New York City Street Light Trivia

mercury cuplightDo you know that the normally incandescent Westinghouse "cuplight" light fixtures occasionally showed up with mercury vapor bulbs? The Clearview Expressway & the Long Island Expressway (LIE) east of the Clearview had them. So did the city end of the New England Thruway, the Manhattan Bridge & Williamsburg Bridge. They survived on the New England Thruway, around the Pelham Parkway exit, well into the 1980's, somehow escaping the insatiable appetite of the Donald Deskey "Bigloop" standards. They were eventually gobbled up by a mutant relative of theirs, giant cyclop cuplights that could light up the Atlantic ocean.
Those on the ancient Manhattan Bridge, were apparently set in place in the 1950's, when the city planned to smash an expressway from that span, to the Holland Tunnel. They managed to stay alive, on the Brooklyn bound side, until the mid 1990s.

miniarm cuplight These lights were more distinguished by their mini-elliptical mast arms than by their fixtures. They were like cute little baby lights, butchered by an evil baby hating DOT. A handfull remain on the abandoned right of way, of the expressway that never was, at the Manhattan foot of the bridge.

West Side Highway twin lamp with mercury cupsEven the unbelievably ugly, misbegotten, decrepit West Side Highway, or more formally the Miller Highway in Manhattan had mercury vapor cuplights. Not that Miller would have complained toward the end about most people not associating him with the elevated monstrosity, but I digress as usual. The Westinghouse cuplights looked particularly weird on the unusual poles that graced that road, if the word "grace" is not gilding the lily a bit. Apparently the mercury vapor cuplights required special ballasting, or something, that forced the DOT to install these wierd crowns on top of the cups.
If these poles didn't look spooky to begin with, their spires combined with these ballasts to make them look like demonic pitchforks. Most of the pitchforks hit the dust, along with the greater part of their miserable highway, in the mid 1970's, after a truck fell through a rather large pothole, forcing the closure of New York City's first elevated exp-messway. Naturally, now that they're gone, I miss the PitchForks terribly.
Closure of the road didn't mean instant demolition. It took years until the city decided that the road was too far gone to rehab. Environmentalists and neighborhood groups then blocked the proposed replacement, the infamous Westway. The rotting hulk of the old West Side Highway was eventually torn down in stages, but the section stretching from the 40's to 57th St. lingered on for years. My friends and I took in many a pier concert from that highway. It was a great place to hang out and gave great views of the concerts below. A handful of pitchforks were still left, at the far northern end above 57th Street leading into the Henry Hudson Parkway, when that sole surviving section was rebuilt. 

The mercury cups also appear all over Long Island, to this day. They're typically attached to telephone poles that always seem to be leaning back like lazy smart-ass bums. I guess when a light is that old, it can do as it pleases with impunity. I don't know whether to applaud Long Island for conserving these illuminous treasures, or blast them for being so cheap.

The lights that I've lovingly dubbed "The Whitestones" first appeared on that august span in the late 1930's. They were then employed on major highways built through the early fifties, when the more functional and austere elliptical "crook-arms" took over. The "Stones" graced the Gowanus, BQE and Van Wyck Expressways, the upper roadway and ramps of the 59th Street Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge approaches, the Henry Hudson and Atlantic Beach Bridges, the lower East River Drive and the LaGuardia Airport entrances.

These lights proved fairly resilient, in a city that seemed to take pride in how fast it could remove anything, that heaven forbid, might cast a little charm on it. They managed to hang on the Van Wyck Expressway well into the 1970's, as they also did on the 59th St Bridge and scattered pockets of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
The Van Wyck had lost more of them to bad drivers, rather than bad policy. The Whitestones lived in uneasy peace with the crookarms that often replaced the casualties.

whitestone with m400sThey reinvented themselves, in both the mercury and sodium vapor eras, on the Whitestone, Brooklyn and 59th Street spans, unlike many younger poles elsewhere that never lasted long.
Sadly though, they were fired from their positions on the 59th Street Queens ramps and recent construction has killed off the remainder on the East River Drive (FDR Drive) and left only a skeleton crew on the Brooklyn Bridge approach. An occassional speciman can also still be glimpsed at the Henny Hudson Parkway & LaGuardia Airport. They still persist on their namesake bridge, for the most part holding humongous LPS anti-fog vapor fixtures. Those with a sharpshooter's eye can detect two different versions of the poles.

qloop with m400a2In the 70's, the poles literally cut off their arms, right and left, to stay alive. On both the Van Wyck Expressway and BQE, the arms that give these poles 95% of their grace, were cut off, replaced by the hideous quarter loop uplift arms that Kojak fans are so familiar with. A few are still left, on the more moribund sections of the BQE. The last of the Q-looped Van Wyck Expressway Whitestones, as well as their crookarm enemies, disappeared in various construction projects over the last decade. Fans of the "Stones" should look for the originals, in the 1952 film, "The Eddie Duchin Story". The scene with them takes place on the East River Drive (also known as the FDR) around Grand Street, on the Lower East Side.
Another movie, from the late 1940's, about juvenile delinquents, has a good shot of them on an obscure bridge linking Queens with Roosevelt Island, but I can't remember the name. They are probably visible, albeit with vapor fixtures, on the opening credits of Taxi, on the 59th Street Bridge's upper roadway, but I'm not in the mood to watch it again, to see if that's so.
Yet another 1950's movie, involving a mother racing to redeem her child from kidnappers, shows her frantically looking out for Kappock Street on the Whitestone laden Henry Hudson Parkway in the Bronx.