In a similar vein, last week, two pieces of stained glass that may be remnants of Manhattan’s old Third Avenue El sold for about $200 on eBay. Naturally, it’s hard to say for sure that’s where they came from, but they look exactly like stained glass shown in color photos of Third Avenue El stations. The seller says they came from a New York City resale shop. All this brought many things to mind.
These beautiful artifacts are at odds with the popular notion that the El “blighted” areas it ran in such as the Bowery. In the 1930s, popular New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia campaigned against the three Manhattan Els, which ran on 3rd, 6th, and 9th Avenues. The Third Avenue line, which had begun operation in 1878, was the last to go and the final runs in Manhattan took place on May 12, 1955.
Shortly before service was discontinued, Joseph Cornell, a famous surrealist artist best known for his “shadow boxes” commissioned experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage to shoot some 16mm color footage of the El, which was edited into The Wonder Ring. Cornell was not satisfied with the result, and so re-edited and “improved” it by reversing the film from left-to-right, and this version is called Gnir Rednow, which you can see here:
There are fleeting glimpses of just the same kind of stained glass as sold on eBay. The surrealistic effect you see while looking out the window is caused by the old, wavy glass. Cornell was, if anything, nostalgic. Watching the film, we view the past through wavy glass that both enhances and distorts our view. My Dad used to say he wanted to “look at the world through rose-colored glasses.” Perhaps I would like to see it through Third Avenue el stained glass instead.
History abounds in ironies. The beauty of the glass and the images that remain ask us to reconsider whether the El was really as ugly and blighted as history would like us to think. I’m sure there was a lot of truth to the popular notion of The Bowery as the ultimate “Skid Row,” but somehow I have to wonder if tearing down the El was truly necessary to revitalize the neighborhood, especially when that made it much harder to get around.
There are other ironies. Most people today probably do not realize that New York still has more elevated trackage than Chicago does- it’s just that none of it is in Manhattan. Likewise, it’s also not commonly known that parts of the Third Avenue El continued in use until 1973, only in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, I’ll bet there are many people who live and work in Manhattan who wish there still was a Third Avenue El to take. They’ve been waiting for the promised Second Avenue subway to materialize for about 80 years now. I’m sure it will get finished one of these decades.
We lived through some of this in Chicago. For 40 years, from 1939 to 1979, it was the City’s official policy to seek the eradication of the Loop elevated. Fortunately, it was saved from the wrecking ball and is still a Chicago icon. There doesn’t seem to be much blight underneath it in the Loop these days, despite how many people used to say that the darkness underneath the L would breed crime. And you can still take it to get from point A to point B, unlike New York’s Third Avenue El.