The curious el train in the nocturnal 1930s city

When this lithograph was made by Leonard Pytlak in 1935, Manhattan’s elevated train lines were still screeching and lurching up and down the city’s major avenues.

Already made obsolete by subways and buses and soon to be dismantled, the el trains were noisy pieces of machinery that operated high above sidewalks yet helped transform late 19th century Gotham from a horse-powered town to a mighty metropolis of steel tracks.

But if the trains were emblems of the modern machine age, why is the lone figure crossing the nighttime street below the tracks so much larger than the train itself? And why is the street no wider than an alley?

My guess is that Pytlak might be trying to humanize the el train, giving us a Modernist scene of out of proportion shapes with the soft light of Post-Impressionism. There’s also the influence of Ashcan social realism here: a Belgian block city street lined with a hotel and tenements.

Born in 1910, Pytlak was a lithographer who studied at the Art Students League and worked for the New York City WPA Graphics Program from 1934 to 1941, according to the Illinois State Museum. The museum has this strangely alluring lithograph, titled “Uptown,” in its collection.

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4 Responses to “The curious el train in the nocturnal 1930s city”

  1. Uptown, Leonard Pytlak – This isnt happiness Says:

    […] Uptown, Leonard Pytlak […]

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Artistic license!

  3. countrypaul Says:

    This gets into my “almost, nearly, but not quite” department. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but while I like the idea of this, I’ll pass on the execution. That said, I would have loved to have seen Manhattan from its els.

  4. Greg Says:

    I like the colors.

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