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Not Distributed Equally

Some time ago, William Gibson, a science fiction writer, said “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” You can debate the meaning of that pithy line, but there’s an important aspect to it that’s often overlooked: the same was true in the past.

The picture above shows a street in Flushing, New York, in the first decade of the twentieth century, taken “to record the forestry activities of the New York State Forest, Fish and Game Commission.” In the nineteenth century, Flushing was a center for tree nurseries, and that business continued past 1900. A rather aggressive expansion of the street grid of the independent town was planned in the 1800s, leading to the creation of streets that were not yet needed. The grid-expansion streets were named after trees – Ash, Beech, Cherry, and so on – and were built up with wood-frame houses in the 1910s and 20s and, partially, with brick apartment houses in the 1960s and 70s.

The thing is, Flushing was part of New York City when this picture was taken. Flushing, along with the entire western half of Queens County, joined Greater New York in 1898. I’m pretty sure that if someone showed me that photo and asked me where in New York State it was, I would not have guessed that the answer was “in the city.” (I should point out that as late as the 1980s, many of my neighbors in Flushing referred to getting on the subway to go into Manhattan as “going in to the city”, which drove me up the wall.) What was going on elsewhere in the city at the same time? Here’s lower Broadway:

Obviously, I’ve picked two extremes, but I could do something reasonably similar in any decade since photography became common.