In a speech at a town hall meeting in Brooklyn in 1934, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia admitted to his audience that “Right now we have…structures stuck up in the air which will have to be torn down…. New York City can be made beautiful and should be made beautiful, but we have inherited a very bad situation.” He was responding to complaints about the elevated train that ran down Fulton Street from citizens and businessmen who viewed it as a symbol of urban blight. With the construction of new subway lines throughout the city, New York’s El system was increasingly viewed as a redundant eyesore. Led by the business community—especially real estate brokers with their eyes on property values—a movement arose to have the El system torn down. They succeeded, and the last El line in Manhattan, on Third Avenue, was razed in the ’70s.
In a certain strain of popular culture, the El train came to represent all that was stark and lonely about the urban landscape. The Elevated was a symbol of the Depressed. In the movie 12 Angry Men (1957), the El serves as a kind of shorthand, signaling the poverty of the neighborhood, and functioning in the movie as an aural and visual barrier, one that exacerbates the isolation and disconnectedness of the urban apartment dweller. In The Lost Weekend (1945), Roy Milland’s character—a writer with a serious drinking problem—attempts, in an act of heavy-handed symbolism, to pawn his typewriter so he can afford his next drink. As he staggers north from Midtown along the Third Avenue El looking for an open pawn shop, the camera shows us the cross streets he passes—75th, 90th—and the distance he covers becomes the measurement of the depth to which he has sunk.
Ray Milland in a still from The Lost Weekend, 1945
This stark, lonely aesthetic also permeates photographic depictions of the El train in the ’30s. In an image from Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, the El blocks out the sky, and the few people gathered on the streets below appear as menacing shadows. The scene is one of excitement and energy, but is also cold, dangerous, and uninviting. Taken just a few blocks away, Arnold Eagle’s photograph of a solitary figure waiting at Chatham Square station—while somewhat of a cliché—is beautifully composed; the El platform cuts a lonely swath through the cityscape, which almost completely evaporates in the late afternoon light. We are witness to a moment of utter solitude and stillness in the midst of a city in which such moments are a rarity.
Arnold Eagle, Chatham Square Platform, ca. 1939
Such is our collective image of the elevated train. And yet this understanding fails to take into account the often vibrant communities that exist symbiotically with the El lines. The photographer Jeff Liao has recently documented these communities in Queens along the JMZ line. Far from being monolithic and impersonal, in his images the El appears organically part of the scene, a hub of human activity and commerce.
© Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, 69th Street, Woodside, 2005 Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery
In his autobiography, Weegee describes how he hustled candy as a boy in the early part of the century: “I stationed myself at the elevated station at the Third Avenue ‘L’ at Bowery and Grand. Often I was chased by the special cops of the elevated because the candy stands up on the platforms considered me unfair competition. But I always came back. I stayed on until I had sold out my stock, at about eight o’clock at night.”