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By the el: A time capsule of photos

Created date

September 22nd, 2009

Every city has a collage of places and things producing a way of life that people call home. For the Big Apple, this includes Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the old Penn Station. [caption id="attachment_3155" align="alignright" width="280" caption="The last train completes the El s final run at Gun Hill Road station along White Plains Road in the Bronx on Thursday, May 12, 1955. (Photos by Lothar Stelter)"][/caption] But a book by lifelong New Yorkers Lawrence and Lothar Stelter adds another gem to this familiar patchwork of local memories the elevated train system that snaked its way through miles of New York City neighborhoods up through the mid 1950s. 3rd Avenue s elevated railroad By the El tells the story of the 3rd Avenue elevated railroad, which was one of the four elevated lines that moved New Yorkers throughout the city for decades. The El launched a new era in public transportation as the city s first rapid transit system, making its first trip from City Hall to Grand Central Depot at 42nd Street in August 1878. Not ten years after its maiden run, the Manhattan Railway company extended the El s reach across the Harlem River and into a comparatively remote wilderness called the Bronx, which, by 1900, would grow to a population of 201,000, largely due to the 3rd Avenue line. Nevertheless, politics, pollution, and economics led to the gradual dismantling of the elevated system in the 1920s and, after World War II, the 3rd Avenue was the only one left of the four that New Yorkers had come to know. Capturing history on film Lothar Stelter knew its days were numbered and started photographing the trains, their passengers, rails, stations, and neighborhoods before they too disappeared in the name of progress. The hundreds of photos that Stelter snapped off from 1952 until the 3rd Avenue s last run in May 1955 place the reader in the thick of New York s city life at mid century. I was working for the New York Telephone Company as a splicer s helper when I began taking pictures of the El, Stelter recalls. During this time, they were putting a lot of cables into the street for the increased telephone service, which took us from manhole to manhole up 3rd Avenue two blocks at a time. [caption id="attachment_3158" align="alignright" width="280" caption="By the El: Third Avenue and its El at Mid-Century by Lawrence and Lothar Stelter, 2nd ed., Stelterfoto, 2007. (File photo)"][/caption] This gave Stelter the opportunity to take photos of the day-to-day activities, many of which he shot using the small Contessa camera that he kept under his jacket. Sometimes he even gained access to rooftops, capturing a length of the El s tracks running between strips of row houses topped with antennas that delivered The Honeymooners and The Ed Sullivan Show to the tenants below. One photo snapped from the El s 125th Street express platform takes in the cold, dark scenery of a winter day as a 1950 Buick and a 1950 DeSoto taxicab roll through the slushy mess covering the street below. Another taken later in the summer shows three boys playing in the jet stream of an opened fire hydrant at 95th Street, the iron-girded El looming in the background. You can really become engrossed in the book s photographs, says Lawrence Stelter, who wrote the story to go along with his father s images. Every time I look at them, I discover something new. Indeed, what the Stelters have created is a work serving as both a coffee table book and a historical record. The 211 images appearing throughout its 132 pages are colorful time capsules containing ordinary people doing ordinary things in neighborhoods tied together by the 3rd Avenue El train. [caption id="attachment_3156" align="alignright" width="280" caption="New Yorkers go about their day at the corner of 46th Street and 3rd Avenue. On the east side of 3rd is a Chinese laundry and Joe & Rose s Restaurant. To the left, the El train rumbles into the 47th Street station."][/caption] The El was a part of life in New York City, and I think that this book really captures that, Stelter remarks of his father s photos. One gentleman who lived around 85th Street said that it was like someone in the family had died when the El was gone.