This vivid New York City cultural history records in photographs the story of the Third Avenue elevated train, launched in 1878 as one of the first lines in the city’s rapid-transit systems.
The author’s father, Lothar Stelter, took a myriad of photographs with his Contessa camera in the early ’50s, when he worked as a cable splicer for the New York Telephone Company. Those photos, displayed here a bit too small on each page, demonstrate how teeming and alive this route was in the lifeline of the city. The steam-powered elevated trains had to accommodate the rapid growth of New York at the turn of the century, comprising four routes from Lower Manhattan to 155th Street–though the Third Avenue line would gradually extend into the Bronx–and culminating in peak ridership by 1920, before the more efficient subways began to take over. A nickel fare (up until 1948) ensured its popularity. The Third Avenue El created a distinctive look along a busy thoroughfare, casting a trellis-like pattern onto the street from the overhead webbed ironwork, wooden catwalks and Victorian glasswork in the windows of the stations. The photographer captured the construction details beautifully, and in all kinds of weather, as passengers frozen in period suits and hats gaze down at the street crammed with DeSoto taxis, Studebakers and sidewalk vendors. Chapters follow the journey up Third Avenue, lined by pawn shops, antiques stores and Irish pubs, from Chinatown to Murray Hill to Yorkville to East Harlem. Former residents, shopkeepers and commuters fondly recall here the noisy train that brought them to the Automat at 42nd Street, Wankels Hardware at 88th Street or the Ruppert Brewery at 93rd Street. Next to these arresting images of the city’s history, views of today’s sleekly transformed Third Avenue–the El was demolished in the mid-’50s–seem soulless and monolithic.
Delightful, welcome nostalgia for a sadly bygone era.