Frank Joyce has taken his memories of growing up in The Bronx during the 1950s to create vibrant scenes of urban railroading. From the corner market, to towering apartment buildings, to the elevated Subway trains rumbling overhead, Joyce has captured the excitement and energy of the big city in the late 1950s.
Memories of New York City in HO scale
By Frank Joyce /photos by the author
I grew up in The Bronx. My parents emigrated from Ireland in 1952. One of ten children, we lived in a walk-up, five-story, 55-apartment corner building. My folks were the superintendents, the caretakers of the building and its tenant's apartments. Our home was two basement apartments connected by a boiler room. My grandfather, Eugene P. Daly, a Titanic survivor, also lived with us. To this day I don't know how my parents did it, raising ten kids and caring for fifty-five tenants. My dad worked full time as a bank guard as well. My older siblings pitched in to help with the building upkeep and from a young age we all learned a great work ethic. We took care of each other and, like the neighbors on the street, everyone looked out for you.
The Bronx was a melting pot of culture and the unique people, foods and shops are still etched in my mind. I can remember the old Jewish ladies in the local bakery, they had been liberated from the prison camps and emigrated to America. There was the local butcher's with the sawdust on the floor and an enormous cat who lived there. There were soda fountains, bagel makers, ethnic delis, pizzerias and theaters. I remember the amazing Loew's Paradise movie theatre with its illuminated starry sky ceilings, plush seats and balconies, and a beautiful clock on the facade that, on the hour, would feature St. George riding out on horseback with his lance on the left side and slaying a dragon approaching from the right. We washed our clothes at the corner laundromat, shopped at Woolworth's, bought groceries at the A&P, and regularly visited the neighborhood barber and shoe repair. We also used the grinder who came by in a truck and sharpened everyone's kitchen knives. In the late summer the Chinese laundry on our block used to give us great big sections of the heavy brown paper used to wrap finished and pressed clothes, and we would use them as our book-covers for school. It was an exciting and diverse neighborhood!
The kit-bashed apartment building rises above the neighborhood. The elevated subway is in the background. The apartment building is a replica of the one I grew up in. I built it from several Bachmann Spectrum "Ambassador Hotel" kits and used cornices from Design Preservation Models. The grab-rails at the rooftop, for the fire-escape ladders, are made from paper clip ends. The awnings on the smaller apartment buildings are made from paper. Guitar wire was used for hand railings on the stoop with the covered awning down the hill.
We kids played with bottlecaps in a marble-like street game called "Skully." And there were countless games you could play with a pink rubber ball made locally by the Spaulding Co. in Brooklyn, (we called them "spaldeens"), including the king of 'em all: Stickball. A sawed-off broomstick, a rubber ball, manhole covers for bases, and suddenly it was our version of Yankee Stadium. The neighbors would watch from stoops and windows and were our fans.
The No. 4 Woodlawn IRT subway line ran on the elevated tracks just down the hill, and just two stops from us was the real Yankee Stadium. In the 70's things got so bad with gangs and crime in the South Bronx that the standard joke was "The only good day to go to Yankee Stadium is Bat Day." We walked everywhere, and when you had to go really far you took the bus or subway. One block up the hill was the main road through the Bronx , the Grand Concourse, and the underground subway station for the "A" and "D" train. That was our ride to the beach and Coney Island ; hours away but another world when you got there.
My 8'x10' HO train layout, based on memories and scenes of growing up in NYC, has a static diorama of an underground subway station, a functional kitbashed "el," a kit-bashed replica of the apartment building I grew up in, as well as a waterfront with pier, bridges, water, tugs and a car-float. Throughout the layout are lots and lots of details (my favorite part of the hobby).
The Subway "el" was kitbashed from Micro Engineering kits and old Atlas pony and chord bridge bases and railings. A 1990's Railroad Model Craftsman product review of the HO scale Images Replica subway train kit got me started on my way to having an elevated structure and a working subway train. I motorized the train with the drive from an old Bachmann 44-tonner and added a driver and figures.
Everyone has their reason for enjoying this hobby, whether it be capturing a moment and place in time, a favorite roadname, a family connection, operations, craftsman kit building or kit-bashing. It is a hobby that has something for everyone. An added bonus is that you can delight children (and adults) with your layout, no matter what stage of construction it is under. You can instantly get away from the daily stresses of life, and keep in touch with the young kid still inside you as you watch the train go by.
I enjoy helping others build their model railroads. We inspire each other in the process, sharpen our skills and learn new ones, and build good friendships along the way. Whether you can just help someone with advice over the Internet or work with them in their garage or basement, reach out to someone and offer your help. It is a very rewarding experience and one of the best things about this hobby.
A New York Central tug nudges a car-float up the Harlem River while a local freight passes. Railroads once had extensive harbor operations to interchange freight with one another across the Hudson River.
There are hobbies within the hobby. I have discovered the fun of collecting 1:87 vehicles; from all eras. The Internet is a great resource; I have found automotive treasures from as far away as China and discovered some great resources in Europe through eBay. And if I can't fit them into my late 1950s setting I simply swap some rooftop billboards, motive and rolling stock to advance my era into the 1960s and 1970s. Dioramas are another hobby within the hobby, and I make them sized to interchange with others on the layout to keep things interesting. I also like drawing up future layout track plans on graph paper and sketching scenes. All hobbies within the hobby.
I have found that scenery is my strength, and I have learned many new methods for painting, weathering, making landforms and water, etc. I also discovered the fun of photography and making the occasional video of the layout progress. My brother-in-law encouraged me to go on YouTube. After reluctantly posting my first video I was delighted to meet the great community of model railroaders online, helping and encouraging each other. I have since made many friends and always find a vast source of camaraderie and inspiration. The best treat of all for me is when I hear from someone who also grew up in a city, telling me I brought back memories to them or nailed a particular scene. That's the ultimate compliment.
A New York Central Hudson-type steam locomotive breaks out of the tunnel into the sunlight as it pulls commuters home through a scene reminiscent of the north Bronx. Quiet scenes such as this provide some of the contrasts that makes the city such an interesting subject to model.
My approach to ‘model railroading' focuses more on the ‘model,' the scene, with the ‘railroading' moving across the scene – sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the back. But there is always more scenery than tracks and trains. My layout is heavily urban and is made more for the setting than the prototypical aspect. And that's okay. I'm completely enjoying it and in the 20 years and 4 layouts that I have been a model railroader ( I started at 33) I've never been more enthused and inspired. Life's problems have come up over the years but this hobby, especially in the hard times, has been a great source of relaxation and enjoyment.
So here are a few scenes from my model railroad. The setting is the boroughs of New York City sometime in the late 1950s during the cool fall season. In my miniature world steam still plied the rails and waterways. Whether you grew up urban or suburban, I hope you enjoy the ride.
Guitar wire was used for clotheslines hanging in the courtyard at the rear of the kit-bashed apartment building. The clothes are painted aluminum foil. The clothes pegs are way too big for scale, but from even a short distance the overall effect works.
This view from a fourth floor apartment allows us to follow this lively gamel. It's batter up time as the lookout on the corner watches for approaching cars. Notice the stickball outfielders by the "skully" board in the street.
As we walk down the block, we can get a better view of the stickball game in progress.
A railroad tugboat idles while a car-float is taking on its last car.
A Mack 15-ton switcher threads between buildings to pick up cars from the pier warehouse and dock. This tiny locomotive is well suited to the tight confines of this old industrial area.
This scene below street level evokes the feel of tiled IRT subway stations throughout the city. The dummy third rail is a nice effect for this simulated rapid transit line.
A New York Central Hudson-type from Broadway Limited Imports pulling a string of 60' Rivarossi coaches passes an Atlas Alco HH600 lugging a short freight along the waterfront.
Overall view of 8'x10' HO scale urban model railroad. The upper level has a point-to-point, two track "el" with running subway train on a reversing circuit. On the lower level the outer track has 18" curves and no switches, for continuous running. The inner track has 15" curves and switches to the pier and car-float, (both with live rail for operation). I started the layout as a 4'x8' (at back) and later added two 6'x2 and 1/2' sections for water scenes, connected by a 1'x3' duck-under. That leaves a roomy 5'x3' opening in the center to sit and be surrounded by the layout as I run trains. The layout sits, at water level, at 54" so the buildings and scenery rise above me. Please visit my YouTube channel to see more of "The Bronx in the Basement."
See Frank Joyce's "Building a Racing Diorama in 1:87 "