In the early evening of May 12, 1955, a train pulled out of Lower Manhattan’s Chatham Square, near City Hall, bound for upper Manhattan and the Bronx via Third Avenue. It was the last run of the Third Avenue elevated, and the last time a train ran up a large chunk of Manhattan east of Lexington Avenue for six decades.
The Third Avenue elevated—like lines along Ninth, Sixth, and yes, Second Avenues—predated the subway. The line opened in 1878, with service from South Ferry in Lower Manhattan to 129th Street in Harlem. Other elevated, or “el” lines came into service at around the same time. The Second Avenue elevated, which ran from City Hall to Harlem for most of its life, operated from 1875 to 1942. The Ninth Avenue elevated, the first el, operated from 1868 to 1940. The Sixth Avenue elevated was constructed in segments during the 1870s and ceased operations in 1938.
End of the Els
It’s not a coincidence that all of these lines stopped running at around the same time.
“The els were loud, dirty, messy and slow,” says Clifton Hood, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of 722 Miles, a history of New York City’s subway system. “The subways were modern and the els looked bad.” The city government, often backed by real-estate interests (and with an eye towards real-estate tax receipts), was happy to remove them.
“The els were run by monopolistic companies that provided bad service,” Hood says. The IND subway system, a municipally-operated service, was designed in many instances to compete with companies running existing rapid transit lines—both subways and els. “One purpose of the IND was to compete with particular el lines,” Hood says. “That was the idea of the Sixth and Eighth Avenue lines.”
There were, of course, many who opposed removing elevated lines, especially on the subway-poor East Side. According to a blog post from CUNY’s Gotham Center for New York City History, “skeptics questioned the wisdom of summarily displacing the 25,000,000 the Third Avenue El had carried in 1954. Some lawmakers tried to ensure that El service would not be eliminated until construction of the promised new subway began.”
Was another way possible? Would some alternative to the Lexington Avenue line—which carries more passengers by itself than the entire networks of San Francisco, Chicago and Boston—be better than none at all? It’s hard to say.
High lines, low tech
If the city kept the els running, it would have had to invest massive sums in upgrading the rickety network. The elevated structures were not just old, they were poorly-maintained and involved a host of outdated operational constraints.
“New York could not have handled the crowds on the els,” says Andrew Lynch, a transit aficionado, blogger and creator of futureNYCsubway. Lynch notes that the el trains were half as long subways, implying not just lower capacity, but that station platforms might need to be expanded. Perhaps more importantly, el lines typically crossed each other at-grade, constraining capacity. “The system was much more basic,” Lynch says. “It’s like old highways. They were the technology of the day, but it still wasn’t enough, and they took up a lot of space.”
“The subway expresses went three times faster than the els,” Hood says. Elevated lines constructed during the subway era, such as the Roosevelt Avenue line in Queens, were generally built to higher standards than the earliest Manhattan els, according to Hood. “They would have had to rebuild the old els to keep them running,” Lynch says. “It might not have made sense.”
Still, as anyone who has stood in rush-hour crowds at the Union Square platforms on the Lexington line can attest, outdated service might be better than no service. “For Second or Third Avenue, you could make a good case that they should have saved it [the els] and upgraded it,” Hood says.
If the city had gone in this direction, gentrification of the East Side would have played out quite differently. Real estate interests were among the biggest proponents of el demolition. Lynch notes that streets that currently have elevated lines, such as Brooklyn’s Broadway and McDonald Avenue, are often home to mechanics, salvage yards, discount stores, and other commercial enterprises dependent on cheap rent.
Second and Third Avenues, however, are lined by to rows of clean-cut modernist apartment towers, many of which were constructed in the wake of the el’s demolition. They were in the frontier of gentrification as early as the 1960s, before the term was widely known. The earliest yuppies quite often lived in Yorkville, between York and Third Avenues on the Upper East Side. In a scene from Mad Men, Peggy Olson considers buying an apartment in one of those then-new East Side high rises. The broker uses the forthcoming Second Avenue Subway as a selling point.
With the presence of the els, this almost certainly would have played out differently. “Would you have had the early gentrification on the Second and Third Avenue corridors?” Hood asks, “Eventually, but I bet it would have been delayed.”
It’s especially worth noting that the decades after the last el rumbled down Manhattan's Third Avenue were especially difficult ones for New York, and urban America in general. “The East Side would have fallen harder in the ‘70s and ‘80s if the el was there,” Lynch says.
Still, Hood and Lynch agree that gentrification likely would have happened at some point on the East Side. “It would have looked different and taken longer, but it would have happened eventually,” Lynch says.
One potential parallel here is Williamsburg’s Meeker Avenue, above which runs the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway viaduct. Meeker gentrified later than other parts of the North Side of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but gentrify it did. Today it is home to popular bars and even a boutique hotel. There are new apartment buildings that look out onto the expressway. An elevated transportation viaduct may be a drawback, but it does not appear able quash gentrification on its own.
Meanwhile, an el line along Second or Third Avenue could have enabled more service on other parts of the subway network if crucial connections were not eliminated. Both lines made connections to to Third Avenue elevated in The Bronx, which was demolished in 1973. Tracks on the Queensboro Bridge connected the Second Avenue line with the still-extant Flushing and Astoria lines, providing a variety of options for Queens-Manhattan service. These connections were taken out of service in the 1940s. Similar connections ran over the Brooklyn Bridge. All were gone by 1955, when the last el trains ran on the East Side.
El to the future?
The old-fashioned nature of elevated train lines can make them look charmingly quaint today. Old movies, paintings and images conjure up an image of what was arguably the high-water of the American city, complete with noirish el trains and men in hats. “When you are riding on el trains, they're cool,” Lynch says, noting you can see the city rushing by from the window, rather than the pitch-blackness of the subway. “But that ignores the area below the train.”
Despite the problems, there could be a place for elevated lines in New York's future. U.S. rapid transit systems built in the 1960s and ‘70s, such as the Bay Area's BART and Washington DC's metro utilize elevated structures outside of the urban core. Lynch, whose futureNYCsubway project entails detailed ideas for transit expansion in New York, says there's no reason such a set-up couldn't work in the nation's largest metropolis. “I do think we need to consider els, built to modern designs, in the further-out parts of the city,” Lynch says. “A lot of my plans involve elevated lines in the outskirts of the city.”
But getting a full Second Avenue subway operational is crucial to expanding capacity throughout the system. Work on phase two, extending the line to 125th Street, is scheduled to begin in 2019. New el lines could be built somewhere, someday, but expanding the Second Avenue subway beyond the Upper East Side will have to come first.