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Lost Contrast

The picture above announces that I’ve found a new toy to play with source of historical information. The digital collection at the New York Public Library has Changing New York, a project by Berenice Abbott that was part of the Federal Art Project of the New Deal. Because this work was funded by the federal government, it’s free of copyright, so I’ll be mining that archive for a while. I am not cropping or color-adjusting these photos, based on the assumption that Abbott knew what she intended better than I do.

The picture above shows the intersection of Cliff and Ferry Streets in lower Manhattan. We’re looking roughly south: the tower in the distance is 70 Pine Street, one of the great Art Deco skyscrapers of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Cliff Street curves and then ends at a T intersection at John Street, just to the right of 111 John, which is easy to find thanks to the address painted on its rear facade. Pine Street is another four blocks to the south.

This view no longer remotely exists. The intersection itself is gone, as all of Cliff Street north of Fulton Street was demapped for the creation of a superblock during 1960s urban renewal. There are a very few small buildings remaining on the southern remnant of Cliff Street, but most of the street contains big buildings constructed in the last 90 years. This was not simply because of the pressure of real estate development, it was changing land use. Lower Manhattan in 1935 still had industry along the riverfront periphery (east of William Street and west of Trinity Place), some to support the office work in the central Broadway spine (printers, for example) and some as legacies of the city’s development (such as warehouses for the docks). During the mid-1900s, changes in work and changes in transportation reduced the need for the support industries to be so near to the office work and killed the Manhattan portion of the shipping industry, emptying these small buildings of their traditional uses. It’s a lot easier to propose demolishing entire blocks of early-1800s industrial buildings when they’re empty or drastically underused than when they’re full of thriving businesses.

The growth of the city in general and the growth of white-collar work probably would have doomed those old buildings under any circumstances. And given the state they were in by the 1960s, it may well have been a lost cause to wonder about saving them. But, as Abbott so perfectly captured, they provided a romantic contrast to the new buildings going up nearby.