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The Big Steel Ghost

Today, every train in Manhattan is hidden under the ground. But until the mid 20th century, an entire network of elevated train lines ran up and down the city. Next month will mark the anniversary of the dismantling of the very last of these lines: the 3rd Avenue El. For 77 years, the El rattled the windows of tenement buildings and shadowed the storefronts of shop-owners. But almost nothing remains of it today. Except for the memories of the New Yorkers who were there to see it come down. Camila Kerwin reports.

KERWIN: Walter Zullig is a train guy. As a kid, he used to ride the elevated lines around New York City for fun. He worked as a legal counsel for the MTA for about 20 years. In other words, he defended trains for a living. Once upon a time, he even asked his new finacé to ride one of the elevated lines with him in Brooklyn. Like, as a date.

Suzanne Zullig: We were just engaged and he said come let’s ride the El.

Walter Zullig: Oh that was barrels of fun.

KERWIN: So, Walter Zullig loves trains. But there’s one in particular he has soft spot for. The Third Avenue El. A steel spine that ran from Lower Manhattan up into the Bronx until 1955.

Walter Zullig: Well inside the stations when you walk in, of course it was very old, and there was a change booth there, and a row of old fashioned turnstiles. These big wide, like wooden paddle type turnstiles.

Archival Film Footage: [bring up low under Zullig]

Watler Zullig: So you’d put a token in the turnstile, and it would go chuchunk! Chuchunk!

Archival Film Footage: And passengers paid a station agent to unlock a gate to let them in.

KERWIN: Old footage of the train shows exactly what he’s talking about:

Archival Film Footage: The route was past miles of tenements, giving the passengers a glimpse into every window.

Walter Zullig: Now if it was a cold day, there was a potbelly stove inside the station, and that would be stokin’ away. And the train would come rumbling in and basically they looked like wooden cars but they did have some steel in them.

Archival Film Footage: [train sound, then fade]

KERWIN: The 3rd Avenue El ran for 77 years. Imagine reaching your arm out the window of your tiny New York City apartment and being able to touch a passing train. That was what the presence of the El was like.

But by the mid 20th century, the structure was falling apart, and it would have been extremely expensive to fix. Ridership was down. People complained that the train was loud, and dirty, and dark. So, New York City decided to do to the 3rd Avenue El what it had already done to every other el. Tear it down.

Walter Zullig: 6th Avenue, and 9th Avenue, they had subways to replace those els. And 3rd Avenue they just tore it down, and there really was no replacement.

KERWIN: No replacement, even though the city had promised a replacement for years. A 2nd Avenue Subway. The same 2nd Avenue Subway that just opened this past December, 7 decades after it was first promised.

Richard Solomon: It takes 70 years to get anything done in cities and transportation. That’s why I got into computers.

KERWIN: That’s Richard Solomon. In the 60s, before he got into computers, he was an urban planner in New York. He’s written a lot about city transit. And he says, the reason the city went ahead and demolished the train without a replacement? It boiled down to the same reason anything big ever happens in New York: real estate, and money.

Richard Solomon: The city was bankrupt by the 50s. And there was tremendous pressure from the real estate interests to tear down the El. And the 2nd Avenue subway never got started. It was a mistake to tear down the 3rd Avenue El when they did.

KERWIN: No 2nd Avenue subway would mean an even more crowded Lexington Avenue Subway and very cramped city buses. Thousands of commuters would face a major disruption in their daily lives. But, on May 12th, 1955, a radio reporter stoood on 7th street and 3rd Avenue, right outside Cooper Union, to make this announcement:

WNYC Archival Tape: And we’re looking out on the scene of the last run today of the Third Avenue El. Oh considering the noise it makes and the dust it stirs up and the way it darkens our street, the Cooper Union family will join other 3rd Avenue folks in praising the passing of the El. [duck]

KERWIN: When Walter Zullig heard the news, he made his way down to Chatham Square got into the very end of the last car with his 8 mm film camera. And for all the vitriol against the old, rickety El, the scene he captured that day tells a different story. The train was packed. People were honking horns, hanging out their apartment windows to yell goodbye. The passengers, they didn’t seem to want the ride to end.

Walter Zullig: People started pulling the emergency cord. And we went psssshhh. And of course the train came to a screeching halt. And so it would sit there a bit, and then we would move again.

Archival Film Footage: Well things change. And the El is at the end of the line. This is the last of filmed just before its trains rumbled into history.

Walter Zullig: And a little while later somebody else pulled the cord. And this went on for quite awhile, I mean I don’t know how many times the cord was pulled, but I would venture to say it was 15 times anyway.

Archival Film Footage: In the mountains of brick and steel it soon will be forgotten amid America’s changing scene.

KERWIN: Zullig did not forget. He shows me a picture he took in 1956 of the very last pillars left standing from the El. It looks sort of like a shrunken, steel Arche de Triomphe in the middle of 42nd street and 3rd. That’s the only photo he took of the demolition. But today, New Yorkers can see a lot more. There’s an exhibit of them up at the Transit Museum, all taken by a 17 year old photographer.

Walter Zullig: A young fellow who was about my age at the time started taking all these pictures.

KERWIN: That young fellow? That’s this guy.

Sid Kaplan: My school was right on the corner of 79th and 3rd.

KERWIN: Sid Kaplan’s a native New Yorker. He’s 79 now, like Solomon. But when he was 17, he became sort of obsessed with taking pictures of the El’s dismantling.

Sid Kaplan: And just being right in front of the school when it was being dismantled, of course I was gonna take pictures of it. After awhile it becomes a disease.

KERWIN: Kaplan’s photos show workers standing on steel beams. The stained glass ornamentation. In one shot taken from high up, you can see the train as far as it goes, until the lines converge on each other.

Kaplan says sure, it was sad to see the el go. But in a city that always seems to be eating itself alive, it didn’t catch anyone by surprise.

Sid Kaplan: All your life you’re walking down the street and the building you saw last week has just been demolished. So, I was always aware that there are things that are things in New York that, here today gone tomorrow.

KERWIN: The El is gone now. This is what it sounds like today.

Nat Sound: [Cooper Union]

KERWIN: We’re standing on 7th street and 3rd Avenue, where Kaplan’s remembering what exactly is gone.

Sid Kaplan: You would be under a canopy of train tracks. And the train, it was a certain kind of music…it was a certain kind of music.

WNYC Archival Tape: [reporter drowned by train rumbling overhead]…Maybe you didn’t hear me while that El was going, now that’s a historic sound.

KERWIN: Hardly a trace remains of the 3rd Avenue El. But, if you go to the Gun Hill Road station in the Bronx, you can see the last bit of it. It’s the bottom level of what looks like a double-decker elevated line — an old connection. Trains still run on the top, but the bottom has no tracks anymore. There’s no plaque, no information. Today, that stretch of green steel is all that’s left of the 3rd Avenue El.

Camila Kerwin, Columbia Radio News.


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