The Sixth Avenue El: nuisance and inspiration alike
In New York City, the first public transport was offered by omnibuses and street railways which appeared on the streets of the city in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Yet as the city’s population continued to grow, these simple forms of transport proved to be entirely insufficient to cope with the capacity of passengers, and the increasing need for a systematic approach to other means of public transport was quickly recognized and tackled.
Charles Harvey presented the first elevated system over Greenwich Street in 1867 while constructions on the first subway line began in 1869. The system of the elevated railways offered the first rapid transport in New York City. While they were initially powered by cables like their counterparts on the streets, the trains were soon equipped with steam engines and provided the fastest way of getting around the city. By the early twentieth century, the rapid progress in technology enabled all elevated trains of the city to run on electricity.
Four elevated lines operated the avenues of Manhattan: the Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenue Elevated. The line that was commonly referred to as the Sixth Avenue El took up its service in the late 1870s. Ultimately, it covered almost all of Lower Manhattan, starting close to Battery Park and running along West Broadway and Sixth Avenue to 59th Street just below Central Park. It was discontinued in December 1938.
Like all elevated railways, the impact of the Sixth Avenue El on people’s lives was enormous. During planning and construction of the railway, the operating company (the Gilbert Elevated Railroad Company) encountered resistance from property-owners and other railroad companies and complaints continued to reach newspapers by property-holders and pedestrians alike after construction was completed, many people felt that the new elevated line invaded their lives to a degree that was simply not bearable. The noise was perceived as a nuisance and an infliction, as “little short of murder,” the constant rain of oil, grease, and cinder ruined clothes and shops. Considering these side effects of the elevated railways, the convenient method of transport the El offered could easily be overlooked. Yet in spite of all these complaints, the Sixth Avenue Elevated remained, and people had to adapt.
It was this invasion of technology, this raw force tearing through people’s lives unabashedly that attracted a number of artists to the elevated railways and to the Sixth Avenue El in particular due to its central location. The impressive extent of the El’s construction turned it into a particularly visual spectacle, and so it is not surprising to find a great number of painters and photographers among the artists who have depicted the El in their works.
The perspectives on the railway could differ quite drastically from depiction to depiction: American impressionist Childe Hassam created a rather romanticized idealization of the El in his 1894 painting “Sixth Avenue El–Nocturne (The El, New York)” by using pastel colors to transform the gritty reality of daytime Night York into the dreamlike setting of poetry at night, associating the innovative technology represented by the rapid transit with a romantic idea of progress.
Other artists used the railway as a stage to portray the isolation life in a city as big as New York could ultimately breed: Photographer Berenice Abbott and painter Reginald Marsh both chose interior shots for their respective works “‘El’ Station: Sixth Avenue Lines, Downtown Side” and “Why Not Use The El?,” baring the reality of city life by illustrating the loneliness and misery dominating both the act of waiting for as well as riding on the elevated railway.
Edward Hopper produced a work similar to that of Berenice Abbott, but his painting “The El Station” from 1908 already carried a connotation that was to become one of his trademark features: solitude, not loneliness, surrounded his figures, and so the lone woman seemingly waiting for the train on an empty platform stands apart from the gray figures huddling around the stove in Abbott’s photograph.
The most common form of depiction of the elevated railway lines though remained the one from the outside, very often incorporating a bird’s-eye view to capture the whole scale of the elevated constructions. This bird’s-eye view is brought to an extreme in the documentary short film Manhatta from 1921, a collaboration between the painter Charles Sheeler and the photographer Paul Strand that presented the Elevated as an integral part of Manhattan and consequently of New York’s everyday life.
The film, which roughly follows a typical day in Manhattan, shows the elevated railway on Church Street crossing the screen at an experimental angle, crossing from top to bottom instead of the conventional direction from left to right; Sheeler later used a still of this scene to create his painting “Church Street El.” Manhatta celebrates the El as a symbol of Modernism, a trend which becomes even more apparent with progressing tendencies toward abstraction and Precisionism, as can be seen for example in the work of Francis Criss (“Sixth Avenue ‘L’,” 1937).
Those artists who did not go so far as to celebrate the elevated trains at least acknowledged their integral part in shaping the city, as works by painters like John Marin (“Lower Manhattan, Composition Derived From Top of Woolworth Building,” 1922) clearly demonstrate.
Further proof for the fact that the people adapted and came to accept the elevated lines are their numerous inclusions in paintings by the Ashcan artists, a loose group of realist painters, such as Robert Henri’s “Street Scene with Snow” (1902), John Sloan’s “Election Night” (1907), or George Bellows’ “New York” (1911) show. Very often the El is even not the actual focus of these paintings, but instead included naturally into the scene.
Even the end of the Sixth Avenue Elevated offered a final inspiration for artists when the line ceased operation in 1938 and it metal was sold to the Japanese . In 1944, the poet e.e. cummings wrote his famous work “plato told,” hinting at the El’s final fate:
(he didn’t believe it, no
sir) it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el:in the top of his head: to tell
Sources: Cummings, E.E. “plato told.” In: 100 Selected Poems. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2000: 88. Sansone, Gene. New York Subways: An Illustrated History of New York City's Transit Cars. Baltimore, MD: Joh Hopkins University Press, 1997. Whistler, James McNeill. “Mr. Whistler’s Ten O’clock.” In: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Project Gutenberg eBook, 2008. Metropolitan Transit Authority NYC Subway.org The New York Times, April 23, May 3, (1876); June 18th, June 21, June 22 (1878). The Palm Beach Post, November 11, 1939.