Two men, an el train, and a produce market in a 1945 mystery painting

Figuring out the location of a long-ago image depicting some part of New York City is a fun challenge. So when a reader sent me this painting—the basis for a 1945 Mack truck ad—looking for information on where the scene was set, I was intrigued.

“The caption for the ad said ‘An old AC Mack Bulldog Nose truck at the New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market,'” explained the reader.

“Peter Helck, the artist who painted this scene (also my grandfather) was born in Manhattan and lived or worked there most of his life, so he knew the city very well. I believe this represents an actual location and I am hoping you might be able to identify it.”

References to the ‘New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market’ turned up vague information. But considering that Manhattan’s main produce market in 1945 was the sprawling Washington Market (above, in 1962), centered on Washington Street and spilling over from Fulton to Chambers Streets and beyond in today’s Tribeca, I figured that was the location of the painting.

The confusing thing, though, was the elevated train—which appears to be a true el, not the High Line, which ran a mostly straight line in and out of warehouses. The closest elevated train to Washington Market would have been the Ninth Avenue Elevated. which ran a block over on Greenwich Street. Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover any images of the Ninth Avenue El on the Lower West Side with such a pronounced curve in it.

But could that curved track run farther up Ninth Avenue beside what’s still known as the Meatpacking District (above in 1938)—a 19th century wholesale market that by the 1940s primarily handled meat and poultry? The Belgian block street certainly look like today’s Little West 12th or Gansevoort Street.

Turns out at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street (below, in 1940), the el does make a curve similar to the curve in the painting. Problem is, the Ninth Avenue el was dismantled in 1940.

Could the artist have added an el train per artistic license? Is the date of the painting earlier than thought? A little more detective work needs to be done.

[Painting: courtesy Tim Helck; first photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 43.131.6.152; third photo: MCNY X2010.26.171]

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18 Responses to “Two men, an el train, and a produce market in a 1945 mystery painting”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Fascinating! I would also say that’s 9th Ave & 14th St, walked along that curve many times. Can imagine an El train up there, as it once was. My compliments to the reader who shared the very nice painting.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I was struck by the painting as well and really hoped to find the exact location. The somewhat rounded red wholesale building threw me as well.

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Possibly the artist used on old photo reference that happened to work well for the composition!

  3. actiondavek Says:

    I used to live — for two years — at 9th and 14th — above the Homestead — even though he’s delivering produce, it feels like the meat packing district (the cobblestone street, red 2-3 story buildings).

  4. chas1133 Says:

    It Seems with the unique architecture behind the truck it would be easier to identify if the building was still standing…Seaport…?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m leaning away from the Seaport area because to my knowledge no produce wholesale market existed there in the 1940s. And I don’t think an el train ran close by, as the el train in the painting does.

  5. DIRNDL SKIRT Says:

    I vote artistic license, to serve the composition. The curve of the El repeats the hood and wheels of the truck, the driver’s arched neck, the barrels on the truck, the windows of the warehouse. It also serves to eclipse the brooding sky to enclose the viewer into a 1940s mood, almost noir-ish. A gorgeous painting! Thank you for sharing.

  6. mvschulze Says:

    Regardless of the puzzle, I love the 3D image.

  7. John T Says:

    It does look like the 9th Avenue elevated, which had lattice vertical columns like those in the picture, as well as 3ctracks & the curve south of 14th Street, but there was no market beneath it, just 9th Svenue.
    My guess is to focus on the truck, other vehicles were omitted, and the artist’s memory of that curve was still strong. Bet he lived it worked nearby in Greenwich Village.

  8. Steve Rappaaport Says:

    The Yeckes-Eichenbaum Building shown in the picture was located at 335 Washington Street, New York 13, NY.

  9. Tom B Says:

    The painting reminds me of two movies that are years apart. THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart and SPLASH with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.

  10. velovixen Says:

    I think the artist took license: He probably was trying to capture the essence or feeling, rather than a strict representation, of early morning work in the city.

    So he may have used 14th Street and 9th Avenue (or some other locale) as a starting point, if you will, and did what he needed to do in order to render the sensations of such a scene.

    Anyway, I like the painting very much.

  11. Kiwiwriter Says:

    I say it’s artistic license.

  12. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think artistic license is the answer here, thanks all!

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