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A Sign That Tells More Than Just Street Names

128 Charles Street, at Greenwich Street.

An Off the Grid reader asks:

“Why is there a set of stone markers embedded between the third and fourth floors of the building at 128 Charles Street saying ‘Greenwich Street’ and ‘Charles Street’?  It’s so high up you can barely see it — what good would it have possibly done?”

Good (and timely) question, dear reader.  The answer, believe it or not, relates to a first-of-its-kind technological marvel of the early industrial age, found for more than 70 years right there on Greenwich Street.

A close up of the street markers between the 3rd and 4th floors.

Though there is little evidence of it today, this part of the Far West Village was once a gritty mixed industrial and residential neighborhood, with most commerce and community connected to the nearby Hudson River piers.  And running right through the middle of it was the Ninth Avenue or Greenwich Street El, or elevated railroad (read more about the El and its impact on, and relation to, the Far West Village, in GVSHP’s 2004 proposal to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a Far West Village/Greenwich Village Waterfront Historic District, HERE).

The Ninth Avenue/Greenwich Street El, shortly after it was first constructed, pictured here at Gansevoort Street (image courtesy NYPL digital library)

Begun in 1868, as New York was experiencing its post-Civil War boom in immigration and industry, the El was not only the first such elevated commuter railroad in New York City, but according to author and historian Joe Cunningham, it was the first such elevated railroad in the world.  Of course by the late 19th and early 20th centuries such elevated rail lines became common not only in New York but in developed cities throughout the world, as a way of quickly and efficiently transporting people though increasingly crowded and densely built up cities.

The handsome building at 128 Charles Street was built in 1881 to the designs of architect William Jose, more than a decade after the first elevated railway was erected.  The embedded stone markers with the names of the intersecting streets were plainly visible to commuters on the Ninth Avenue/Greenwich Avenue line as they whizzed by, providing a convenient way of letting them know how close they were to their destination (the El stopped at Christopher Street and 14th Street, and eventually stretched from the Battery up to the Bronx).

The street markers on the facade of 128 Charles Street were high enough up to be difficult to read for pedestrians, but easily visible to commuters on the elevated rail line.

The world’s first elevated rail line was dismantled and demolished in 1940, part of a wave of El removals in Manhattan that included the Sixth Avenue El (1938) and the Third Avenue El (1955).  The removal of the Els in Manhattan is credited as being one of the major catalysts for the gentrification of previously poor and working-class neighborhoods, as their noise and shadows generally discouraged those with the means from living nearby, especially in the particularly narrow and crowded streets of Manhattan.  Of course Els continue to run through the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens (and elevated sections of the 1 train still run above ground in elevated sections in Morningside Heights and Inwood in Upper Manhattan), though typically on wider commercial streets.

Want to find out more about the fascinating story of the world’s first elevated rail line on Ninth Avenue and Greenwich Street?  Come to GVSHP’s lecture “Greenwich Village: Birthplace of the Elevated Railway” by Joe Cunningham on Monday, December 12th at 6:30 pm at Our Lady of Pompei Church’s Father Demo Hall (basement), Bleecker and Carmine Street.  The event is free but reservations are required; RSVP to rsvp@gvshp.org or (212) 475-9585 ext. 35.  Click HERE for more information.

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