What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window

“The elevated railroad, perpetually ‘tearing along’ on its stilted, aerial highway, was ‘an ever-active volcano over the heads of inoffensive citizens,” wrote one Australian visitor who came to New York in 1888.

38 Greenwich Street in 1914

That description gives us an idea of the feel of Gotham in the late 19th century, when steam-powered (later electric) elevated trains carried by trestles and steel tracks ran overhead on Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues.

The upside to the elevated was obvious: For a nickel (or a dime during off hours), people could travel up and down Manhattan much more quickly than by horse-drawn streetcar of carriage. New tenements, row houses, and entertainment venues popped up uptown, slowly emptying the lower city and giving people more breathing room.

Bronx, undated

The downside? Dirt and din. The trains and tracks cast shadows along busy avenues, raining down dust and debris on pedestrians. (No wonder Gilded Age residents who could afford to changed their clothes multiple times a day!) And then there was the deafening noise every time a train chugged above your ears.

Now as unpleasant as the elevated trains could be in general, imagine having the tracks at eye level to your living quarters. Life with a train roaring by at all hours of the night was reality for thousands of New Yorkers, particularly downtown on slender streets designed for horsecars, not trestles.

Allen Street north of Canal Street, 1931

“The effect of the elevated—the ‘L’ as New Yorkers generally call it—is to my mind anything but beautiful,” wrote an English traveler named Walter G. Marshall, who visited New York City 1878 and 1879.

“As you sit in a car on the ‘L’ and are being whirled along, you can put your head out of the window and salute a friend who is walking on the street pavement below. In some places, where the streets are narrow, the railway is built right over the ‘sidewalks’…close up against the walls of the houses.”

Second Avenue and 34th Street, 1880s

Maybe these unfortunate New Yorkers lived in a tenement before the trains came along, and they couldn’t find alternative housing after the elevated was built beside their building. Or perhaps in the crowded city teeming with newcomers at the time, a flat next to a train was the best they could find with what little they had to spend.

Wrote Marshall: “The 19 hours and more of incessant rumbling day and night from the passing trains; the blocking out of a sufficiency of light from the rooms of houses, close up to which the lines are built; the full, close view passengers on the cars can have into rooms on the second and third floors; the frequent squirting of oil from the engines, sometimes even finding its way into the private rooms of a dwelling-house, when the windows are left open—all these are objections that have been reasonably urged by unfortunate occupants of houses who comfort has been so unjustly molested….”

Allen Street, 1916

Eye-level elevated trains continued into the 20th century, with above ground subway tracks as well as older els making it more likely that New Yorkers could find themselves with a train rattling and shaking their windows.

And it’s still an issue today, of course, even with those original el lines long dismantled. Tenements and apartment buildings near bridge approaches, tunnel entrances, and above ground subway tracks are still at the mercy of mass transit in a city still of narrow streets, single pane windows, and rickety real estate.

Convergence of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Els, 1938

[Top photo: MCNY x2010.11.2127; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: MCNYx2010.11.4; fourth photo: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth photo: MCNY MNY38078; sixth photo: MCNY MN11786]

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15 Responses to “What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window”

  1. boxwoodbooks Says:

    And perhaps even living at eye level with the El noisily shuffling by wasn’t a fate worse than death for many tens of thousands who were grateful for a roof, a room, some warmth and the dry as a first step in their new country before they might be able to afford to move to Queens, Brooklyn or to somewhere else in the city.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Agreed, I’m sure the roar of the el was nothing compared to the strife and conflict of their home countries.

  2. Susan Klaiber Says:

    Could be worse. In Berlin there are (and have been) elevated trains that go right *through* buildings.


  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    One of the earliest memory I have is riding the 3rd Ave El in the 1950s. I think we were going to the Bronx Zoo, I remember the subway ride but not the animals. Anyway the animals have taken over the subways by now.

  4. Tom Dulski Says:

    My wife lived in a 3rd floor apartment in Coney Island and the subway was close to her window. After a while you get used to it and don’t even pay attention.

  5. Greg Says:

    That photo of the Bronx doesn’t look very Bronx-ey. I wonder where it is.

    • Greg Says:

      In fact, in the picture you can faintly see a sign “251 Bradley and Smith Brushes” – that seems to have been on Pearl Street, and I think that is what we are looking at.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        I looked at that photo for a long time and agreed, it didn’t look like the Bronx. But the New-York Historical Society labeled it as such, so I went with it. Glad you pointed this out and did a little digging.

  6. Andrew Porter Says:

    My very first night in NYC as a 10-year-old whose family moved back here (I was born elsewhere) in 1956 was the electric flash and the sound of the trains along the tracks above River Avenue—fortunately, a block away from the window, across a park—in the Bronx. The days before air conditioning, when the windows were wide open to the strange sounds of the city!

  7. caryl koses Says:

    We lived on 71st off 3rd ave.Loved the sound of the el.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  8. countrypaul Says:

    It was cool to stgare into people’s houses as you rode by. Still is in parts of the Bronx!

  9. Adam Horne Says:

    I’m a lifelong New Yorker… born a good bit after the last El came down. I’ve always wished I could’ve ridden over tracks that had those big commercial buildings towering over them. The 1938 photo of the convergence of the 6th and 9th Avenue Els is a great example of what I mean. I get the same feeling when I see videos of Chicago’s elevated; sort of cavernous – a different experience from what’s going on down below on the avenue…!

  10. tom vici Says:

    The Bronx has at least 3 el’s.Queens has a couple.

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