Third Avenue

This is the third in a series of posts about New York.

The other day, I was reading a New York Times feature piece about the work of Hans Hoffman. It wasn’t even A-section stuff – this had been relegated to the NY-Region pages. The piece went on and on about Hoffman’s murals – of which there are two – and mentioned tangentially that in NY’s rich tradition of public art, his murals were almost easy to overlook, despite being large and bold and out there for all to see. For instance, on the walls of the former High School of Printing in the high 40’s between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

What struck me about the article, though, was not the minutiae about mural work (did you know that the tiles used in a mural are called tesserae? Did you care?) it was this:

He was commissioned by the developer William Kaufman and the architect William Lescaze to create a four-sided mural wrapping around the central elevator core of a new office building at 711 Third Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets. The 20-story tower was among the first to be constructed as the Third Avenue elevated subway came down.

Come again? Why had I never heard of this elevated train? I stopped reading about Hoffman after the elevated train thing came into play.

I used to live between Second and Third Avenues, in the East 70s. I thought I knew everything there was to know about that corridor. Apparently not.

The elevated train that ran up Third Avenue was constructed between 1875 – 1878 by the New York Elevated Railway Company, and by the turn of the 20th century, the line had been changed hands twice, finally going to the Interboro Rapid Transit Company in a 999-year lease deal.

The line ran directly up the centre of Manhattan and into the Bronx – from City Hall to Gun Hill Road.


(Source: Wikipedia)

Service was short-lived, at least, in terms of the life of a railway system. By the 1950s, service was completely terminated throughout Manhattan, and service on the entire line was ended by 1973. Some parts were replaced by bus service; others just faded into oblivion.

You might have seen the trains in the films 12 Angry Men, or On the Bowery. Otherwise, you might never have known that these trains existed at all. You might have thought the elevated train scenes were something out of Chicago or maybe, they were the 6 trains through the Bronx.

But that’s the thing about New York – things that were once hulking and prominent disappear without a trace. A generation later, they’re completely forgotten – replaced by the skyscrapers that everyone thinks had always been there.

Eventually, I finished reading the article about Mr. Hoffman, the muralist, who – as I mentioned earlier – finished only two murals in his lifetime. Can one a muralist if you only finish two? In New York, you can, I guess. The last thing that struck me was this:

It is much easier to view Mr. Hofmann’s mural for the High School of Printing, designed by Kelly & Gruzen, which now houses the High School of Graphic Communication Arts and others. Ease of access has a disadvantage. At the moment, a graffito mars one of the succulently corn-yellow panels. It is to be removed soon, after which the whole mural will be cleaned.

We New Yorkers are a people who like to forget, I think. Or maybe the sinkhole of memory that is New York City was created for this specific purpose – to suck into it all the interesting things from generations, and spit them out later, in different forms, for different purposes, to be rediscovered.

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