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September 28, 2009

Sixth Avenue, Remembered

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Aging cusses such as me won't be around forever. That's why I like to post How It Was articles here from time to time. Just for the record, understand.

[Clears throat, fiddles with notes, casually leans on lectern]

Today's subject is New York City's Sixth Avenue, alias Avenue of the Americas (you can read about the name business along with other info here).

As this Wikipedia entry indicates, Sixth Avenue was the site of an elevated railroad from the late 1870s to the late 1930s, when it was replaced by a subway line. Sorry to report that I wasn't around during the "El" era, so I can't categorically assert that the street level was a typical "almost dead" retail zone found below elevated lines. But it probably was. When I first saw it in the mid 1950s, the classiest frontage was that of the Radio City Music Hall on the backside of Rockefeller Center. There might have been one or two other theaters nearby, fronting on side streets.

In 1962 I was stationed in the Army just outside the city and got into town almost every weekend from late January till mid May. By that time, Sixth Avenue was entering its great transformation phase. The new Time-Life building (the second in a continuing series of Time structures) across Sixth from Rockefeller Center had been completed. At the time, much was made of the claim that it was really part of the Center. Technically (or legally) that might have been so. But to me, at least, it was not part of the center in the sense of its location and its architecture.

Time-Life Building - completed 1959

So far as I can tell, the main link of Time-Life to earlier phases of Rockefeller Center is the use of gray stone facing that can be seen in the photo above. But the large window areas and spandrels effectively removed it from the character of the Center's earlier buildings that had narrower windows/spandrels and a touch of Art Deco trim.

The rest of Sixth Avenue from 42nd Street to near 57th was in that state of suspended animation found where properties are being or have been assembled for major developments -- in this case, for massive skyscrapers. Shop leases were running out and tenants were beginning to vacate. Maintenance and repairs to existing low-rise masonry buildings were kept to an absolute minimum in anticipation of razing. Aside from Time-Life and the Music Hall, Sixth Avenue was a dreary, ratty zone. I remember that I seldom tarried there when walking west from glitzy Fifth Avenue to the Times Square area bright lights, and ditto when heading east.

What many current Manhattanites and visitors probably don't realize is how low-rise Midtown was in the mid 1950s. There were few really tall buildings along Sixth and the Times Square area as well. Park Avenue was lined by moderate-sized masonry-clad buildings, the exceptions being the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and the shiny new glass-and-steel Lever House. A few tall buildings dating to the 1920s and early 30s were scattered along 42nd Street, the new kid in the 'hood being the United Nations Secretariat building. Here and there were other International Style structures.

By the time of my Army service, things were rapidly changing as large new building were being completed almost continually. One of the unfortunate features of the new construction was that it came under new zoning rules that permitted height in exchange for little plazas at ground level. According to the theory of the time, such plazas were Wonderful Things. But most of them failed to serve the purpose of allowing public congregation. I don't visit New York often, but my take is that some of the plazas are popular on nice, warm, sunny days; but during much of the year when the weather isn't nice, they are nearly deserted, even at noon-time.

To complete the story, Sixth Avenue for many years now has been a corridor of high-rise glass (mostly) and steel (or some other cladding material) buildings, nearly all of which (along with their little plazas) lack distinction. The old, low-rise masonry Sixth Avenue is gone and unknown to anyone much under 60.

I suppose it would be Blowhardie of me to bemoan the passing of the old Sixth and curse the new one. But even though I think the current Sixth Avenue is no great urban shakes, the previous, El-influenced Sixth was no prize at all. I await the next lurch in the perpetual reinvention of Midtown; maybe something good like the original Rockefeller Center will come of it. There is little to lose by trying.



posted by Donald at September 28, 2009


To pull together (oddly) your New York and Little Big Horn posts; I was reading a book about the Brooklyn Bridge a few years ago and was kind of startled to read that the bridge was under construction when Little Big Horn happened. I'm not sure why that seems odd, but it does. I think it also said that when completed, the two towers of the bridge were the tallest structures in the US.

Posted by: kg on September 28, 2009 8:43 PM

Donald, thank you for this fascinating account of the Sixth Avenue. Pupu has always wondered why the scene along the Sixth Avenue from 42nd and up feels more like Chicago, only with a wider avenue parting the skyscrapers alongside. Park Avenue, on the other hand, although also filled with high-rises and skyscrapers, feels so quintessential New York. Your story explains it!

Posted by: Pupu on September 29, 2009 10:32 AM


Thanks for the interesting post about Sixth Avenue.

Here are some comments:

1) I wasn't around either when Sixth Avenue had an elevated, but I have seen photos (one, quite recently as a matter of fact -- but I don't remember where I came across it), and the area seemed pretty busy (in a downscale kind of way).

Also, I am familiar with the elevateds in other parts of NYC and, generally speaking (but not always), these streets are the main shopping streets of their neighborhood -- with some of them being rather nice and "high class."

For instance, I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, where the main shopping street, Jamaica Avenue had an elevated -- and it also had four movie theaters (one, an enormous and spectacular movie "palace," the Valencia), the major department store (Gertz), a Sears, a Woolworth's, a Grant's (a Woolworth's competitor), two big banks, a large-scale cafeteria, etc., etc.

Also when I used to visit my grandmother's in Brooklyn via the elevated (two or three stops before the Coney Island stop), the street below was again the area's main shopping street (with movie theaters, banks, etc.). (Parts of it can be seen, I believe, in the opening scenes of "Saturday Night Fever.")

Back in Manhattan, further down Sixth Avenue, between 17th St.? and 23rd St., is a section that contains really spectacular department stores (now big box stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond), that had been built in the shadow of the Sixth Avenue elevated. It's part of what is called the "Ladies Mile." (I'll try and post a link to some photos later.)

And futher down, the Sixth Avenue "el" entered Greenwhich Village and was featured in a number of paintings / drawings (e.g., the "el" passing by Jefferson Market Courthouse, etc.). (I think the most famous one is by John Sloan.)

2) It seems to me that the "real" problem with elevateds (at least as far as I'm concerned) is the NOISE! I remember ducking into stores (like Woolworth's) to avoid the ear-splitting noise generated by the elevated (which almost seems designed to create and amplify noise).

3) My first recollections of Sixth Ave in midtown, the portion you're talking about, is from the mid-1960s, and the area was kind of run down. Actually, it seems a major impetus to tearing down the elevateds in Manhattan was to spur more upscale development along not only Sixth Avenue, but Third and Ninth Avenues as well. Manhattan, unlike the outer boroughs, has enough traffic to make worthwhile the construction of a substitute subway line.

However, the side streets off a Sixth Avenue were kind of nice, though, and I remember being depressed when these blocks were torn down for the buildings that are there today. And Sixth Avenue itself had a really nice Art Deco Automat that was one of my favorites.

4) I agree that most people don't realize how low-rise Manhattan has been until relatively "recently" (although the 1950s and 1960s aren't so recent anymore!). Look at photos from the 1950s of both the midtown and Wall St. areas of NYC and you'll see a lot fewer very tall skyscrapers than you see today.

One caveat, however, much of "low-rise" Manhattan actually consists of buildings that are 15- 20-stories tall. (By way of comparison, in Jamaica, Queens, the tallest office building was probably less than 15-stories tall.) Therefore, for instance, the famous Flatiron building, which I believe is "only" 20-stories tall, blends in with other 20-story buildings and would not really register in a 1950's photo of the NYC skyline.

5) My theory is that Av-e-nue of the Am-er-i-cas is just too many syllables. I think if it had been renamed A-mer-i-cas Av-e-nue instead, people might have taken it up and said things like, "I'm going over to A-mer-i-cas to get some coffee. Do you need anything?"

Tues., 9/29/09, 6:00 p.m.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 29, 2009 5:58 PM

Here's a cut and paste URL to photos of the spectacular Siegel Cooper Siegel department store (built in the shadow of the Sixth Avenue "el").

Here's a cut and paste URL to a photo of another spectacular store built in the shadow of the "el," O'Neill's:'NeillDryGoodsStore.htm

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 29, 2009 6:14 PM

Benjamin -- I was hoping you'd drop by because you are our unofficial New York History Maven.

My claim about elevateds and commerce is largely based on Seattle's 5th Avenue monorail experience and the Chicago loop. But the line out to Jackson Heights (where I once had a girlfriend) had some places (on Roosevelt Ave.? ... another street? ... I forget, and haven't been in that part of Queens in literally decades) that didn't seem very spiffy, if I'm remembering straight.

In any case, I appreciate your additions and corrections.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 29, 2009 6:23 PM

While I haven't been to Seattle, from what I've read it seems that the Seattle monorail is only one-stop long!!!-- in other words there are NO STOPS for people to get on or off between the first and the last stops! This seems to me to be crucial, as the only thing that really makes an elevated railway more urbane than an elevated highway (after all, an "el" is far, far noisier -- although the monorail is probably quieter than a highway) is that the "el" brings thousands of pedestrians / shoppers, etc. into an area, while an elevated highway doesn't (the people are just going through, leaving the visual blight, noise and pollution behind as a "present"). So, if this is true (that there are not stops between the first and last one, it's not at all surprising that the area in between is "dead."

I'm even less familiar with the Chicago loop, so I can't comment. (I didn't realize it was dead underneath!)

In terms of NYC's el's in the outer boroughs, they go on for miles and miles and miles and, of course, not every block beneath an el is going to be a "main street." It seems that where these sections are main streets, they are only main streets for sections here and there. In Jamaica, though, which used to be the biggest "city" on Long Island after Brooklyn, the shopping street did go on for quite a bit, and it seemed to even blend into another district's main shopping street.

I'm not that familiar with Jackson Heights, but from some short trips there in the 1980s, it seems that the few better stores that remained (and the area was originally built as a "ritzy" area) were located on the streets radiating off the elevated line rather than beneath it. (I don't know if this was a factor, but if I remember correctly, Jackson Heights, was I think the only outer borough area to have it's own direct bus line to Manhattan and Fifth Avenue. So perhaps this bus line may have made the elevated less important in terms of commerce.)

Generally speaking, I think shopping and businesses eventually deserted these outer borough main shopping streets beneath the "elevateds." Some of the businesses left for shopping malls in the nearby suburbs and some moved their operations to the in-city "suburbs" located between the spokes of the radiating elevated lines. For instance, Macy's built a specular circular Macy's (with parking along the perimeter of each of the store's four (?) floors) in Elmhurst, Queens, and eventually abandoned it's nearby Jamaica, Queens branch.

Two really spectacular examples of this trend are 1) downtown Flushing, Queens, which used to be a second-rate Jamaica, and is now NYC's own mini Hong Kong!!! and 2) the the Rego-Park Elmhurst shopping area with the spectacular Queens Center Mall (which, with its upscale stores, is one of the most profitable malls in the U.S. on a $ per sq. ft. basis) and the two other mall-like developments nearby. (One is a Target's built in the one-time circular Macy's -- Macy's moved to Queens Center mall.)

Tues., 9/29/09 -- 7:07 p.m.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 29, 2009 7:07 PM

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