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  • Part I: Modeling Memories of the Bronx

    Part I: Modeling Memories of the Bronx

    By Frank Joyce

    This is part I of a two-part series written by Frank Joyce as he builds landmarks and memories from his childhood in New York City. Look for the finished layout.

    In my case, it wasn’t a train set under the Christmas tree that got me interested in trains. It was the 1:1 scale set owned by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company while growing up in The Bronx. As a child, there was nothing more exciting than going to Manhattan or Coney Island and being held by my dad so I could stare out the front door window of the first car and watch the tracks, stations, and city unfold before me; diving under the city into the subway, popping out again, and riding above it on the elevated, crossing rivers and boroughs. It opened up my world. You could go everywhere and back home again by train.

    I rode those trains until I was 33 and never tired of that first car view. A few years after I married, my wife and I moved to St. Louis, MO. Our son was four when I bought him a small train set in HO scale. The set came with a few simple buildings kits and a station platform. When I made the little kits with my son I re-discovered the fun of model making. We were fortunate to have a hobby shop in our new neighborhood. I discovered a whole world of scale modeling was available. I could make a city in HO scale, and a subway…and that’s when the bug bit.

    I grew up making car models with my brothers. When I was in high school, my family moved to a shotgun apartment over an old pub on Broadway, literally within feet of the elevated subway platform. The pub was on a busy corner and outside was the last and first stops for the transit buses. Between the bass speakers of the juke box in the pub below, the buses idling and turning around outside, the express subway trains roaring by, and the local squealing to a stop every few minutes – it was a noisy place! Life was in transit all around me.

    I recently came across some Grandt Line windows and different kinds of plastic wall materials in the hobby shop and decided I would try to model the pub I had once lived above. I had already completed a few HO scale city-themed building kits from Walthers, City Classics and Design Preservation Models, (DPM). However, I was in new territory trying to replicate the pub and learning as I went. Here is the result:

    It was this first attempt at modeling the scenes and memories of The Bronx that really got me going. Now I needed to build a neighborhood around it! I quickly learned from my mistakes. I had used balsa wood and, for the upper floor, some thin embossed brick sheet to insert the windows. Everything warped in the basement. From then on it was styrene only. But this little attempt, which you could hold in one hand, was the catalyst of what would eventually turn into a 9’ x 10’ HO scale city layout.

    I had recently finished the pub model when I saw an ad for Micro Engineering’s city viaduct double track bridge kit. I knew I could use the kit to build an elevated subway next to my pub model. The box girders in the kit, with their x-bracing, were dead ringers. I could picture the cars and buses traveling underneath the Elevated Train (EL).  

    The guys at the hobby shop introduced me to the Walthers catalog. The more I looked through it, the more I could see my city coming to life. I found sidewalk, fire escapes, rooftop details, lampposts, mailboxes, trashcans, buses, taxis, figures, cars, and trucks. It was exciting, and I was having a great time enjoying my new hobby. Still am. Between the catalog and model train shows, I started finding all kinds of details I could use to build my city, even pigeons.

    When I found a newspaper vending machine, I shrunk down a copy of the NY Daily News front page and fit it into the front display. It’s so small you wouldn’t notice it, but it brings a little more authenticity to the scene.

    Growing up I was always drawing and painting. My attempts at art were always very detail-oriented. I would make India ink drawings of the buildings we lived in and draw every brick. A tree had every twig. A landscape had a stroke for each blade of grass. It was the details that gave these pictures life. Decades later, I approached the model railroad as my big 3-D art project. I could have fun with all of those details a city has so much of! To this day, the best part of model railroading for me is creating a scene that tells a story and bringing it to life with details. Don’t get me wrong; I love the trains. Judging by what engines and rolling stock I own, and want to own, I can’t get enough of them. But creating a scene in miniature is still the coolest part for me.

    I was off and running, building as many urban structures as I could find. I was soaking up the reading material as I went. I was inspired by the work of John Allen, George Sellios, Earl Smallshaw, Art Curren, John Pryke, Vic Smith, Mike Palmiter, Vic Rosen, Ron Parisi, the incredible work of Joseph Frank and his NYC Transit Modeler’s group, and others. When the World’s Greatest Hobby tour came to St. Louis, an amazing city diorama was brought in by Vic Smith. It was urban modeling at its best. Here was the crowded city complete with tall “kitbashed” buildings, and a beautiful example of that double track city viaduct kit. To see urban modeling up close, and not in a book or magazine, was exciting – I was determined to reach that level of talent some day.

    Seeing that inspired me to start kitbashing and after building Bachmann’s Spectrum City Scenes’ Ambassador Hotel, the idea to make the apartment building I grew up in came to life. It had 55 apartments and my parents were once the “super” (superintendent in charge of building and apartment maintenance, repair, trash, keeping the boilers running, etc.). We had lived in a double apartment, separated by a boiler room, in the basement. There were 10 kids and we all pitched in as we got older. And the subway? Just down the hill. The kitbash took a few Ambassador Hotel kits and here is the result:

    This model stands on the layout as a tribute to my family and to the memories of the old neighborhood. It is always a treat to hear online from someone, who grew up in the city, that I got it right and captured the look of the old neighborhood. To me, that is the ultimate compliment.


    For more information, contact Frank Joyce.

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