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New York City's elevated train system emerged in the 1870s as an efficient means of transporting commuters, avoiding Manhattan's congested streets. On Sixth Avenue, the accelerated travel offered by such steam-drawn elevated trains (converted to electrical operation by 1903) encouraged the spread of retail trade, entertainment, and comfortable residences north along the thoroughfare from 14th Street to Central Park. Ironically, the rising prosperity of Sixth Avenue triggered by this improvement in rapid transit was sabotaged early in the twentieth century by the advent of even more efficient subways, which contained the noise and dirt of train travel underground. By 1910, fashionable stores and smart clubs were deserting Sixth Avenue for airier parallel boulevards not inconvenienced by the grime and rattle of an overhead El.

The End of an Epoch
1939
Maurice Kish (b. 1898)
Oil on canvas, 21 X 251/5
Signed lower right: Maurice Kish
Gift of the artist, 73.35

 

In 1912 property owners, alarmed by this exodus, banded together as the Sixth Avenue Association, aiming to reclaim their avenue's promise by pressuring legislators to demolish the overhead liability that the El now seemed to represent. Their efforts, facilitated by Mayor John F. Hylan,1 succeeded in 1924 with a bill authorizing the system's dismantling, quickly effecting the removal of the spur of tracks running above Sixth Avenue from 53rd to 59th Streets. Further work was delayed until the second half of the next decade. In the interim, however, the value of real estate located on these six liberated blocks had doubled, a fact used by the association as leverage to press for elimination of the remaining system stretching south. Victory arrived on December 20, 1938, when Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who had actively supported the campaign, donned goggles and with an acetylene torch personally attacked a steel El girder on Sixth Avenue at 53rd Street. Beyond the new vistas and opportunities for redevelopment created by the destruction of the unsightly structures, the banishment of overhead trains from the avenue also led to the completion of the IND Sixth Avenue subway line, making the El immediately obsolete.

The End of an Epoch commemorates the dismantling of the El tracks on Sixth Avenue, ushering out an era in the city's public transportation and unleashing conflicting emotions among the system's riders. Whereas many had cheered the announced demolition, camera-toting New Yorkers thronged Sixth Avenue's El during its final days of operation to preserve memories of its unrivaled views of the city (and outlooks into private apartments adjacent to its tracks). Other sentimentalists took souvenirs, pillaging fixtures along with their bolts.2 The painter's focus, however, is on the complex enterprise of removing the doomed landmark, here at the juncture of West 27th Street. Proceeding span by span, the operation involved burning out rivets from the columns supporting the system and removing overhead longitudinal beams with cranes situated on the remnants of the track trellis, which lowered the beams and cross girders to the pavement below. After disassembling the metal skeleton with blow torches, workers loaded its parts onto trucks and hauled them away to be sold as scrap. During the process, any exposed steel pillars posing a danger to traffic were marked to alert drivers to detour around them when the construction crews had quit the site after dark.

Although the scene's primary action is the maneuvers of the workers in hard hats, whose exertions have drawn interested onlookers, the indirect drama of Sixth Avenue's reappearance is also significant. As girders came down, street-level views of grimy nineteenth-century brownstones and small businesses forgotten in the shadow of the El were suddenly revealed. Their survival, however, was tenuous in the face of developers' ambitions for Sixth Avenue, intimated by the futuristic skyscrapers of midtown suggested in the distant picture plane.

Maurice Kish, born in Dvinsk, Russia, immigrated to New York in his teens. He pursued studies in art at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, gaining a foundation solid enough to support himself as a painter and to place his work in exhibitions, by the late 1930s, at such prestigious venues as the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Kish participated in a variety of local art associations in the period before World War II and thereafter became involved in the Educational Alliance, the American Veteran Society of Artists, and the Brooklyn Art Alliance, the last of which was located in his home borough.3 During the Great Depression, he was drawn to subjects heroicizing America's laboring class and their search for employment in the industrial Northeast. These fruitful themes often enabled Kish to incorporate keenly observed vignettes of New York City's blighted waterfront and factories in danger of closure (see also plate 70).

 

East River Waterfront
1932
Maurice Kish (b. 1898)
Oil on canvas, 44 X 36
Signed lower left: Maurice Kish
Gift of the artist, 72.41

Job Hunters

 

1932-1933

Oil on canvas


 

Notes:

1 Hylan (1869 -1936) had formerly worked as a motorman on one of the El line's steam locomotives.

2 The history and symbolism of the Sixth Avenue El's long-threatened demolition are summarized well in a period account by Ernest La France, "Rebirth of an Avenue: As the 'L' Comes Down, Gotham's Cinderella, Long Stifled, Begins to Breathe Freely Again," New York Times Magazine, March 19, 1939.

3 The chronology of Kish's career is incomplete, but capsule biographies can be consulted in Who's Who in American Art (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1978); Patricia Hills, Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Paintings of the 1930s (Boston: Boston University Art Gallery, 1983), p. 62, and American Paintings: A Complete Illustrated Listing of Works in the Museum's Collection (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1979), p. 75. In 1976 Kish donated five hundred items of correspondence, sketchbooks, and catalogues to the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; see microfilm roll 66. In the 1970s the artist also began to distribute his paintings widely to museum repositories; in 1971 the Museum of the City of New York acquired the first of two canvases by Kish, the other being East River Waterfront, 1932 (plate 70).

19 September 2019
20 Elul 5779


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