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American Quarterly 58.3 (2006) 869-890

Farewell to the El:
Nostalgic Urban Visuality on the Third Avenue Elevated Train
Sunny Stalter

"Toll a bell for the El/For the last clientele/With a stubborn and sporting esprit/Not a cinder around, yet my vision is blurred/Sentimental? Yes, that I may be./Nothing ever again can be quite what the Third Avenue El was to me."—This metropolitan dirge, composed by Michael Brown, is the current hit of Julius Monk's suave revue in the new nightclub cellar, The Downstairs. Mr. Brown's wail poignantly expresses the general lamentation for the passing of Third Avenue as we knew it.

Shedding a tear for Third Avenue, or any city antique, is a popular sport. Nobody in town is kept as busy as the nostalgia-minded. Their eyes are never dry from weeping for another lost cause. New York, chameleon-like, changes with extravagant regularity; the city's old familiar song is the ra-ta-ta of the riveter. But Third Avenue is a special field day for the nostalgic. 1

May 12, 1955, was truly a "special field day for the nostalgic"; it was the last day to ride on the Third Avenue elevated train. The El had ceased to be an important form of public transportation in New York City by the mid-twentieth century, carrying a mere 70,000 fares per day compared to the subway's 4.5 million. 2 Although there were still elevated trains throughout the city's boroughs, the trains that ran down Ninth, Sixth, and Second Avenues in Manhattan had been torn down by 1942. 3 The Third Avenue El was the last of its kind, and riders were eager to memorialize this dying technology. An account of the last ride on the Third Avenue El describes the train being overrun by "souvenir collectors" who stripped the car of "everything that wasn't nailed down": "The black metal destination markers proved the most popular items and were quickly removed from their window slots. Several persons carried six or eight signs tucked under their arms and for a while there was a brisk trading of 'duplicates.'" 4 This hunger continued for less concrete souvenirs that could communicate the experience of the train ride. The New-York Historical Society opened "Exhibit of the City's Elevateds" the day the Third Avenue El closed, replacing the literal ride with a figurative [End Page 869] one. 5 A decade later, the New York Public Library tracked "The Rise and Fall of the Elevated Railroad"; along with the usual photographs, sketches, and contracts, this retrospective included a "1 1/2 hour program of old [E]l movies (and some new ones too)." 6 Elevated trains (and their tracks, stations, and passengers) were common in cultural representation of the New York cityscape throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 7 However, the Third Avenue El's imminent destruction made it a particularly resonant subject for postwar artists and writers. Popular and avant-garde filmmakers shot on its cars and beneath its tracks in the shadowy world of the Bowery. 8 Photographers preserved the flowery ironwork on the girders and the potbellied stoves and stained glass in the stations. 9 In the 1950s, the El traveled nearly empty while subways were packed and cars jammed the streets, but this anachronistic transportation technology gained a new hold on the city's cultural imagination. The Third Avenue El's end was the beginning of its afterlife as an object of aesthetic contemplation. 10

New Yorkers mourned the El because it was a link to the city's past that was about to disappear—one of many in a period of rapid urban development. New York has always understood itself as a city that changes "with extravagant regularity," as Emory Lewis suggests above. 11 The 1950s were no exception, a decade "highlighted by a construction boom that once again transformed the cityscape. High-rise apartments and slum clearance projects were going up virtually...


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