Sunday, May 31, 2009

Then and then and now

Pershing Square (outside Grand Central) in the 1940s

What is it about photos that stirs the soul? Many thanks to Gothamist for helping me discover these Flickr photo collections of NYC from various eras. I love looking at old photos of New York City. It's amazing to see how far the city has come. Some of the photos from the 1800s look almost fake in their simplicity -- there were trees! And barns! In the city proper! To look at photos of what is now a burgeoning urban zoo from way back when is both a tribute and a eulogy.

Take for instance Trinity Church, located on Broadway downtown where Wall St. begins. Many famous figures are buried there, including Alexander Hamilton. So the place has been around for awhile.

Here it is in the late 1800s:

Unbelievable. This shot was taken from east of the church on Wall St, facing west. Townhouses of no more than 7 stories! Above-ground power lines! A general lack of din! Not many people. A far cry from the crowds and noise of today.

Here it is in the 1940s:

This shot is from the same angle as the one above, but further west on Wall St. That's Federal Hall on the right and the Stock Exchange on the left. Love the truck in the shot -- an instant frame of reference. Look at the people's clothing...look at how open the area is. No fences or cops like today. A bygone era but approaching today. The church itself looks so different. I can't say if it's the sun, the film or the technique. It look likes a movie set.

And today:

Tall buildings everywhere. People everywhere. And yet still so damn beautiful. I wonder if George Washington ever walked or rode up Wall St. -- he must have, right? And now there is a statue of him here. I realize that New York City is much younger than, say, Athens, Rome or even London or Paris. And yet there is already so much history here. When I walk around down here in FiDi I can't help but think about the millions that have tread before me. What were they like? Where did they go? Were they happy? What was the city around them like?

I am normally extremely camera-shy and by proxy I'm not usually into people photos. But the human element in the Flickr NYC collections are mesmerizing. Their eyes alone say so much. Such proud people. I like looking at photos from the 40s/50s/60s to see what my parents' lives were like growing up here. And from the 10s/20s/30s to see what my grandparents' lives were like (two of my grandparents grew up here, two immigrated just before WWII). Though I can't explain why some of the photos make me cry. The photos of the 70s and 80s don't touch me as much. It might just be too close to now, a real or fake memory rather than an era I never knew.

I wonder what our time will look like to future generations. Many of the current city movements are about a movement back to nature -- no cars in Times Square, Summer Streets, etc. -- yet many new skyscrapers are under construction reaching higher into the sky than ever. As our historical records become digital I hope we don't lose the qualities a photo can bring. One simple click makes an amazing time capsule. That's a pretty powerful tool.

1 comment:

Ondine said...

I love the colour of the 40s shot - all washed out. What a beautiful photo