afraid to share his opinions about all things lighting; at one point, he declares that ‘incandescent lights are truly an evil force. They are Satanic. Are they not cast in the glowy image of candles, which are used in so many wicked ceremonies?’ Saltzman’s site is full of information not only on lampposts, but the lamps themselves and the types of bulbs used. The sites could absorb hours out of your day, if they didn’t immediately make you want to run out and do some streetlamp-spotting of your own.

A good place to start is lower midtown. Madison Square Park at Broadway and 23rd is home to a small flock of well-preserved twinlamps. A block away on 6th Avenue stands a long row of bishop’s crooks. Then head to SoHo; the block of Broadway just below Houston is full of bishop’s crooks. Back up in the East Village there’s a scrum of bishop’s crooks near St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery Church. Though beware: one reason there are so many bishop’s crooks around is that beginning in the mid-1980s the Department of Transportation—ever the innovator—went through a retro craze, throwing up new bishop’s crooks all over the island. Corvington longarms are harder to spot, though they went through a retro phase of their own a few years back (to see the new oldies, check out Columbus Avenue in the 80s). 207th Street east of Broadway is full of them, and they pop up here and there all over TriBeCa. But the single best place to see old streetlamps is City Hall Park, where the municipal government has acted as a game warden of sorts, maintaining old bishop’s crooks and twinlamps—even giving them historic status—when they might otherwise have been replaced by dull aluminum shafts.

But while Walsh’s and Saltzman’s sites give a pretty good idea of what to look for, the ‘where’ is less sure. After all, they’re only two guys, and they’ve got the whole city to cover. What they’ve found is in most cases what the city missed when it replaced the old streetlamps with uniform models in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, the majority of what they’ve documented lies in out-of-the-way places—or, conversely, in plain sight, so obvious that people pass by them every day without notice: an urban version of the envelope in Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter.’

And that is what makes streetlamp-spotting so intriguing. It doesn’t take special gear or a day off from work; a good eye is all it takes to turn the everyday commuter into a keen streetlamp-watcher. Who knows—if you’re watching carefully enough—whether you’ll find a previously overlooked bishop’s crook sticking out of an alley in the West Village, or a corvington longarm still shining over a street corner in Turtle Bay.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen