It’s been over twenty years since the New York subway system has increased its capacity by adding a new station or extending service. Two major expansion projects are currently under construction: the 7 line extension in Midtown West and the 2nd Avenue line — the T train and Q extension — that is to run from 125th Street to Hanover Square in a long-planned effort to reduce considerable congestion on the Lexington Avenue line (4, 5 and 6 trains). The financial and political challenges that constrain the MTA’s ability to respond to a constantly growing and changing city are well known. But what is less well known is the fact that we used to have a lot more public transit options than we do currently, especially on the east side of Manhattan. Both 2nd and 3rd Avenues had elevated rail lines that connected to Queens and the Bronx. These lines were run by private companies and, during the decades immediately following the consolidation of mass transit under public control, they were discontinued without viable plans to replace the capacity being reduced. And beyond their infrastructural utility in a growing city of commuters, the stations themselves were reflective of an era of civic architecture when materials and craftsmanship were sources of pride.
But while most traces of the elevated train system in Manhattan have been erased, luckily we have a record, a series of photographs taken between 1951 and 1955 by amateur photographer Lothar Stelter, who rode the 3rd Avenue El to work each day as a telephone cable splicer and installer. His photographs form such a rich and rare archive of mid-century street life, transportation and building that his son Lawrence was moved to catalogue the images and bring them to a wide public. The resulting book, By the El: Third Avenue and its El at Mid-Century, is now in its second printing and is available for purchase on Amazon, or at the New York Transit Museum or the Bronx County Historical Society. The combination of the elder Stelter’s photographs, the younger Stelter’s comprehensive knowledge of our transit history, and first-hand accounts of living by or traveling on the El provides either a nostalgic reminder for someone who experienced this nearly forgotten chapter of New York City’s history or a welcome introduction for someone who didn’t. Learn more in our conversation with Lawrence Stelter below. –C.S.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your book By the El. What do you do? How did you come to create this book?
I am a registered architect. I work for the City’s Buildings Department as a plan examiner. Local Law 11 requires all facades on buildings that are more than six floors high to be inspected every five years for safety. So that’s what I do. There are 12,500 buildings in the five boroughs that fall under that category, all types, all ages.
My father, Lothar Stelter, started working for the New York Telephone Company in 1950. He lived in the Bronx (first in Highbridge, then in Wakefield, where I grew up) and he took the El to work on the east side of Manhattan. He was always interested in photography, and in 1951 he bought a Contessa Camera and became interested in color slides. At the telephone company, he started out helping the men working in the manhole, and then he became a cable splicer and eventually an installer. So he was up on roofs, down below buildings, between them. And he would take his camera to work with him and take a lot of pictures from the rooftops.
At first, I don’t think he noticed that the Elevated stations were particularly antique or of value. But a little research showed that the structures – the wooden fretwork, the ornate Victorian-era ironwork, the stained glass windows – were virtually intact since 1878. He just took it upon himself to record this.
He had already been photographing the El for a few years before he learned that it was going to close in 1955, but I think as a photographer he always had an appreciation for things that were going to disappear. For example, there’s one series of pictures of the ice man, with his calipers and serrated shovels, making deliveries in East Harlem. Another series documents all the antique stores along 3rd Avenue.
Can you sketch a history of the 3rd Avenue El?
After the Civil War, New York was growing very quickly, and transportation in the city was pretty much horse run. Railroads terminated at Grand Central Terminal or at 30th Street, but getting further south to lower Manhattan had to be horse-drawn.
Now, London had an underground railway system as early as 1863, but the soft clay under London makes tunneling relatively easy compared to New York, since here we’re built on solid rock. So mass transit options in New York City required a different approach. And beginning around 1867, a man named Charles Harvey started experimenting with building an elevated railway structure. In the early 1870s there was an experimental line that ran along Greenwich Street that was eventually extended along 9th Avenue all the way up to 42nd Street, then 59th. The next one, which opened in 1878, began on Church Street, went up Murray, swung over to West Broadway and then turned on 3rd Street to 6th Avenue then up to 58th Street. Later that year, the 3rd Avenue line opened. It ran from City Hall up the Bowery and 3rd Avenue up to 129th Street. There were other branches and rail lines put in, and mergers between companies (The Metropolitan Railway, the New York Railroad, the Manhattan Railway) and lines.
In 1880, more than twenty years before the subway, Manhattan had four rapid transit lines. The subway didn’t spur the development of the Upper East or Upper West Side; the El did. Meanwhile, by 1885, Brooklyn was developing it’s own elevated system, on Myrtle Avenue, Fulton Street, 5th Avenue, Broadway – parts of which are still in operation.
In 1886, the 3rd and 2nd Avenue lines were extended into the Bronx, which was called the Annex District at the time.
When was the apex of ridership for the 3rd Avenue El?
1920 was the height. During this period, subway lines – the first of which had opened in 1904 – were being expanded and new ones constructed. Technology had advanced. People were moving out the city, but the demand for public transit was only increasing. In the 1920s, there was a move to gradually replace the El lines. The real estate industry also really wanted to get rid of the El in order to redevelop property. Real estate portrayed the avenues with Elevateds as blighted, as slums, but the people who lived by the El didn’t think they lived in a slum at all. The idea that the El was deterring development was a myth, I think. Look at Sutton Place or the Chrysler Building annex.
Another factor was that Mayor Hylan, who started the Independent Subway System (or IND, currently the A, B, C, D, E, F and G lines), was predisposed against the private transit companies. He wanted the City to run public transportation.
The IND’s 6th Avenue subway was to replace the 6th Avenue Elevated. There was loud agitation to get rid of the El before plans for the subway were even finalized. And then, of course, the Depression set in. The IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit, currently the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 lines) and the El lines in particular were losing a lot of money – labor issues delayed improvements like automated doors and the political infeasibility of raising the five cent fare made the company struggle to make the economics work. In 1932, the IRT went into receivership. It owed the city a lot of back taxes and closing the 6th Avenue El before the 6th Avenue subway even opened was part of a deal. The IRT and the BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Corporation, currently the J, L, M, N, Q, and R) were in negotiations with the City to take over the entire system, which happened in 1940.
The 3rd Avenue El was still running throughout the ’40s, and my father says that up to the very end it was always crowded at rush hour. Starting in 1950, gradual closures of parts of the line were deliberate attempts to stop people from using it. First the branch to South Ferry was closed. Then City Hall to Chatham Square Junction was closed. And in March of 1952, the Board of Transportation announced that the 3rd Avenue El south of 129th Street would only run on weekdays between 7:30 am and 6 pm, which basically meant all the building custodians, the cleaning ladies and others who worked odd hours weren’t going to be able to use the El anymore.
After they closed and demolished it in 1955, new high-rises did appear in the area, but then of course you are faced with a lot more people in the neighborhood packing into the existing subway. The 2nd Avenue El had been closed and demolished in 1942.
So the Lexington Avenue line was immediately over capacity?
It was. The newspapers tried to make the case that nobody really missed the El, that extra trains on the Lexington Avenue line would reduce the congestion. But if you see pictures of the mobs of people changing trains at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue, otherwise known as the Hub, it’s pretty clear that a lot of people in the Bronx missed the El. In my view, removing the El made the central corridor of the South Bronx a much less desirable place to live. I watched the whole place just disappear.
Many New Yorkers, such as myself, were not around to experience the Elevated, a least not within Central Manhattan. What do you hope those who didn’t experience it might learn about forgotten aspects of New York’s transit infrastructure from looking at this book?
The Elevated is often times ignored as history. When the subway celebrated its centennial, everyone was talking as if the subway was the beginning of rapid transit in New York, which isn’t true. So correcting the historical record is one thing. But there’s also the preservation of the structures themselves. Chicago is still running its El. Philadelphia just finished restoring one of its elevated lines. Boston replaced many of its elevated lines with subways, but didn’t destroy all of the infrastructure. Here, nothing was saved. I know there was some talk of using the station buildings as visitor centers in Central Park, but it didn’t happen. People remember seeing all the stained glass from these ornate stations in the dumpster. My father bought a piece of one of the red stained glass panels for ten dollars — that was a lot of money in those days. And these are things that can never be replaced; the craftspeople who created this work just don’t exist anymore. I showed some of these pictures in Corning, New York, where a lot of the glass was made, and they were really interested to see documentation of the quality of the glasswork. The ironwork was made in Passaic, New Jersey. This whole chapter in New York history is lost.
I remember a book that came out in 1971, Lost New York. There was nothing in that book about the El. And it described how Penn Station was torn down and the uproar that caused. Meanwhile, I met people who consider themselves New York history buffs who had no idea the elevated system even existed! And my father happened to create this record of it. People often ask me if he was a professional. And I tell them, “No, he was just a telephone man who took his camera to work.”
Given that the 3rd Avenue El was an important piece of transit infrastructure that was removed, how do you feel about the 2nd Avenue subway line?
At least they’re doing it. And at least it will go part of the way up. But it’s really just a Manhattan shuttle; it’s not going to help the outer boroughs at all. With a little more money they could extend it past 125th Street. It’s been proposed since 1920. At one point it was going to go to the Bronx. And the plan was revised in 1950 and the only part of that plan that was built was the Grand Street station, which would have connected to the 2nd Avenue line.
A bond proposition passed in 1951 to build a 2nd Avenue subway, but obviously the money was not used for the 2nd Avenue subway; it was used for other projects. That’s why my father says that to this day he always votes “no” when there’s a proposition.
Another thing that spurred me to create this book happened in 1994. I heard Joe Cunningham, a transit historian, interviewed on the Brian Lehrer show. He said that getting rid of the El hasn’t panned out to be such a good idea. And we are still talking about how to replace the capacity that we willingly destroyed.
In the case of 3rd Avenue, the public investment simply did not follow all the private investments. What we actually had was public disinvestment. Hoping it would lead to private investment and increased property values, we destroyed a public asset – a transit asset – that most other cities would crave.
Joe Cunningham was one of the people who told me that I had to get my father’s pictures out there for all the people who didn’t experience this chapter of New York City history. He wasn’t expecting much when he came to see the photos, but then he saw them and immediately said he felt like jumping into the pictures. So we went through all the photographs, catalogued them and went about trying to find a publisher. In the meantime, I talked to a lot of people who had memories of 3rd Avenue in the ’40s and ’50s.
It’s such an incredible document to that era. What do you hope people who look at these images might learn about that time in urban history more generally?
I think the photos show that a lot of the people living along the El were not living in blight. And they tell a story about life in the 1950s: almost every single car captured in these street scenes is American-made (there are exactly two foreign-made cars in the photos that appear in the book); there are also a lot fewer cars on the street than you’d find today; air conditioning was a luxury; two pounds of fruit cost 25 cents from a vendor pushing a cart down the street; street masons would fix the pavement blocks with care and attention. It’s a record of the cityscape, of moments frozen in time.