TRIBAL CUSTOM: A Classic 1930s Design for Broadway, Astoria’s New Posts

by Kevin Walsh

The Department of Transportation has installed a clutch of Triborough-style lampposts (I call them ‘Tribes’) along Broadway in Astoria. I was surprised to see them as I got off the N train at 31st Street and Broadway a few weeks ago, although the DOT has been resurrecting NYC’s legacy of lightpost designs since the mid-1980s, when retro-Bishop Crooks began to appear here and there, quickly followed by long-armed Corvington posts, Twinlamps (used sparingly, mostly in the Bryant Park area and on Central Park West) and even some beefed-up Type F’s, seen on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village and Wyckoff Avenue in Ridgewood.

The new addition to the canon are new versions of the Triborough Bridge posts first seen on the bridge complex spanning the Harlem River, East River and Bronx Kill uniting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, built from 1929 to 1936.

Photos of the “Tribes” in their early days are not easy to find. I do have Berenice Abbott’s photo of the approach ramp……and Bronx Historical Society photos of Bruckner Blvd ……and Cypress Avenue, “Tribes” were installed along Bruckner as it was the Bronx’ main route coming off the bridge; they disappeared when the Bruckner Expressway was created in the 1950s.

On Jeff Saltzman’s great Streetlite Nuts website, which he created in 1996 and was one of FNY’s chief inspirations, he make the point that previous NYC parkway posts were Woodies, meant to evoke a bucolic, natural situation. The rise of the Triboro posts meant to change all that — these were the lampposts of Empire. Their ziggurated apices and bases copy not only the spires of the Triborough Bridge but the towers of Midtown manhattan.

The rise of the Tribes coincided with the initiation of the Age of the Expressway, aided and abetted by traffic czar Robert Moses, who never learned to drive himself and was chauffered everywhere (he was an expert swimmer, though). These were also the very first streamlined posts, dispensing with the ornate metalwork associated with the Crooks and Corvs. It was a new world and these posts were the vanguards of a new era.As seen here, some original 1930s Tribes are hanging on on Triborough Bridge approaches and also, oddly, a number of hem on 2nd Avenue at the Bridge entrance between East 125th and 126th Streets. The use of Tribes on regular city streets was rare, however, other than Bruckner Boulevard.

Originally appearing on only the Triborough, they also later turned up on the Henry Hudson Bridge and Parkway and the Marine Parkway (Gil Hodges) Bridge connecting Brooklyn and the Rockaways. Their numbers have been cut into in recent decades.

They originally bore incandescent pendant luminaires, then Bell fixtures, Westinghouse and GE mercury lamps, and latterly, lengthy yellow sodium bulbs.

In the 1980s, NYC’s King of Lampposts, Bob Mulero, captured some Tribes on their last legs on ramps that connected the Triboro Bridge to Randalls and wards Island. I used to glimpse these poles while riding past on Amtrak as it crossed the Hell Gate Bridge. After these ramps were cleaned up and rehabilitated, the Tribes were summarily removed.

Rise of the new Tribes: when the Hudson River Park was constructed on the Lower West Side in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new set of Tribes were commissioned. These were shorter editions of the classic poles, with luminaires reminiscent of the 1930s teardrop incandescents with an added visor.

The new Tribes of Broadway, Astoria, installed in late 2010, are massive versions of the park posts along the Hudson River. They are close to exact copies of the slighter posts that once lit the bridge and its approach roads by the hundreds. Breaking tradition, though, they are painted black whereas their predecessors were nearly always silver.

The similarities extend down to the stepped bases, meant to evoke Manhattan skyscrapers. As the plate on the base indicates the posts were maufactured by Magniflood of North Amityville, NY.