Elevated: The Evolution of Sixth Avenue Before, Under, and After the El

One of the most fascinating and frequently alarming qualities of cities is their changeability based on the advent of a single new object, technique, or machine. The Chicago architecture firm of Burnham & Root famously created the skyscraper as we know it today by devising what is known as slab foundation[1], as Elisha Otis enabled people to ascend safely to the tops of said structures with his elevator fail-safe mechanism. The day before the release of the first iPhone, who could have predicted that there would one day be Wi-Fi deep underground, in the 14th Street F station? Compared to Steve Jobs, Otis, and Burnham & Root, Doctor Rufus Henry Gilbert achieved little notoriety and affected a relatively small physical area, but his Gilbert Patent Railroad affected the city of New York as permanently as any of the former inventions.

In the 1860s, New York City was overrun with horse-drawn streetcars, known as omnibuses. Though relatively efficient[2], these omnibuses were overcrowded, overpriced, filthy, havens for pickpockets and gropers, frequently run by racketeers. One political cartoon of the day went so far as to impose the words, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” next to the door of one such vehicle, these famously being the words above the entrance to hell in Dante Alligheri’s Inferno (Bettmann, 20). The wealthy could afford the ten-cent fare to ride the nicer coaches, but the poor had no recourse from the barely-cheaper (six cents a pop in the 1860s, as compared to the five cent fare on all public transit in 1939) omnibuses (Daley, 59).

In addition to being disgusting, undignified, and amoral, the streetcars also contributed greatly to the ever-growing filth of the city streets themselves. From the city’s inception onwards, the streets were constantly filled with garbage, manure, human excrement, and the putrefying corpses of cats, dogs, vermin, and overworked horses who frequently collapsed where they stood (Bettmann, 8). The city was desperate for what came to be known as “Rapid Transit”: subways and elevated trains.

The first el was constructed along 9th Avenue and opened for business in 1870[3]. It took eight years to get a second one built: what came to be known as the Sixth Avenue IRT Line was proposed in 1876 and opened in 1878. Then named the Gilbert Patent Railroad, the el was the brainchild of a renowned surgeon and physician named Rufus Henry Gilbert. Gilbert had spent most of his professional life treating tuberculosis patients in the slums of New York, and had come to believe that the key to curtailing the White Plague lay in providing the poor with cheap, easy access to fresh air and sunlight; namely, Central Park. Gilbert designed his railroad to run straight up Sixth Avenue to the Park.

Though Gilbert managed to get his plan approved by the state legislature with relative ease, luck was not on his side: he was swindled out of his whole company before the railroad ever opened by J.T. Navarro and William Foster, Jr, and voted off the board practically the day after his el opened in June of 1878. The swindlers were themselves forced out in 1881 by a group of much richer and more reputable men[4], and Gilbert never saw a penny of the revenue from his invention. He tried to sue what would become the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, but to no avail: he died penniless and heartbroken in 1885.

It is probably just as well. As Robert Daley says in his 1959 work, The World Beneath The City,

“Had [Gilbert] lived, he would only have been disillusioned. Although the poor, for whom he had such hopes, used his el for years, it was only for proceeding from the slums to work and then back to the slums…In fact, Dr. Gilbert’s el and others made new slums where none had been before…Sixth Avenue later became notorious for sin. Under the shadow of the el, saloons, dance halls, and brothels sprang up…” (88).

 Not only were new slums created along Sixth Avenue, but under virtually every el that was constructed in the years following. Hell’s Kitchen formed along 9th Avenue; the Second Avenue el ran above the Lower East Side and was featured in at least two separate films[5] as a good place beneath which to dump a body.

Despite Gilbert’s best intentions, the Sixth Avenue el and its successors had numerous problems beyond the “lowered real-estate values of streets through which the els run…”(WPA, 404): they were, as public trains generally are, dirty and perpetually overcrowded, albeit to a lesser extent than the omnibuses that came before; the early els especially polluted the city, making the air smoggy and dark, adding noise to the already clamorous soundscape; the structures upon which they ran were thought to be unsightly (WPA, 404). Subways, though they were no faster, cleaner, or quieter, were at least underground, where one did not have to see or smell them. Throughout the early 20th century, proposals were put forth by business owners and homeowners associations alike to do away with the els; and in 1938, due to a decrease in revenue and an increase in constituent complaints, the IRT Sixth Avenue Line was bought by the city for $12.5 million[6], to be razed one year later[7][8]. In its place, the city constructed the IND Sixth Avenue Line, extant today as the B, D, F, and M trains.

Sixth Avenue was slow to recover. Razing the el was the first step, like overturning a stone to reveal the fungus beneath; but the squalor and corruption that had flourished in the shadow of the el were less easily removed than revealed, as this passage from The WPA Guide To New York (1939) attests:

            “Sixth Avenue…is an uninspiring thoroughfare. The old Sixth Avenue elevated structure, which darkened the street, was removed in 1938-39; and with the completion of the Sixth Avenue branch of the municipal Independent Subway, the character of the street may change…Considered in the latter part of the nineteenth century to be one of New York’s most notorious slums, it has been improved through the renovation of some of its houses, which form an interesting group.”

 This is not exactly high praise.

Compare Sixth Avenue as it exists today: the seedy, “notorious” underbelly of the city is no more, and the avenue is wide, brightly lit, lined with upscale markets, boutiques, corporate headquarters, big box stores, and pet spas. It epitomizes the glamorous New York of film and television, traversed by beautiful people in large sunglasses clutching Starbucks and the leashes of purebred puppies. Sixth Avenue is a long way from the slum it once was: what was once the Women’s House of Detention is now the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library.

Though the IRT Sixth Avenue line was ultimately just a small piece of the greatest transit system in the world, it is arguably one of the great unsung innovations of public transit, the granddaddy of the current subway system, but its lack of notoriety is not entirely without reason. The el was a terrible train and, though it appears quaint and attractive in photos, it was in reality a great looming blight over the heads of the city’s poorest[9]. Still, the IRT Sixth Avenue Line did the city a great service by providing such an example of how not to provide rapid transit, and by inadvertently making subways the default. The Sixth Avenue El is noteworthy not as a triumph of engineering or urban planning but rather as an odd, imperfect structure that had a lasting physical presence long after the metal from which it was built was possibly[10] sold to Japan.



[1] Slab foundation is a method that allows architects to build tall, heavy structures such as skyscrapers built even on the soupiest of land, such as that of Chicago (a city with no bedrock to speak of). A sub-basement is dug, a two-foot layer of concrete poured, a steel grillage (essentially a very large steel structural component not unlike a Jenga tower) built and then filled with more concrete, with the end result being a virtual floating bedrock sturdy enough to support even the tallest of buildings (Larson, 25).

[2] Some along the busier routes ran as frequently as every thirteen seconds (Daley, 59).

[3] though this was technically an elevated cable car, not a train; because it was coal-powered, it rained soot and debris on passers below, “…ruining derbies and Prince Alberts, and spoiling the wet wash of housewives, who hurled invectives and bricks at the luckless engineers.” It was extremely unpopular and the company that ran it disbanded in 1971 (WPA, 404), though the line would continue to run, under a series of new owners, until 1955.

[4] including Russell Sage, one of the richest men in the country at the time (Daley, 87).

[5] Otto Preminger’s 1950 noir, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, features Dana Andrews as a cop who disposes of a body in the trunk of a checkered cab, in the shadow of  the el; and the 1986 film adaptation of “Little Shop of Horrors” includes Rick Moranis’s Seymour chopping up a body in a basement beneath the same train. Seymour even carries the body home on the train.

[6] asking price: $20 million (New York Times).

[7] amid speculation that the scrap metal was being sold to the Japanese and would be used to bomb Chinese cities (New York Times). 

[8] The 3rd and 9th Avenue els were in service until 1955, the former of which was the last el to operate in Manhattan (New York Times).

[9] It is a cruel irony that Dr. Gilbert’s efforts to bring the poor quite literally into the light ended up further benighting them.

[10] probably not


Works Cited:

  • Arno Press. Interborough Rapid Transit; the New York Subway, Its Construction and Equipment. New York: Interborough Rapid Transit, 1904. Print.
  • Bettmann, Otto L. The Good Old Days– They Were Terrible! New York: Random House, 1974. Print.
  • Daley, Robert. “Chapter 7: Deathblow to Subways.” The World Beneath the City. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1959. Print.
  • Gody, Lou, Ed. The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis– Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. New York: New, 1992. Print.
  • Little Shop of Horrors. Dir. Frank Oz. Perf. Ellen Greene, Rick Moranis, and Vincent Gardenia. Warner Bros., 1986. Film.
  • The New York Times. “Elevated To Seek 7-Cent Fare Soon.” The New York Times 10 Jan. 1939: Print.
  • The New York Times. “Topics of the Times: Whither Sixth Avenue?” The New York Times 7 Dec.  1938: Print.
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends. Dir. Otto Preminger. Perf. Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney. Twentieth Century Fox Production Company, 1950. Film.

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