Berenice Abbott’s title for this 1938 photograph tells you what you need to know: “Contrasting No. 331 East 39th Street with the Chrysler building (left) and the Daily News Building (right).” Two modern, less-than-ten-year-old skyscrapers, as seen from the street in front of an abandoned tenement, pretty much fits the definition of Abbott’s project, “Changing New York.”
I am far from an expert on election marketing and mechanics, but posting your candidates’ flyers on a building that will soon be demolished seems like a bad idea. Putting aside the unfortunate symbolism, you don’t know how long they’ll be visible. In any case, the boarded-up first floor windows were obviously irresistible. The boarding is also rather neatly done considering what it is. It’s not clear if the window without boards had them and they fell (or were pried) loose, or if somehow one window was left open.
331 East 39th Street is halfway between First and Second Avenues, and the area is now full of high-end high-rise apartments, but was then a combination of tenements and industry. Other tenements can be see at the lower left. It’s worth a reminder that the site for the United Nations, on First Avenue a few blocks north, was available for redevelopment in the 1940s because it was the site of an abattoir.
The contrast between the skyscrapers and the tenement feels forced to me. (It makes a great picture, but I’m not criticizing it as art, but rather as a concept.) If you were to compare the big buildings of the era of the tenement with the tenement, there would still be a huge contrast. The original Grand Central Depot (1871), the Western Union Building (1875), or the Produce Exchange (1884) were giants compared to the Old-Law tenements and contained much more modern structure. But, even forgetting about the much more primitive photographic technology of the era, a picture contrasting an 1880s tenement with a large and modern 1880s building would be less dramatic than the picture above because the exteriors would have so many superficial similarities: heavy masonry walls with projecting ornament, historicist styles, relatively small windows.