It has been about 70 years since the landmark Third Avenue Elevated Line started closing in sections in anticipation for its deconstruction. Though most of us are now accustomed to commuting below ground, Carson Davidson’s 1954 short film, 3rd Avenue El gives us a peek at the vibrancy that the Third Avenue El, one of four lines that traversed Manhattan, once brought to various neighborhoods in New York.
Noteworthy for portraying vintage city life and the dynamic atmosphere of the subway line, 3rd Avenue El won several awards and an Academy Award nomination in 1956. The low budget film — which features Haydn’s Concerto in D played by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (for which she was only paid $200 for) — depicts commuters and city dwellers during a summer day.
Davidson was working at a relatively unknown film production company when he decided to borrow a camera and shoot scenes around the Third Avenue El. His finished product was rejected by every distributor in New York City but was eventually played for seven months at The Paris Theater.
Constructed between 1875 and 1878 by an independent railway company, New York Elevated Railway Company, the Third Avenue El started as a steam-powered railroad, and grew through mergers and acquisitions until it eventually extended from South Ferry all the way to 133rd Street in The Bronx. However, the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company’s (IRT) Lexington Avenue line in 1904 caused a decline in ridership the more subways started getting used.
The Third Avenue El would later go on to be the last elevated line to operate in Manhattan, and was eventually acquired by the IRT to become part of the New York City subway system. During its time running, however, it served as a backdrop for many iconic movies including 12 Angry Men (1957) and On the Town. Alongside those films, Davidson’s video provides us with a window into a very different city and era of the New York City transit system, reminding viewers of a time when many subway lines were above ground. For more on the history of the subway, also make sure to join us for an upcoming tour: