MORGAN AVENUE STATION, East Williamsburg

I am starting a new occasional series in Forgotten NY imaginatively called “Interesting Subway Stations” in which I take a station and profile both the station and the immediate surrounding area. Since there are now 470 subway stations this will keep me busy for a few years. Actually I don’t really think I’ll be able to do all 470, logistically speaking. Occasionally I’ll get out at one that grabs me by the collar and demands attention. 

 

Today’s Most Interesting Station is Morgan Avenue on the Canarsie Line, which has been called the LL or the L since the 1960s. I’ve mentioned before that subway architect and chief of decor Squire Vickers did his best work on the Canarsie Line, which was built mostly in 1924 and 1928 between 6th Avenue and East New York, and achieved the apotheosis of the mosaic signage craft just before the subways abandoned this Arts and Crafts style in favor of a Machine Age esthetic in the 1930s.

I was unaware of this at first (more on this later) but the main exit of the Morgan Avenue station has evolved to become the one at Bogart Street instead of the one on Morgan Avenue. 

According to Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss in Brooklyn By Name, the great film actor Humphrey Bogart could claim a Bogart Street connection, since the street was named for one of his forebears, Teunis Bogaerdt, who arrived from Holland in the Wallabout Bay area in the mid-1600s, marrying the first European woman born in New Amsterdam, Sarah Rapelye (the Rapelyes are also represented on a Brooklyn street sign). The Bogaerdts later Anglicized their name to Bogart. I doubt that the actor knew about Bogart Street. The block on the Upper West Side where Bogart’s boyhood home was located now bears his name.

 

Morgan Avenue has been tiled mainly in shades of brown or gold (5th Avenue on the 42nd Street crosstown-Flushing Line #7’s palette is quite similar). There’s a bit of red and black worked in, as well.

The name “Morgan” looms large in US and financial history. J. P. Morgan (1837-1913) helped found General Electric and U.S. Steel and was described as “America’s greatest banker.” However, Brooklyn’s Morgan avenue that runs between Flushing and Norman Avenues and is occasionally a major route, was likely named for the surveyors the Morgan Brothers, who presumably laid out streets in East Williamsburg, according to Benardo and Weiss.

One design element that IRT and BMT stations had in stations built after 1915 or so (the so-called Dual Contracts stations): a triangle between the street name and the Ave. or St. designation. The only thing that comes close to it is the dot used in computer programs like Microsoft Word or In-Design to designate spaces between words. Here, it’s used to break up what could be perceived as too much space between words. We’re so used to seeing the little triangle on these signs that we would really notice if it was missing (some stations do without it). 

One of the design elements that sets Morgan Avenue apart is the mosaic station designators on the tiled supporting pillars. Pillars are usually reinforced like this if the station is directly under a building. These two stations are unique in the subways, however, in that the station name has been inscribed in mosaic (the usual way, of course, is to simply install a plaque). There are subtle differences among these tiled signs…while one pillar sign looks hastily done, with uneven tiles and smaller ones cut around the black letters, another looks more polished, with mostly even tiling. I can’t explain the discrepancy.

 

Closeup of the station’s M identifier. All Canarsie line tiles were hand cut and inserted manually. While brown and gold are dominant you also see black diamonds and red and white pieces as well.

 

Squire Vickers used a trick here he would later use in IND stations: if a station is on a hill or incline, the color bands at the tops of the walls have to adjust or they would run into the tunnel ceiling; here they are adjusted one row of tiles down.

 

Recent-edition directional signage. Note the lack of a dot on the “i.” It would smash into the descender on the “g.” Nice little design decision.

 

I have to admit something. I’m usually very sure of what direction I’m facing when I emerge from a subway station — but while I knew where I was since I have an instinctive knowledge of NYC street layouts, I had no idea what direction I was facing here at Morgan Avenue and Harrison Place. I had to consult a map app on my IPhone (it’s 2017, folks) before I could figure it out and even after that, I was a little confused.

At Morgan and Harrison there are three separate subway exits. This one, which is closed for now, is the only one that sports the original BMT railings and lamps. Morgan Avenue was among the last batch of Canarsie Line stations to open (December 14, 1928).

The Morgan Avenue exits seem to be the least likely subway exits since the immediate area is depopulated, and an odd place to stick a subway stop. This of course prompted its status as Most Interesting. Indeed, the general area round the station features three separate concrete mixing plants, and the fences, some of them barb wired, that protect property next to the station have had “street art” generously applied. This one sports a sticker with a word that has been prominently used in Twitter complaints by President Trump. The phrase “Twitter complaints by President Trump” would have been incredulous as late as 2010.

 

Morgan Avenue exit that I used.

 

An ad for Williamsburg club Brooklyn Steel greets commuters coming out of the exit across Morgan Avenue. The club is set to open in the spring and acts like PJ Harvey and the Decemberists have already been scheduled.

The two concrete plants I was talking about. One is on Harrison Place and the other one is around the corner on Morgan; there’s one more, a block away on Knickerbocker Avenue.

 

Facebook doesn’t advertise much, it’s so universal; but in January 2017 it was pushing an app for streaming live video called Facebook Live. This is a painted ad on Morgan and Harrison, though it’s computer-generated, not hand lettered.

There’s also an old-style vent on this corner that releases subway vapors to the atmosphere. I’ve classified this one as the BADGER (I8VV-254a)

More street art, this time on a corrugated metal fence outside concrete plant on Harrison Place. It’s all over the East Willie, like the Martians’ red weed in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Normally this would be Harrison Street. However when it was laid out around 1900, give or take a few years, there already was a Harrison Street in Cobble Hill, and a Harrison Avenue in Williamsburg; the Harrison in the Willie was named for Benjamin Harrison. The Harrison Street in Cobble Hill was renamed Kane Street in 1928 to honor a local politico, leaving Brooklyn without a Harrison Street, but leaving a Place and an Avenue. 

When Dave Frattini wrote The Underground Guide to NYC Subways in 2000, a guide to the area surrounding every subway stop then open, he characterized the area surrounding the Morgan Avenue subway stop as “squalor and misery” and refused to discuss any local highlights or eateries. It’s now 17 years later, and the East Willie has been blossoming as a newly minted residential area amid the still existing manufacturing plants and warehouses. One of these is Superior Elevation Records a couple of blocks away at 100 White Street, housed in an erstwhile brick factory building.

 

The revitalization of East Williamsburg goes back to the late 1990s when the McKibbin Street Lofts were established in former textile factories on either side of the street; one of them can be seen on the right here, along with another building with the old painted ad for Columbia Products. 

 

Possibly the linchpin of East Williamsburg is Roberta’s, a couple of blocks from the Morgan Avenue station on Moore and Bogart Streets, which features gourmet pizza and boasts a radio station in which your webmaster made my second-ever radio appearance in 2011 on the Sunday Mike Edison and Judy McGuire show, Arts & Seizures (I don’t have it archived, but send it on if you have it at kevinjudewalsh@gmail.com.) 

 

One of the East Willie’s architectural highlights in the subway stop’s vicinity is Engine Company 237, on Morgan between Thames and Grattan Streets. I reviewed it in this recent FNY page

 

One of the rare commercial/residential combos in this stretch is here on Morgan and Grattan Street. According to Benardo and Weiss’ Brooklyn By Name, Grattan was named for a 18th Century Irish Parliamentarian, Henry Grattan (1746-1820), who argued for Irish independence and the civil and political rights of Catholics. In the short run, he was unsuccessful, as the 1800 Act of Union merged the kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain. The Irish Free State would not come into being until 1921.

 

Looking west on Grattan Street to Bogart. The building is a large former factory now home to several small businesses and eateries.

 

One door over from the concrete plant next to the subway stop on Harrison Place is a bar/restaurant called Lantern Hall. The former auto repair business’s sign for FLAT FIX can still be seen on the left. 

 

I mentioned earlier that counterintuitively, the Morgan Avenue station exit isn’t the main; that honor belongs to the Bogart Street end. My friend Heather Quinlan, the documentary filmmaker behind If These Knishes Could Talk, an examination of the NYC accent (purchaseable here), was patiently waiting for me there, not at the Morgan Avenue exit. I had exited here in previous jaunts and I noticed that some “landscaping” and general spiffing up had been done.

Despite the Bogart Street exit’s “exalted” status, the MTA Bushwick map doesn’t even show a staircase here!

 

At Johnson and Porter Avenues we noticed a newly painted building sign for the Peter Jay Sharp Center in snappy black and white with the Copperplate font, an FNY favorite. It turns out that this is a homeless shelter, albeit one that has designs for being a cut above the usual:

The Porter Avenue shelter, called the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity, was built as the first step in replacing an 800-bed men’s shelter near Bellevue Hospital Center, currently the primary entrance point for single homeless men into the shelter system. That facility, in the original Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, is an authentic piece of Gotham Gothic, with dark hallways smelling of industrial cleaners and bedrooms with rickety beds and ratty wool blankets.

Unlike the Bellevue shelter, the Porter Avenue shelter will be operated not by the city but by an independent nonprofit contractor, the Doe Fund. The Doe Fund runs a 150-bed shelter in Harlem, but that is only for homeless men who have decided to be part of Ready, Willing and Able, a work and lifestyle training program of the Doe Fund. The new shelter will have 100 beds for assessing the needs of men right off the street, 150 beds for men awaiting placement in programs elsewhere, and 100 beds in the Doe Fund’s work program. [NY Times, 12/7/03]

The original purpose of #592 Johnson Avenue has always perplexed me; it probably was a sculpture studio in the past, but today it is home to The 1896, Studios and Stages, which is home to artists’ studios, and stages for photo/film/video shoots. It also becomes a nightclub on weekends. 

 

Today’s mission was to scout a possible tour that would take place on the borderline of Brooklyn and Queens. To that end we turned up Cypress Avenue, where the undefended border is located, on the yellow lines down the center of the street. This sign at Cypress and DeKalb Avenue — the same DeKalb Avenue that runs all the way to Fulton Street downtown — sports a sign proclaiming the neighborhood as “Wyckoff Heights” after the main shopping street hereabouts, Wyckoff Avenue. I think most area denizens call this Bushwick or East Williamsburg. That sign resembles a mushroom cloud.

For lunch we found a nice hole in the wall called the Cypress Inn Cafe at Stanhope Street, which still has a decommissioned neon “bar” sign from a previous incarnation. Notice the ancient cash register and mermaid art in the bathroom. Word to the wise: if offered pickles with your panini sandwich, make sure you say “on the side.” Mine were pressed into the sandwich. Otherwise the price was quite reasonable.

 

Paul’s Barbershop and its handpainted sign on the opposite corner. 

The fruits of the scouting mission will reveal themselves on an upcoming tour in 2017.

Until then, “Comment as you see fit.” kevinjudewalsh@gmail.com

2/20/17

 


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