Death Avenue Revisited

For nearly 100 years, giant steam locomotives (and later diesels) rumbled through the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, serving warehouses and industries via a route known as “Death Avenue.”

Jan. 18, 1930 cover by Constantin Alajalov (who apparently had just visited St. Moritz, home of the 1928 Winter Olympics).

Beginning in 1846, freight trains began operating at street level along 10th, 11th and 12th avenues. When mixed with an ever-growing crush of pedestrians, wagons, cars and trucks — hundreds were killed or mutilated, many of them schoolchildren. One of these streets, 10th Avenue, earned the moniker “Death Avenue” for its large share of fatalities. Although protests over the unsafe rail lines had been going on for decades, it wasn’t until 1929 that an agreement was reached to build an elevated rail system (which is now the popular High Line elevated park). In late December 1929 Mayor Jimmy Walker pried out the first spike at 11th Avenue and 60th Street. In “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White wryly observed:

GOOD OLD DAYS…Freight trains were introduced to the west side warehouse district in 1846. Block-long trains would run through cross streets and congested traffic, maiming and killing along the way (image at left circa 1920). At some point in the late 19th century trains were required to send a man ahead on horseback waving a red warning flag (see images at right, circa 1900); nevertheless, in the decade 1890-1900 nearly 200 deaths were recorded, mostly schoolchildren from nearby tenements. please click image to enlarge.
WESTSIDE COWBOYs…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue near 41st Street in the 1920s; men on horseback, known as the West Side Cowboys, rode ahead of the trains to warn pedestrians. Image at top right is of cowboy William Connolly on 11th Avenue in 1932; the last ride — George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the elevated track lifted most freight train traffic 30 feet in the air. Today the High Line serves as a mile-and-a-half-long elevated park, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

A New Yorker illustrator/cartoonist who spent a lot of time hanging around the working class neighborhoods on the West Side was Reginald Marsh. One of the first cartoonists employed by the New Yorker, Marsh was also a “Social Realist” painter who had studied with the Art Students League. The prevailing theme at the League was life among the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless, especially after the market crash of 1929. For the Jan. 18 issue Marsh contributed this cartoon featuring a Death Avenue subject…

…more than two years earlier (the Nov. 5, 1927 issue) Marsh provided this illustration of life on Death Avenue…

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Birds of a Feather 

And speaking of the down and out, E.B. White commented on the thousands of panicked citizens who had flocked to the New York Life Insurance Company in search of some peace of mind under the wing of its leader Darwin P. Kingsley (1857-1932). Kingsley steered the company through the market crash relatively unscathed, thanks to its investments in government bonds and real estate, and not in common stocks.

DARWIN’S LAW…Darwin P. Kingsley saw the New York Life Insurance Company through the stock market crash. The company’s assets weathered the crash thanks to investments in government bonds and real estate, and not common stocks. At right, the New York Life Building at 51 Madison Avenue, designed by architect Cass Gilbert and opened in December 1928.(retropundit.wordpress.com)

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Oh Dear Me

As I’ve noted before, the New Yorker loved taking swipes at the New York Times, especially when the somewhat puritanical “Old Gray Lady” found it challenging to cover the more salacious side of life. In this case, according to E.B. White, it was the subject matter of a 1930 Broadway play Waterloo Bridge

LES BELLES IMPURES…Actress June Walker (pictured here circa 1920) portrayed chorus girl Myra Deauville in the 1930 Broadway play Waterloo Bridge. In the play Myra finds herself out of work and stuck in London during World War I. She resorts to, um, prostitution to support herself. (IBDB)

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Nerd Alert

White also got a kick from reading accounts (presumably in the Times) about Albert Einstein’s “lecture” at the American Museum of Natural History. According to the New York Times’ Michael Pollak (F.Y.I., Aug. 10, 2012), “an unruly crowd of 4,500 stampeded through the (museum) to see a movie about Einstein’s work…it became known — relatively speaking — as the Einstein riot.”

JUST CHILLIN’…Albert Einstein circa 1930. The scientist was safely elsewhere when a science-crazed mob stormed the doors of the American Museum of Natural History, which was screening a film on the theory of relativity. (AP)

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Not Ready For My Closeup

The actress Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was a major star during the silent era who saw her career wane with the advent of the talkies, and then suddenly soar again with her unforgettable portrayal of reclusive silent film star Norma Desmond in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. In her profile of the actress, Helena Huntington Smith seemed to suggest that Swanson was something of an ugly duckling who managed to transcend her looks through a process of graceful maturation (Abe Birnbaum’s caricature notwithstanding). Some excerpts:

GLORIOUS FACES…Abe Birnbaum no doubt drew from images like these for his caricature of Gloria Swanson. From left, Swanson in a cloche hat in an undated photo; publicity photo for her 1928 film Sadie Thompson; publicity photo for 1929’s The Trespasser, Swanson’s first all-talking picture. (Pinterest/pixels.com)

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Good-Bye and Good Luck

Not too many 33 year olds write autobiographies, but then again Robert Graves was no typical 33-year-old. Good-Bye to All That, which Graves later described as “my bitter leave-taking of England,” was reviewed in the Jan. 18 “Recent Books” column. Note in the first paragraph how the reviewer (A.W.S.) suggested that writing about World War I (which ended less than 12 years earlier) was getting better “as the shock of the actual catastrophe wears off.” This is not unlike the writings (and films) about Viet Nam that began to emerge in the 1980s and 90s. An excerpt:

A LOT ON HIS MIND…from left, Robert Graves served in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in World War I (photo is probably from 1915); first edition of his autobiography Good-Bye to All That, which he published at age 33; Graves in 1935. (Oxford U/Wikipedia/fundaciorobertgraves.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with this elegant ad for a new art deco beauty salon at the Abraham & Straus department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn…

…for reference, a photo of salon, from 1930…

…the Jan. 18 issue contained a slew of ads enticing New Yorkers to flee the winter and head south — smartly attired, of course — like the couple in the upper right hand corner who look fashionably disinterested as they head out for some “playtime” in Havana (love the man’s combo black tie and bucket hat)…

…and you have to hand it to the folks at Sterling, who put the chic into high-powered boat engines…

…this has to be one of the very few times, perhaps the only time, that a toilet seat was advertised in the New Yorker…note how the folks at the Church company played on consumers’ social anxieties, proffering the suggestion that an old toilet seat might be the one thing that lingers in the memories of your houseguests…

…of course a lot of people eased their anxieties by lighting up, something they didn’t have to worry about because they were told it was actually good for their health (the manufacturers of Old Golds, for example, claimed their cigarettes created a “smoke screen” that kept away colds and other “throat dangers”). Not to be left behind, the makers of Lucky Strikes claimed their “toasting” process removed “dangerous irritants”…

…speaking of Old Golds, cartoonist John Held Jr. picked up some extra pocket change with this “woodcut” illustration for the brand…

…as for Held’s fellow New Yorker cartoonists, we have some more social anxiety courtesy of Alan Dunn

…a bit of chit chat among society ladies…Barbara Shermund looked in on a pair down in Palm Springs…

…while Helen Hokinson found her ladies contemplating new economic realities…

…and finally we have Peter Arno, and a punch line that failed to land…

Next Time: Strike Up The Band!

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.

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