Death Avenue Days

Before the elevated tracks were constructed in the early 1930s in Manhattan’s west side warehouse district (home of today’s popular “High Line”), freight trains rumbled through the city–at street level–on “Death Avenue.”

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November 5, 1927 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Freight trains were introduced to the west side warehouse district in 1846, which was a bad plan from the very start. Block-long trains would run through cross streets and congested traffic, maiming and killing along the way.

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ON YOUR LEFT!…Both diesel and steam locomotives rumbled along Manhattan avenues well into the 20th century. Pictured is a freight train at 11th and 41st Street. Eleventh was known as “Death Avenue.” (Forgotten NY)

According to Friends of the High Line, “an 1892 New York World article referred to the trains as ‘a monster which has menaced them night and day,’ and by 1908 the Bureau of Municipal Research claimed that since 1852, the trains had killed 436 people. A New York Times piece from the same year reported that in the preceding decade there had been almost 200 deaths, mostly of children.”

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MIXED USE…This circa 1920 photo shows the congestion that occurred when freight trains, horse-drawn carts, cars, and pedestrians used the same streets. (Kalmbach Publishing Company)
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SHOWDOWN…Beginning in 1850, the West Side Cowboys rode ahead of oncoming trains to ensure the safety of people on the street, although statistics show that some did not heed the warnings. (Friends of the High Line)

The safety issues on Death Avenue were finally addressed in 1929 when city and state officials reached an agreement with New York Central Railroad to move the rail above street level. New elevated tracks opened in 1934 were novel in the way they bisected city blocks, unloading cargo directly into buildings in the district.

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THIS WORKED BETTER…The elevated tracks served warehouses including one for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), pictured above, which today houses another popular High Line attraction, the Chelsea Market. (Friends of the High Line)
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A New York Central Railroad advertisement touting the benefits of its elevated West Side Line, which today supports a unique and popular urban park–the High Line. (Friends of the High Line)

The elevated West Side Line’s unique design also complements the current use of the tracks–the High Line, one of New York’s most popular tourist draws and a widely successful example of urban reuse and renewal. Today few visitors to the High Line are aware that the peaceful oasis they now enjoy was once a dangerous and chaotic place that was home to the aptly named Death Avenue…

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NOT SO BAD, THIS…Visitors to the High Line enjoy a peaceful oasis above the former “Death Avenue.” (Friends of the High Line)

What prompted my interest in Death Avenue was this illustration by Reginald Marsh in the Nov. 5, 1927 issue of the New Yorker:

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Marsh (1898-1954) joined the New Yorker as one of its first cartoonists, and stayed there for seven years. He was practically born an artist, growing up in an artists’ colony in New Jersey where his father worked as a noted muralist and his mother made watercolors. After graduating from Yale he went to work of the Daily News, where he contributed sketches of vaudeville acts and illustrated a column titled “People We’d Like to Kill but Don’t.”

Described as a “Social Realist” painter, Marsh studied painting at the Art Students League, where the prevailing theme was life among the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless, especially after the market crash in 1929…

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WHY NOT USE THE “L”?…the title of a 1930 work by Reginald Marsh. (Whitney Museum of Art)
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SELF REFLECTION…Reginald Marsh with one of his self-portrait paintings, circa 1938. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Write What You Know

Among other items in the Nov. 5, 1927 issue was this profile written by Charles Shaw of fellow New Yorker contributor (artist and writer) Ralph Barton. An excerpt, with sketch by Peter Arno…

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By Any Other Name

As it still does today, the New Yorker listed area happenings in the front section of the magazine, and in the early days the magazine included extensive listings of sporting events. The excerpt below offers various diversions from a “hunt race” to “squash tennis.” There were also professional football games featuring such mighty foes as the New York Giants and the Duluth Eskimos…

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Before the age of smart phones, the term “smart” in advertising meant one was on the leading edge of fashion–for aspiring young women this meant all things French–clothes, perfumes, beauty treatments–and for the bride, the all-important trousseaux, or so claimed this advertisement from Franklin Simon & Co. on page five of the Nov. 5 issue…

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Couldn’t afford the latest from Paris? In that case you could turn to the back pages of the same issue, where you would find cheaper ads from places like Kathleen, Inc, which sold knock-offs of the latest in haute couture

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 *  *  *

And finally, we return to Reginald Marsh, who contributed this cartoon to the Nov. 5 issue…

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Next Time: The Shape of Things to Come…

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Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

2 thoughts on “Death Avenue Days”

    1. Hi AnnieJ. You should be getting notifications if you are following the post. There is a “Follow” box at the bottom right hand corner where you can enter your email address. If that doesn’t work I will check it out with WordPress.

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