I’ll be giving a talk on March 30 – which is 12 days away, so it really is time to finish getting my slides ready – as part of the “Labor, Literature, and Landmarks” series of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. The landmarks portion of the series is co-sponsored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and this year has great speakers later on.
My topic is almost straight history: “The Appearance Of The Past.” A non-negligible amount of my writing in this blog is trying to figure out pieces of the past of New York’s built environment, from photographs or descriptions, aided by maps and other records. It occurred to me some time ago that few people have a good mental image of the past, even the relatively recent past. We know it looked different from the present, but old photos grab our attention because they show a world that is so different from ours. Not just the appearance is different, the sensibility is as well, sometimes in unexpected ways. The picture above from 1903 shows an almost-solid blockfront of Old Law tenements. Those buildings are still around, so they don’t look so odd. The hydrant is old fashioned, and the street lamps are both old-fashioned and too few, but the street doesn’t jump out at me as looking almost 120 years old. It’s the caption that’s mind-blowing: “An Entire Block Planted by the Tenement Shade Tree Committee.” Newly-planted trees often look spindly, but it’s hard to imagine being so proud of those tiny and widely-spaced trees that you believe their presence makes up for the lack of light and air in the tenements behind. To the Committee members, those trees were an improvement over the even more barren landscape before. They saw that street differently than we do.
I’ll be using a bunch of photos from around 1900 to try to capture some sense of what New York looked like then. Here’s the spoiler: both different than and the same as it does now.