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Dividing Brooklyn

by Annel Hernandez Chapter 1: A Packed Train When Theresa King heard that the Myrtle Avenue Elevated Train was going to be destroyed, she knew...

Gedney_Dismantle

Myrtle Ave El (1969) Myrtle Ave El being dismantled in the neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Courtesy of William Gedney Photographs and Writings, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

by Annel Hernandez

Chapter 1: A Packed Train

When Theresa King heard that the Myrtle Avenue Elevated Train was going to be destroyed, she knew instinctively that she had to ride “The El” once more.

When she had lived in the neighborhood of Clinton Hill, King rode the train every day, getting on in the morning at the Franklin Avenue station and getting off there at night. She remembered hearing the rumble and quickly running out of her apartment to catch the arriving train. As a dancer, she ran for the El more gracefully than most commuters. For her, the elevated tracks had grandeur. Her elegance complemented it. King fondly remembered her endless trips on the Myrtle El. Losing the El reminded her of the destruction of New York’s old Pennsylvania Station in 1963 – another place of grandeur that had vanished from the cityscape. 

On October 4, 1969, just a few minutes after midnight, the last train departed from the Jay Street station, filled to capacity with eager riders. King was only one of thousands of people who flocked to the Myrtle Avenue El for one last ride. It was a celebratory goodbye party for the outdated train that carried so many people to work, to school, and to other endless destinations for 80 years.

News reporters, students, railway buffs, local residents and others jammed onto the last train. The diverse crowd was so excited it literally spilled out of the train. Leaning out of the old wooden windows of the train, people waved their hands, some holding up peace signs as their pictures were taken. 

With her camera in hand, King had spent hours riding the Myrtle El back and forth on that last day. She felt compelled to photograph the structural icon and the people who rode it daily. She knew she was riding on a piece of history. In her lifetime, King saw New York City lose so much charm and beauty, and she wanted to document it for future generations to enjoy and treasure. 

Val Bartoli, a student at the Pratt Institute of art, remarked to the New York Times, “This is the only train in New York City that’s worth taking.” And New Yorkers took the train home with them: Riders peeled the advertisements off the wall, ripped the leather hand straps off the poles, lifted entire seats and cushions, and carried them all the way home on their shoulders. These were priceless souvenirs for Brooklynites.

For some, the destruction of the Myrtle Avenue El was met with less nostalgia. William Gedney had watched the Myrtle El run, brake, screech, and accelerate just a few feet outside his window. His relationship with the Myrtle El was never simple. He ruminated on the essence of the El, filling two diaries dedicated solely to the street in front of his apartment. 

On some days he saw an empty iron monster, and on others he photographed the playful shadows of the latticework, the peaking sunlight, and the people underneath. Gedney meticulously transcribed his research and thoughts into his Myrtle diaries, inspired by literature and newspapers from the early days of the El.  

In the late nineteenth century, the Myrtle Avenue El replaced horse carriages that could no longer sustain the burgeoning population of Brooklyn. The City of Brooklyn passed a bill in 1879 giving the privately owned Kings County Elevated Railway Company the power to build over certain streets and avenues. The elevated lines went up quickly, connecting communities and rapidly changing the face of the city. For many the elevated trains represented mobility and opportunity; for others, it represented a disregard for property owners.

For over eighty years, the El dominated and characterized the neighborhood, and to Gedney it was “no longer able to fill the needs of contemporary city life.” In 1969, Gedney was an emerging artist and teacher at Pratt Institute, where many young people formed their ideas on Modernist aesthetics. He pored over the works of writers, including Henry Miller, who wrote that Myrtle Avenue exemplified “the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment.”

Elevated trains in New York City first began to decline when they met competition from underground subways. The first subway opened in 1904, and in the next fifty years the momentum of new technology that enabled the construction of underground subways and subsequently underwater tunnels positioned elevated structures as a relic of the past.

By the late 1960s, only a few elevated trains continued to make their daily trips across the city’s neighborhoods. The era of Modernism claimed many structures on which New Yorkers relied and even treasured. Modernism in cities meant highways, high-rises, “clean” and often sterile architecture – all of which actually led to less livable cities for city dwellers. These forces changed the pulse of American cities across the country – from the demolished Els of Brooklyn to the vanished streetcars of Los Angeles.

In 1966, the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare, already accustomed to the destruction of elevated trains, released a resolution requesting that the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) act decisively to remove the blight from the community. The council did not spare any poetry in crafting its incendiary language. The resolution read: 

In the demoralizing shadow of its gloomy canopy there is cultivated an atmosphere of decay, depravity, dereliction and crime, exposing the community’s health well being, security and economy to its ravages.

The resolution briefly asserted that ridership, and therefore revenue, had decreased, justifying a swift removal and denial of funds for rehabilitation. 

The council disguised one of its main goals by using vague language, “the structure greatly diminishes the light, air, and access of the surrounding areas.” Here, the definition of access is geared toward real estate developers, who greatly benefited from markedly increased property values from elevated train removals in Manhattan. George Swetnick, representing another nearby Brooklyn neighborhood led this resolution – seemingly unaware of local community concerns.

Moreover, the resolution was disconnected from the extensive urban renewal planning concurrently happening throughout the communities adjacent to the Myrtle El. Urban renewal projects created new high-rise public housing developments that only increased the population of these communities. It was a counter-intuitive policy to build housing and destroy transportation options simultaneously. The projected tenants of public housing would most likely heavily rely on public transportation.

A few months later, the NYCTA released a report justifying the discontinuance and demolition of eight stations on the Myrtle El. The report was inconsistent at best. It highlighted a decrease in ridership over the last year, yet the previous year showed an increase – meaning there was no clear evidence of decline. The report sought to eliminate an operating loss, and replace it with increased bus service that would instead produce profit. 

Increased bus transportation was indeed cheaper in monetary terms, but failed to consider the social costs. Dissenters knew that buses on Myrtle Avenue would create traffic congestion, additional pollution, and lengthier commutes.

The alternative, modernizing the elevated line for continued service, was projected by the NYCTA to cost a total of $11,900,000. Gradually, it would have been feasible for the NYCTA to earn enough money from fare box collections or government grants to modernize the line. Other proposals included the development of a lightweight trains that would run well on the old structure – the design was requested but never purchased.

A sleek 1968 NYCTA brochure touted the “exciting new subway car,” with a full-page spread of the train. It presented strap-hangers with “a tunnel under the East River and new lines for rapid transit.” Along with a glossy photograph of well-dressed commuters, the brochure detailed new train routes, train lines to be reconstructed, and those to be demolished. The brochure, definitively and peculiarly, overlooked the looming destruction of the Myrtle Avenue El.  

New York City Mayor John Lindsay promoted a multi-billion dollar program to expand and modernize the city’s urban transportation system. Lindsay’s vision for New York City also included the completion of an extensive highway system. These new highways began to cut through the entire city with more arrogance than the elevated trains. Yet the comparatively small cost of modernizing the Myrtle El failed to make the agenda of the future. The political power structure cared very little about the Myrtle El – its fate was omitted from public record until the final three months of service.

On July 19, 1969, the NYCTA publicly announced the suspension of service and subsequent demolition of the Myrtle El. It repeated the narrative put forth by government officials – the trains are too outdated, the ridership is in decline, the El runs a deficit, and therefore additional investment is not justified. 

The NYCTA generally underinvested in the Myrtle El. For example, in 1969 it continued to run wooden trains built in 1904 on the El, which was also the only remaining line with wooden stations. The Myrtle El was also one of the last trains on which conductors still collected fare by hand, which likely skewed the cited ridership numbers. Underinvestment eventually led to the decision of no investment. 

The New York Times article about the decision described the affected 35-block stretch as being home mainly to African Americans and Puerto Ricans, as opposed to the upper class white Protestant and middle-class German and Irish composition decades earlier. 

Racial undertones in the decision were palpable. Not coincidentally, the destruction of the Myrtle El coincided with overall dropping investment in the neighborhoods by both government and private investors, triggered by the arrival of people of color. Residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, often held demonstrations for adequate city services including even regular garbage collection.

An exposé on welfare, appearing in the New York Times, used the Myrtle Avenue El as the literal transition into the poverty so present in Brooklyn. White caseworkers reluctantly rode the train to verify the destitute living situations in communities of color. For people experiencing this or New Yorkers reading about this dysfunctional dynamic, the picture underscored the mood of the racially divided city. Blacks and Latinos living in these communities faced hurdles entering the American mainstream, and with the loss of the El, they were physically disconnected and socially isolated from the central districts.

Protestors congregated after the decision in downtown Brooklyn near the foot of the Myrtle Avenue El, and one middle-aged woman held up a sign proclaiming, “Our Constitutional Rights Have Been Denied [to] Us! No Public Hearing. Help Us Save The El.” Evidently, the city’s politicians and bureaucrats discreetly sped through the procedures necessary to demolish the Myrtle El. 

A younger man held a sign stating, “If The El Is So Bad, How Come It Was The Only One That Ran After The Snow Storm?” His homemade sign created doubt about the value of modernization – new underground subways were not clearly superior to the old elevated trains. His handwritten words were a direct jab a Mayor Lindsay, who faced a whirlwind of citywide criticism for a failed response to a major blizzard that nearly cost him reelection. 

Assemblyman Vito P. Battista, a Brooklyn Republican, also protested the planned demolition, citing the unnecessary hardship it would create for both Brooklyn and Queens citizens who depend on the elevated train.  In 1970, residents and students from the recently disconnected communities pleaded with the city and state government to not go through with the demolition plans. Myrtle El service had stopped, but the structure still stood, and people had one final opportunity to rally against the decision.

But the city’s political powers disagreed with Battista, residents, students and protestors.

Though Theresa King was not directly involved in the protests, she remembered that most people were not happy about the closure of the Myrtle El. Outsiders spoke of the Myrtle El as if it were a nightmare, but to King and to community residents it never was. King recalled that, “We all marveled at the beauty of the El.” To community residents – no matter the assertions of public reports – ridership never decreased.

The last people who rode that first train car, their faces up against the glass panel, eager to feel like conductors, were captured in King’s imagery. After that day, no other Brooklyn youth would have the opportunity to feel as if they were flying down Myrtle Avenue.

Aerial photographs showed the Myrtle El being dismantled piece by piece, against the backdrop of newly created public housing developments and the construction of the World Trade Center across the East River in Manhattan. The demolition marked a pivotal moment in urban history. In the late 1960s, Brooklyn was representative of the Modernist ideas, frequently misguided, that defined the changing landscape of the country.

In the opening pages of his Myrtle diaries, Gedney wrote, “The physical image of the city mirrors the soul of the people that built it.” Gedney understood the magnitude of the change and captured detailed images of the demolition.

 A construction worker balanced himself on the remaining beams of steel as he removed the rivets holding the structure together. Men in hard hats watched from the closed off street below, as pedestrians observed the ruins from the sidelines. 

First, the station platform and the staircase disappeared. Then only half of the Myrtle El remained outside Gedney’s window. Finally, it looked as if the rain had ultimately washed away the elevated train from Myrtle Avenue. 

Works Cited

Journals and Personal Papers

Gedney, William. Myrtle Avenue Book I. William Gedney Photographs and Writings, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Web. 10 February 2014.

Gedney, William. Myrtle Avenue Book II. William Gedney Photographs and Writings, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Web. 10 February 2014.

Photographic Collections

Gedney, William. Myrtle Avenue Photo Collection. William Gedney Photographs and Writings, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Web. 10 February 2014.

King, Theresa. Myrtle Avenue Set. October 1969. Personal Collection. Brooklyn, NY.

Interviews 

King, Theresa, Interview. April 2014.

Seims, Erik, Interview. 25 April 2014.

Government Documents

Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Brochure.” 1968. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Annual Report.” 1968. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Annual Report.” 1969. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

New York City Transit Museum. Photo Collections. Web. 14 March 2014.

Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Threshold to the Seventies.” November 1969. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

Metropolitan Transit Authority. “Transportation Progress: An Interim Report.” 1969. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

New York City Council. “Resolution Calling Upon the New York City Transit Authority to Demolish the Myrtle Avenue Elevated Railway Spur from Broadway to Bridge Street.” Resolution No. 190. 1 March 1966. LGA Archives.

New York City Transit Authority. “Discontinuance of Portion of the Myrtle Avenue Elevated Line – BMT Division. ”Office of the General Manager. 23 October 1966. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

New York City Transit Authority. “Discontinuance of Service on the Third Avenue Elevated Line – IRT Division.” Office of the General Manager. 1 March 1967. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

New York City Transit Authority. “Northend of Bridge Street Station Changes in Signal System.” General Order No. 582-69. 3 October 1969. MTA Archives.

New York City Transit Authority. “Service Changes for Myrtle Avenue “El” Riders.” Announcement. 1969. Metropolitan Transit Authority Archives.

Media Reports

 “1,200 on the Last Trip On Myrtle Ave. El; Cars Are Stripped.” New York Times. 4 October 1969. Web. 12 February 2014.

“Brooklyn- Queens Link to Be Completed Today.” New York Times. 23 December 1964. Web. 10 April 2014.

“End of Myrtle Ave. El Protested by Battista.” New York Times. 30 July 1969. Web. 21 February 2014.

“Fare is Still Collected by Hand on 2 Outposts of City’s Subway.” New York Times. 12 August 1966. Web. 13 March 2014.

“Kennedy Assailed on Poverty: Bedford Stuyvesant Group ‘Deplores’ New Corporation.” New York Times. 3 April 1967. Web. 2 March 2014.

“Over the Mayor’s Veto.” New York Times. 1 July 1879. Web. 27 February 2014.

“Political Leaders at Swetnick Rites.” New York Times. 4 July 1968. Web. 10 April 2014.

 “To Rejuvenate New York.” New York Times. 2 October 1966. Web. 12 February 2014.

Brooks, Thomas. “The Caseworkers and the Client.” New York Times. 29 January 1967. Web. 2 March 2014.

Carmody, Dierdre. “Plea is Pressed for Myrtle Line.” New York Times. 10 January 1970. Web. 21 February 2014.

Chan, Sewell. “Remembering a Snowstorm That Paralyzed the City.” New York Times. 10 February 2009. Web. 10 April 2014.

Clines, Francis. “Democrats Aim at Battista’s Domain.” New York Times. 3 November 1974. Web. 21 February 2014.

Eisen, Benjamin. Letter. “The Blight of the City’s Elevated Structures.” New York Times

3 October 1966. Web. 12 February 2014.

Hoffman, Paul. “Snow Emergency Declared In City After Icy Storm.” New York Times. 24 January 1966. Web. 10 April 2014.

King, Seth. “Expanded Subway Plans Urged by the 5 Borough Presidents and Lindsay.”New York Times. 19 September 1968. Web. 10 April 2014.

Lelyveld, Joseph. “80-Year-Old- Myrtle Avenue El To Run for Last Time in October.” New York Times. 20 July 1969. Web. 12 February 2014.

Roberts, Steven. “800 Demand Vote on Renewal Unit: Bedford Stuyvesant Protest Disrupts Meeting.” New York Times. 7 April 1967. Web. 2 March 2014.

Books

Purnell, Brian. Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013. 

Roess, Roger and Gene Sansone. The Wheels That Drove New York: A History of the New York City Transit System. New York: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2013. Book.