Having wrapped up another semester, one of my final class projects came near and dear to my heart. We were given the assignment to create short podcasts using E.B. White’s Here is New York as inspiration, resulting in a collection of miNY Stories pertaining to New York in 1949. At this time, the last of Manhattan’s now extinct elevated trains was still standing…but not for long. While creating the podcast The Third Avenue El: Noise-talgia, the longstanding admiration for the above ground transportation system that once loomed above the avenues of Manhattan became apparent. The Third Avenue El being the most adored and romanticized of rides.
A focal piece of research was Sunny Statler’s article “Farewell to the El: Nostalgic Urban Visuality on the Third Avenue Elevated Train” (2006), Statler explores the unique experience of riding on the El. This commute not only induced straphangers to daydreaming, but also gave inspiration for artists alike. Works such as Gnir Rednow, the collaborative film between Joseph Cornell and Stan Brakhage, depict the Third Avenue El in a dream-like sequence of reverse frames, reflections, and shadows. A trip on the Third Avenue El allowed riders to view the city in an intimate way; glimpsing into the private sanctuary of apartment life, catching the aroma kitchen concoctions, and all the daily chores and pastimes of compact Manhattan life. Statler eloquently explains how the El encouraged the imagination of its passengers:
“The embodied connection to city space should not suggest that El riders experienced a more real version of the city than subway riders did – it was a wholly different one. Subway car views alternated between dark tunnels and stations distinguishable only by name; lone riders retreated into internal fantasy through reading, daydreaming or dozing. El passengers, on the other hand experienced fantasies that were directed outward into external city space. Technologies of transportation reinforce urban subjectivity by literalizing views of the city: moving underground, New York became a space of invisibility and isolation; moving above ground and in close proximity to city life opened up otherwise invisible space to fantasies of communion.” (p. 872)
Being in the School of Information and Library Science, the focus of our assignment was research and the use of collections as resources. While the New York Transit Museum and NYPL Digital Gallery fueled El imagery, this post is dedicated to the website NYCSubway.org. Ran by enthusiasts and volunteers, NYCSubway.org is an extensive and comprehensive digital archive for all eras of New York City transportation. The endless pages of photos of train cars, stations, tracks, and maps sends the heart of the little boy fascinated with trains inside all of us into a flutter. The Third Avenue El has a collection of 770 images alone. Audio of the rumble that was ultimately the El’s demise, was taken from the below film hosted on the Prelinger Archives. Sometimes, noise pollution can be sorely missed.
Stratler, S. (2006) Farewell to the El: Nostalgic urban visuality on the third Avenue elevated train. American Quarterly. 58(3). 869-890. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/