The tenement between two elevated train lines

In the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of New Yorkers lived in tenements bordered by elevated train tracks.

Trains thundered so close to living rooms and kitchens, one observer in the 1880s described the elevated as “so near to the houses you might shake hands with the inhabitants and see what they had for dinner.”

Having a train outside one window was one thing. But what in the world was it like living in a slender building at the juncture of two elevated lines, with trains lurching and screeching day and night on both sides of your home?

The curtains in the windows of this tenement, at the Battery Place stop where the Sixth Avenue El and Ninth Avenue El meet in Lower Manhattan, tell us people did make their homes here.

Both elevated lines were dismantled in the late 1930s. At some point, the Flatiron-like tenement had its date with the wrecking ball as well; I haven’t been able to locate it anywhere in the downtown streetscape.

[Photos: MCNY/Wurtz Bros.]

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31 Responses to “The tenement between two elevated train lines”

  1. Chung Wong Says:

    Greenwich and Morris

  2. Ty Says:

    I’m pretty sure that’s Hanover Square.

    My father, a small town boy from New England, rode the Ninth Avenue El down from the Bronx to his job at the Hudson Tubes in the 40s. He was amazed how people would go about their morning in various stages of undress with the curtains wide open as a train was not right outside their window.

  3. frank ruchala jr Says:

    The area where this building was has been greatly changed by the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. You can see the intersection of the El in old aerial photographs near the intersection of Greenwich and Morris streets.

  4. Joe B 10308 Says:

    Definitely Greenwich and Morris. This is where Church Street starts, just south of where the Battery Parking Garage is, adjacent to the Battery Tunnel.

    Mindblowing to see that’s what the area used to look like.

  5. Matt M Says:

    Chung is right. That building on the right there is the Cunard Building, still has the white/beige stone corner. The tall building in the top left corner is still there (2 Rector Street), and the darker building above the tenement in the distance is the Trinity Building (95 Trinity Place), right next to the Trinity Churchyard Tenement would have been located right around here:

  6. Bruce Bohen Says:

    Nice place to live if you love trains! Dr. Sheldon Cooper would take it in a minute.

  7. Zoe Says:

    Wow O_O

    It almost looks more *futuristic* — in a The Jetsons cartoon / elevated city sort of way — than it does today!

    Interesting post & comments from everyone; especially about people’s behaviour inside their apartments — who obviously forgot or stopped caring who could see them do what.

    Also I’m amazed how good people are at figuring out — straight away — exact locations from photos.

  8. Zoe Says:

    Another thought: It must have been so difficult for babies to get enough sleep 😦

    Or anyone…

  9. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I guess people can adapt to anything. But wow, living on that second floor must have been rough.

    • Zoe Says:

      To Ephemeral re.”adapt to anything”

      I often had trouble sleeping (too noisy or too quiet) going back & forth between staying w/ my dad at the hotels near the Park (lots of VERY loud honking horns) & my parents house on the CT Shore & later living on the LES on noisy 2nd Ave (large trucks & horns) at Houston & going back to the Shore.

      You do get used to more or less noise / quiet. Most likely the sounds of those trains became like familiar white noise.

      That was probably also true of the rumbling vibrations from the trains. Where I lived at the corner of 1rst St & 2nd Ave / Houston the F train passed almost under our building & felt like a mild earthquake. (I only learned they felt like one & the same when I was in Palermo Sicily & there was a slight earthquake; which are not as uncommon there).

    • Zoe Says:

      PS to Ephemeral re. “that second floor must have been rough”

      Their rent must have been a LOT less! Or let’s hope…

  10. David Lippman Says:

    That would have been tough to sleep in….there are exceptions: when my father was in the Army, he slept through a demonstration firing of 155mm artillery, and had to be woken up to watch an A-bomb test in Nevada.

  11. David Lippman Says:

    That whole area was completely rebuilt by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

  12. Ty Says:

    There was a plan a few years ago to undo the damage Mr Moses wrought.

    Click to access Greenwich_Street_South.pdf

  13. Edward Says:

    I’d pay good money to live in that house and watch all those El trains go by!

  14. MRSUCCESS Says:

    This is almost the case in The Bronx around the 2 and 5 line. The 2 lines elevated while the 5 line (the one that goes to Eastchester-Dyre Ave) is on the lower line but both split after East 180th St. One thing is for sure, it adds character to the city that you live in.

    • Paul Payton Says:

      The Dyre Avenue line was a section of the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway, opened in 1912, that ran from Harlem River Terminal at 132nd St. to a split in Mt. Vernon and then east to New Rochelle and later Port Chester, as well as north to White Plains, where the Galleria Mall now stands. It was abandoned in 1937 (yes, only 25 years of operation) and salvaged for the war effort in 1942, but Fiorello Laguardia saved the section in the Bronx. Sadly the line south of 180th is gone, the viaduct coming down in the aughts of this century; it had been proposed as the northern end of the new 2nd Avenue Subway, but its right-of-way has been greatly encroached upon.

  15. JC Bennett Says:

    The street at the base of the tenement is Edgar Street, which was erased in the tunnel construction, not Morris. TBTA then expropriated the Edgar name to the new exit street for the Battery Parking Garage that remains today.

  16. Ty Says:

    I have contemporary documentation somewhere that shows that all elevated lines were considered a temporary solution by the City until subways could be built. The elevated lines solved an immediate problem for a city that was growing at a crazy rate.

    I say this in 2017 as the 1 Train rumbles overhead while I wait for my bus.

    • Edward Says:

      Have studied much on NYC subway history and have never heard that before. Outside of London, subways were non-existent until very late in the 1800s, well after NYC’s elevated trains went into service. You have links to those contemporary docs?

  17. Ty Says:

    If you are interested in the origins of our transit system this is a great resource. In 1900, only two years after consolidation, ground was broken to begin the IRT to relieve overcrowding that exceeded Calcutta. Somewhere in all this is a plan to replace all the elevated trains with subways with the full knowledge that elevated trains brought down property values.

    • Edward Says:

      I practically live on LOL. Still though, I’ve never heard of the Els being built as a stopgap until underground subways were constructed. Granted, the Els were noisy and, when under steam power, very dirty, but I never read anything that suggested they were only temporary. Subway construction made them somewhat obsolete by the 1930s, but that’s different than saying they were originally built as temporary structures.

      • Ty Says:

        They sold the subway to the public with the explicit promise the elevateds would come down. Tamanny, WWI and the Great Depression slowed the whole thing down.

        I remember that the worst insult my grandmother could throw at you was to suggest you were from “toid avenue” 1918

        The Rapid Transit Act and Commission of 1894
        Early in its deliberations the new board reached the conclusion that the only way of meeting the transit situation was to build underground railroads, and this decision as soon as announced met the approval of a public wearied with the inadequacy of the service supplied by the elevated railroads and of the presence of their unsightly structures in the streets of the city.

      • David Lippman Says:

        I just wish they’d been able to preserve a Third Avenue El station somewhere…their architecture was charming.

        Chicago has preserved the Quincy Street El station in pristine condition, probably also to use in period piece movies.

      • Edward Says:

        Not to put too fine a point on this, but the subway replacing the Els via the Rapid Transit Act of 1914 was a decision made well after the Els were up and running. Post WWI, there was clearly a move on to replace the Els, but again that decision was made 20-30 years after the Els were built. I have yet to see anything that suggests the Els were constructed with an idea that they would only be temporary stopgaps until a subway system was in place. At the time they were built (1880s-90s) the Els were the first word in transit technology. Subways really didn’t take hold in the US until the turn of the 20th Century.

  18. Charles Says:

    In London there’s the Docklands Light Railway system (it uses full-sized trains with high-level platforms and not what one would consider “light rail” equipment).

    The first section opened in 1987 and has since been greatly expanded. It runs on snaking elevated structures running very close to adjacent buildings, residential and commercial, all of which have been constructed SINCE the line opened.

    People don’t seem to mind living next to el trains anymore. Look at Chicago. Nobody seems bothered.

    Personally, I think if the Third Avenue El had survived till the 1980s it would’ve become a tourist attraction, especially if the ornate Victorian stations with their lovely ironwork and beautiful stained-glass windows had been restored.

    • David Lippman Says:

      I agree…today there might be an effort to preserve the Third Avenue El, particularly with the newer and quieter trains, and the laws that require preservation of historic structure. But the world is about POWER….getting it, having it, using it, getting more of it, and real estate kingpins HAVE IT.

  19. Phil van Leeuwen Says:

    The Chicago Els bring with them stations that are direct ways onto the whole CTA system from adjacent residential buildings and are really more appreciated now than ever before. New Yorkers have always been a bit more class-conscious than other city’s residents so were inclined to not appreciate the elevated systems. As to the noise, one gets used to it and it is not a negative after time passes.

  20. S.J. Says:

    A Manhattan El train line plays a significant role in Sidney Lumet’s “Twelve Angry Men” of 1957…

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