A long, slow train of thought

pelican 2

The picture above is my new pride and joy. It hangs alongside the black and white print below, which has my equal affection.

Death AvenueThey are not obviously linked but I assure you they are – each is in my possession because of my love of trains. Aha, yes, there’s definitely a train puffing away in the background of the second pic. But the one above is notable, inter alia, for its complete absence of trains, or indeed anything at all connected with locos ‘n’ stuff.

This story is a bit like a slow train – it takes a while but we’ll get there eventually.

I acquired the top picture from a gallery in Cairns, in Far North Queensland. It is a fine art print from a vinylcut (not lino, as vinyl is better to work with in the tropical heat and humidity) by a young Indigenous artist, Daniel O’Shane.

Titled in the native language, Auka Metkar Goweh (Plenty Pelican), the picture is inspired by a legend from Erub, (Darnley Island) in Torres Strait, O’Shane’s grandmother’s home island, about a man who raised a pelican and taught it to hunt for him, bringing back fish and keeping him company. In time, the pelican rejoined its kind and flew off to a far island. The fisherman lamented for his lost companion, singing and beating his drum.

Eventually, the sound end of the drum came to resemble an open pelican’s mouth, which is why Darnley Island drums are shaped the way they are today. The fisherman turned to stone, staring in the direction his pelican had gone. The stone is said to stand there still today and the islanders commemorate the fisherman every year.

Daniel O’Shane has produced a series of vinylcuts based on this legend. Some of them and much else by other Indigenous artists cover the walls under the hot tin roof of the Canopy Art Centre in Cairns. This gallery is a must-see, I think, and if you’re lucky, as I was, you might get a tour of the studio out the back of Editions Tremblay NFP, which prints these works. (A nostalgia trip for an old newspaper sub-editor who left inky footprints in many a comp room during the long gone hot metal printing days.)

Reproduction of my picture in this space is really an injustice to both the artist and the printer. You need a big wall and proper frame. You probably also need northern light and a tropical environment to absorb the mood. I have a wall but not quite the mood.

Never mind. Where’s the train?

It was actually a couple of blocks away from the gallery, and it was the reason I was in Cairns buying Indigenous art in the first place. I’d flown to Cairns specifically to catch the train. No Cairns train, no companion pic to my other pride and joy. You see, it’s all coming together. Stay with me.

This train in Cairns was Queensland Rail’s vintage set of century-old restored carriages, hauled by a 60-year-old steam locomotive, and it was going all the way back south, 1500km to Brisbane. The trip, as part of QR’s celebration of 150 years in operation, was scheduled to take six days; in the event it took seven because of Cyclone Marcia. It was hot, dirty and uncomfortable – and totally wonderful.

But this story is only peripherally about that train ride. It’s really about enjoying human endeavour – being enthralled by Daniel O’Shane, revelling in a long, slow train ride and marvelling at the sheer grunt and energy embodied both in my train and in the extraordinary scene in my other grand picture.

This picture is of Death Avenue.

Here be trains. Massive freight trains, mixed in with the crowded jumble of road traffic, and all of them hauling goods in and out of the Meatpacking District of Lower Manhattan, feeding, clothing, housing, transporting and, no doubt, entertaining New York City and all points of the American compass.

The picture was taken some time around 1924 from a point overlooking the intersection of the freight yards behind what became Penn Station at the intersection of 33rd Street and 10th Avenue. You can see why 10th became known as Death Avenue.

I have been as captivated by the narrative of this picture as I have been by that of Daniel O’Shane’s Plenty Pelican.

This photograph is for me a visual metaphor for the vigour of NY City and of the United States itself at that time – a can-do place where getting the job done overrode just about everything that we today, in more luxurious times, place above, if you like, nation-building.

Think what the implications are of having huge freight trains rumbling along public roads, belching smoke and noise amid housing and shops and factories. People lived there, and in very poor circumstances. But the bustle of Death Avenue is what made America great.

Of course it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. In 1934, the NY Central Railroad separated its trains from the road traffic with construction of the High Line, a dedicated freight railway 30 feet above ground level and running literally through the factories and warehouses.

It operated until 1980, when road traffic finally took over, and then it languished, abandoned and partly demolished, for nearly 20 years until two young men who lived in the former slums but now fashionable districts around its pylons decided they would not accept its complete destruction that developers were planning.

Because of the community campaign they started, the High Line (neé Death Avenue) today is the world famous High Line Park, an elevated walkway of gardens and public art enjoyed by millions of locals and tourists alike. So much so that one English commentator wrote recently that he was unimpressed by it because it was too crowded and difficult to get to. Oh well, you can’t please everybody.

He has failed to see, in my view, what’s happened there.

The Death Avenue picture most certainly prompts the observation that “it wouldn’t be allowed to happen today”. But to me, the people who built the Manhattan West Side railroads, who worked and lived on and around them, were prepared to accept Death Avenue and other harsh consequences to get the job done, to survive for the present and create the future their descendants enjoy today.

I don’t say that’s all gone. The human spirit I detect in the Death Avenue picture has surely metamorphosed into the kind of vision and determination that has produced the High Line Park.

Which doesn’t mean that everything old deserves to be saved – in the physical sense that the High Line has been, or Queensland’s vintage steam trains for that matter. It is the human stories that are precious, at one with the legend of the fisherman and his pelican from Darnley Island.


5 thoughts on “A long, slow train of thought

  1. Terrific article and I loved the association between the two vastly different visuals. I am going up to Port Douglas in a few weeks and may take the opportunity to get under the hot tin roof.


  2. Noel,
    This is a wonderful story. I had no idea that trains ran along the streets in NYC back in the 1930’s…A terrific photo….and have sent your blog to many of my friends who now all enjoy the High Line Park…as do we. Thanks so much for this.


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