Monday, January 26, 2009
One El of a Ride
They're old. They're dirty. They're loud. They're exposed to the elements. They hurt real estate values, and they provide dark dank places to incubate crime. At their absolute worst, they shriek overhead and drip oil on you while you're being mugged or harassed outside your cheap rental with terrible light where you can never get any sleep.
And yet, I wholeheartedly and unabashedly love elevated trains. That they are more fun to ride than subways strikes me as beyond argument--they sail over bridges and clatter through neighborhoods, the platforms provide striking views, and they're full of natural light. Few things allow you to experience urban geography like a long ride on an el, and certainly none that cost two bucks.
Despite simply being known as "the subway," the system runs roughly 40% of its distance on elevated lines, many of which survive in Brooklyn from earlier rapid-transit developments. I took the photos above on the Knickerbocker Avenue platform of the M train, or Myrtle Avenue El (great story and photos here). Brooklyn's second-oldest elevated line (opened in 1888, three years after the now completely-defunct Lexington Line), these tracks have been in continuous service for 121 years. The line originally ran all the way along Myrtle from the Brooklyn Bridge, where it connected to Manhattan. Maps showing this service survive here and here. If you ask me, the M is the second-best line in Brooklyn for skyline views, with the title going to the F train at the Gowanus Viaduct
I know that they're not the most popular form of rapid transit in the world, but I can't help thinking it would be possible to get something out of New York City's slow rollercoasters. Sure, they don't go sailing through midtown the way the Chicago El rattles through the Loop, but isn't there a niche market of train enthusiasts and urban history buffs to be tapped through clever use of these lines? Chicago offers a free downtown architecture tour (when they can afford it) and the city's history museum runs longer, more advanced tours along the length of several lines. I would think New York City could do the same, attracting the same crowd that rides the vintage subway cars every December. After all, the infrastructure is already in place: all you need is a permit, a ticket booth, and a head full of history. Given subway riders' iron constitutions, I can't imagine that an undergraduate history major rattling off fun facts to gawking tourists would be any more bothersome than a mariachi band or a UHO announcement. Maybe one could even win a few tips from the locals.