From subway cars to lightrail in Newark, NJ

Newark City Subway

From Subway Cars to Light Rail in Good Old Newark, NJ

By Anthony Buccino

We’ll miss the way these old cars squeaked to let us know when we were in a turn, or screeched as we arched a hill, then rocked us gently with tired shocks as our brethren embarked and debarked.

Underground, Newark City Subway

They’ve painted the old No. 6 car institutional gray. It’s tucked neatly out of the way on an unused rail in Penn Station. You can see it sometimes across the track when you sit onboard the going-home cars.

The other old cars, the ones we use every day, are white, with black trim and roof and NJ Transit orange-purple-blue rainbow stripe across the front roof.

The antique is all spruced up and ready for the celebration when the Newark City Subway replaces its two dozen Presidents' Conference Committee cars with 16 light rail cars, just like the ones over in Jersey City.

A couple of things may interfere with the $9.16 million subway big dance happening all too soon. First of all, the new cars and two more stops added to the intra-city line were supposed to come online a year ago.

Now, all you hear is, maybe next month. Second, the new line doesn’t completely loop. At the Franklin Avenue station the old track still circles to the return loop missing by mere feet the return hook-up to the new tracks leading from the new stops in Belleville and Bloomfield.

If they’ve test-run the new cars on the old line, it’s still a big secret.

Meanwhile, we’re all at the mercy of these classic electric line cars that came along a few years after Thomas Edison went to that big transformer in the sky.

For classic, you can read metal grids in front of hand-crank windows, no air conditioning and noise. Lots of noise.

For as old as these cars are, the insides are maintained well, the cushions are clean, and the floors seem solid enough.

There’s no graffiti on the cars, inside or out.

We’re not expecting fine Corinthian leather, but functional fabric is the rule of the day. It’s not fancy, it’s functional.

It’s a means of transportation, it’s not a magic carpet ride to Never-Never Land.

Last year I rode the No. 6 car. It was before the restoration, I’m sure, or I would have noticed the flashback color and look of the thing.

There’s a good chance I rode the No. 6 car about 40 years ago, too, when Mom took me downtown for school clothes at Bamberger’s.

I always held out, trying to be good so she’d take me to Bam’s basement counter for orangeade and a hot dog under the sign: “We don’t boil or steam the flavor out of our hot dogs.”

“How old, this car?” I asked a driver last year. It was still new to me, public transportation instead of driving the minivan.

He said, “65.”


Newark City Subway - Presidents' Conference Committee - End of an Era - A Buccino“Sixty-five years. Engineer says it will run another 65 years. All going to be replaced. Something to do with handicapped. To keep getting money from the federal government, they got to change over to the new cars.”

“You ever drive em?”

“Nah,” he said. “Rode ‘em once. They cost $3 million each. They’ll never last 65 years.”

In a short time waiting for my bus, I watched the cars roll by: 4, 10, 22, 2, 21, 26, 19, 5, 23, 20.

Another time I saw them pass by: 9, 15, 6, 17, 2, 10, 23.

Who decides what is random, and have they ever, at any time, ever passed by in sequence according to their number?

The Mayor of 5th Street

There’s an old guy I see at Franklin Station. I think of him as the Mayor of 5th Street and the No. 7 Subway Line. He’s probably been hanging around there for years.

Everybody else seems to know him. When they get off the subway after work, they hand him their newspapers and say, “Here you go, Nick.”

I don’t know if that’s his pay for being the Mayor of 5th Street and the No. 7 Subway Line, or if he has a recycling business on the side.

One morning he was hanging around the Star Ledger vending machine and I needed a paper. When I put in the dime and the quarter and opened the case, the Mayor of 5th Street and the No. 7 Subway Line reached in to grab a paper on my coins.

I already had my paper, so I firmly, but gently, closed the door on his hand.

“Buy your own paper,” I said. “The guy who fills this thing needs to make a living.”

He withdrew his hand, sans paper, and walked away. That was the first time I ever spoke to him. 

The restored No. 6 car has the New Jersey Transit logo on it. I suppose only a few purists would miss the triangular Public Service logo from the original line.

Back in the day, these subway cars and their sisters ruled urban transportation in Newark and some of the burbs.

They chugged along Bloomfield Avenue, right down the center of the street, then cut over into tunnels and hooked up to the downtown line.

Some of the old ramps are still visible, at Bloomfield and Park, if you know where to look and what you’re looking at.

Now they are grassy ramps. Some have power stations placed in their midst. But believe me, those were the exits to other streets at one time. I remember it like it was yesterday.

When it wasn’t time to buy school clothes, Mom would drop me off at Gram’s apartment across the street from Columbus Hospital, in Newark. She’d head off alone and catch a streetcar for downtown. I’d spend the day playing with my little men and Gram would smoke her L&Ms and watch the Mets on TV.

New and Improved

In the underground, pack us into the new tin containers like tuna and you can fit 188 compared with only 90 in the classic cars.

The new cars will have one more mile to travel, 5.3, than the old tanks did, to carry about 17,000 of us each day.

They’ll eliminate the Heller Parkway station in favor of improving the Franklin Avenue station. And they’ll add a stop in Belleville, and one in Bloomfield.

It takes a native to know that the Franklin Avenue station is not on Franklin Avenue. It’s on 5th Street between Ropes Place and Anthony Street.

A few times a hot dog cart showed up across the cobblestones ‘til 6. But it hasn’t been around lately.

On 5th Street, at the corner of Anthony Street, catalytic converters are unloaded into a spray painted white building.

Across the street is Cedar Hill Oil & Co. They do Jacuzzis.

DePaola Headstones, Your Name Here - Photo Anthony Buccino

Next door is DePaola Headstones. In the side yard display, you can see a few stones carved: YOUR NAME HERE.

Beyond the A + B tailpipe assembly warehouse, over on this side of 6th Street is the land-locked Dollar Savings Bank and the Dunkin Donuts.

Across Franklin Avenue, where 40-plus years ago I rode the ponies, the Stephen Crane Elderly complex warehouses voting blocks.

Newark honored its famous favorite son, poet and author of The Red Badge of Courage with this elder high rise housing and low rise housing just the other side of the Subway extension. Crane, born after the Civil War, didn’t see three decades on this good earth when he returned to it in 1900.  

Across the tracks at Franklin Station, for a few weeks in the spring, you can see the cherry blossoms bloom. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, they are not cherry trees. The cherry blossom trees produce blossoms not cherries.

When the car makes its loop, you pass behind the back of the Home Liquor store.

The several storefronts facing Franklin Avenue seem abandoned.

I had been commuting from Franklin Avenue Station for about six weeks before I saw my first rat on 5th Street. It looked pretty healthy for a rat. Someday I’ll have to ask the Mayor of 5th Street about it.

Soon these old cars will be gone, replaced by newfangled ones with tinted windows and air-conditioning.

We’ll miss the way these old cars squeaked to let us know when we were in a turn, or screeched as we arched a hill, then rocked us gently with tired shocks as our brethren embarked and debarked.

We’ll miss the crank windows that opened most of the time, and the soothing breeze washing the car with scents of cherry blossoms or smuggled cheeseburgers and fries.

Inside and Outside, Above and Underground

The Newark City Subway is inside and outside at the same time. From Franklin Avenue to Norfolk the stations are outside.

From Norfolk to Penn Station the depots are underground.

The subway is, to my thinking, more of a streetcar line than a subway.

The Heller Parkway station is under the street overpass. It’s being abandoned and the access ramp will divert passengers to Franklin Street. It just makes you realize how close these stations have been to each other for all these years.

Beyond Heller Parkway the car picks up some speed. On the left, Branch Brook Park is famous for its cherry blossom display.

But anyone waiting for cherries to fall from these trees is in for a long, long wait. If you grew up here, you know they are cherry blossom trees, not cherry trees. And that there are single blossoms and double blossoms.

On the right are square, boxy houses built about a hundred years ago. They were built for function, not for beauty. They have deep yards with room for Italian tomato gardens, peach trees and grapevines.

In other places, from the fence to the rail berm, the summer weeds cover most of the trash.

We can see the back of the dilapidated Brookdale soda depot. That’s where the guy who ran the place looked like a professional wrestler on a TV show.

Everybody told him, “Hey, you look like that wrestler on TV.” So he went to a few matches and hooked up with the wrestler and they had the picture of the two of them hanging in the soda depot by the counter where you paid for your Brookdale soda cases.

Davenport Station has a pedestrian walk-over up some stairs.

Or you can take the dirt path into Branch Brook Park. A little further along, most of the industrial buildings are undistinguished.

An old abandoned Dugan’s style bread truck is parked behind a building alongside the streetcar fence.

When the car kicks up to top speed, it rattles so loud you can’t hear the music from your Walkman.

Bloomfield Avenue station is the darkest of the stations. It’s an underpass for the wide thoroughfare, and is half-underground and half ass-out, so to speak.

Through a corner of the smeared window we see lumber in racks off a ways through the overgrowth. Good old Marbach-Kaslander lumberyard, that’s where Dad bought shingles, lumber and nails, and got the nail aprons with their name on it. I’m sure I’ve got one or two in my tool closet.

Park Avenue gets crowded in the morning. The leafy overgrowth reminds me of pictures of the flowing gardens of Babylon. Except here, they’re just weeds.

On the north side of the Orange Street station, near the end of Branch Brook Park, depending on the time of year, you can see three spires of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. That’s the church the Pope visited a few years ago.

Down the embankment you can see part of Branch Brook Park lake where my buddy Stinky and I fished when we were kids.

It’s also near the Colonnade, a high-rise complex that seems to have been there since Otis first invented the elevator.

On the park side of Orange Street, across the diamond-plate reinforced railroad overpass and under Interstate 280 near Exit 13, are two high rise apartment buildings.

At least you can see they’re close to transportation. If you look at the back of the Newark downtown skyline, you can see the IDT building from the train.

Back in the day when my sister worked there, I think it was the Mutual Benefit building.

Lately, all the real estate is changing in Newark. I’ve seen the picture of the south side when it was part of the Morris Canal.

WPA Mural, Newark City Subway, Morris Canal - photo Anthony Buccino

Nowadays, like when this stretch was the canal, you can’t see it beyond the Norfolk Street station near NJ Institute of Technology because the streetcar goes underground to be a subway.

Classic Underground Subway

At Warren Street station, you can see the wonder of the classic subway system.

Not only was the line run in what was once the Morris Canal, but most of it was dug by hand in post-Depression days as a make-work project.

One exit from the station takes you to Warren Street, the other takes to you Lock Street. Here you can see the first of several tiled murals in the last four stations.

Here there is a man waving from behind a mule on land pulling a barge through the canal.

Another thing you notice here is how long the station is. There’s way more room than for just one lone car. In its heyday it must have served more than a half-dozen streetcars at once besides the lone No. 7 left.

Two more tiled mosaics are hidden in the closed off portion of the station.

At the Washington Street-Plane Street station, one mural depicts a man steering a barge in the canal, while another mural shows a steam shovel doing its thing.

Kind of makes you wonder about the hand-dug story they tell here. Supposedly they started it with power tools but switched off to picks and shovels to create more jobs.

The old Morris Canal bed went from the Hudson River at Essex Street in Jersey City to Newark Penn Station to Belleville and beyond, all the way to Morris county. It served as the course for the Newark City Subway.

Three murals can be seen at the Broad Street-Raymond Boulevard station.

In one, a man is seen carrying a heavy beam, or is it a giant asparagus?

Another mural has five skinny dippers as if to recall a recreational use for the Morris Canal on hot summer days before cable TV and computers. The nude swimmers are tastefully tiled in what must have been high art back in the day.

These cars stop running after midnight. Perhaps that’s when the work crews show up to repair ties and do other rail maintenance. It’s likely also when the vandals show up with their spray cans and tag unreadable messages on the dirty old walls.

Just before the car pulls into the last stop, across the tunnel, in white chalk, was “Barringer Class of 1962.” When you at last saw that Barringer scrawl, across from the last manual track switch, you knew it was the end of the line.

That Barringer tag’s been smeared over in the name of modernization.

The end of the line, at Penn Station, the mural tiles present the barge wranglers resting, one on a pole, the other sitting, their backs are to us, they are looking down at the barge passing through the raised lock.

For them, the day is far from over, as it is for the commuters here on their way to work.

Adapted from

Rambling Round - Inside and Outside at the Same Time

This Seat Taken? Notes of a Hapless Commuter

First published in five parts on NJ Voices, June-July 2007

This Seat Taken? Notes of a Hapless Commuter by Anthony BuccinoThis Seat Taken? Notes of a Hapless Commuter

If you ever commuted to work, you'll enjoy reading Anthony Buccino's collection This Seat Taken? Notes of a Hapless Commuter about the joys and follies of getting to and from work using metropolitan public transit  to reach his news offices in Jersey City and later Midtown Manhattan.

Years' worth of Buccino's bus and rail commuting tales and observations are collected in this 224-page book. You should read it while you are commuting via public transportation.

Voices on the bus, train, subway, sidewalk and in my head  by Anthony BuccinoVoices on the Bus, train, subway, sidewalk and in my head

Verse  about commuting in Northern New Jersey. Feel the rhythm of the rails as you travel the last days of the Newark City Subway, or the PATH, and be relieved you are not present to hear the Preacher Man or Mr. Tourette's but do listen for the noise above the hum of the wheels and turn your ear to the voices on the bus, train or standing nearby on the platform. 

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