Beauty and humanity in a Third Avenue El film

In 1955—before the shutdown of the Third Avenue El between Chatham Square and East 149th Street in the Bronx—a filmmaker named Carson Davidson took his camera up to a lonely platform and into one of the mostly empty trains.

With just weeks to go before the train and this main portion of the elevated would be trucked to the scrapyard, Davidson and a group of actors shot a haunting Impressionist short film.

The El may have been destined for the wrecking ball, yet Davidson’s film brings it alive—the iron spine of a city snaking between the tenements of Lower and Upper Manhattan and then over the Third Avenue Bridge into the Bronx.

The voiceless characters feel familiar, but they’re not cliches. A man sleeps, a couple plays cards. A stumblebum gets on near the Bowery and tries to wring one last drop out of a bottle of liquor. A little girl excitedly takes a seat.

Out the train windows we see the geometrical shadows of the railings on platforms. The camera turns to the train itself, a metal machine screeching and lurching high above sidewalks while a harpsichord plays as a soundtrack.

During the ride Davidson captures a street cleaner, faded ads, puddles on paving stones, the Chrysler Building, laundry lines, the Harlem River, and a tugboat belching smoke as a swing bridge aligns itself so the train can keep going.

The Third Avenue El threads the characters’ stories, as does a coin caught in the floor of the train car. Each character tries and fails to grab it.

Finally at night, a young couple boards. Amid glimpses of a Horn and Hardart Automat sign and a movie marquee, the male half of  the couple picks up and pockets the coin.

A director and artist I know had this to add about Davidson’s Oscar-nominated short:

“Although the filmmaker is fascinated with mechanics and shapes, it is always softened by humanity, the sympathetic characters. It’s literally a day in the life of the El which ends, after all those geometrically composed images, romantically with the lovers getting the coin.”

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18 Responses to “Beauty and humanity in a Third Avenue El film”

  1. Mykole Mick Dementiuk Says:

    I’ve seen the film before but it’s still a fascinating nostalgic delight to see it again. I was on the 14 station in the 1950s after we had come to America. I was just a babe but like other riders on the train I fell asleep until I was awoken at the Bronx Zoo. Thanks for reviving an old memory.

  2. Ty Says:

    As a kid I’d sometimes forget to switch from street talk to in-the-house talk and my mother would yell “Stop talking like you’re from Third Avenue.”

    I think that the jury is in that what replaced this is a glass-walled, traffic-choked, modernist nightmare.

    I wonder if there would be interest in digitally cleaning it up or would that ruin it?

  3. Greg Says:

    Great find!

  4. greg chown Says:

    Another interesting time capsule. I’m always amazed at how much effort and money is spent on structures that seem to have a short lifespan.

    • Ty Says:

      The city knew they were disruptive and lowered property values when they allowed them to be built. The elevated trains were considered mostly temporary relief from chronic overcrowding due to massive immigration until they had locked down the technology and public acceptance of underground transit. Electricity was a new technology and many people believed there were vapors underground that spread disease. (I inhaled some of those vapors just this morning).

      After the war under pressure from real estate interests they tore down the Third Avenue line without ever completing the Second Avenue subway which turned riding the Lex into a contact sport.

  5. A. Mantone Says:

    How about the 1 cent gum machines on the platforms.I couldn’t wait for the penny from my mom….

  6. mvschulze Says:

    I just love this film!!! From start to finish it just presents so many relatable images and powerful human affection. In 1955 I would have been about the age of the young girl, and probably as excited at the adventure as she. M 🙂

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Glad you liked it and it sparked long lost memories! There’s something about it, strangely beautiful and touching.

  8. Timothy Grier Says:

    Wonderful film! I was born in 1955 so this is the New York I remember from my earliest years. The two images that jumped out at me were of the hanging laundry at the 6:57 mark and the horse drawn fruit and vegetable wagon at the 8:22 mark. I think you recently did a post on the practice of hanging laundry in old New York. I can remember a few working horses in my youth but I think they were all gone by about 1963. Interesting.

  9. M.K.E. Says:

    Sheer magic. I was born on Long Island a few years after this film was made. My father, who grew up near Columbia, loved The City (there really isn’t any other City with a capital C) when I was a baby. Any time I view images of The City from the 1930s through the 1950s, I look for him. Thank you.

  10. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    This reminds me of family stories I’ve heard of riding the elevated in the 1940s and 1950s too. I wonder what it felt like to live along Third Avenue in the 1950s and all of sudden the tracks are gone, and the street is bathed in sunshine.

  11. Mark Says:

    Stumblebum, what a lovely word!

  12. Ty Says:

    DA Pennebakers first film in 1953 about the Third Avenue El set to Duke Ellington’s Daybreak Express. All chaotic but you can see how that reflected the feelings behind post war Third Avenue’s rapid transformation including the destruction of this very subject. And America’s feelings when writ large.

    The trip to modernity was not an easy ride and we’re not so sure now that we’re here.

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