Marty: Wait a minute, Doc. Ah… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?
Dr. Brown: The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?
Back to the Future (1985)
As a special treat to my many many fans (at least four I know of for definite), I’ve decided to do this bonus NYC blog post in order to try and explain my fascination with the growth and development of urban areas over the centuries. I always thought it was cool when Marty McFly accelerated through time in the Back to the Future movies (what do you mean that wasn’t real?) and the landscape changed completely around him even though he was in the exact same space……it was just a different time. Therefore let’s take a look at some images from New York City through the years and see just how different an area can look depending on when you drop in to visit…..my very own (pretty crappy) time machine if you will.
The top image shows New Amsterdam at the time it became New York when the British took over the settlement in 1664. In the foreground is Fort Amsterdam, and leading away from it is Broadway all the way up to the wall that defended the city from intruders, site of modern day Wall Street. On the lower picture, modern day New Amsterdam/Lower Manhattan is visible, and is obviously unrecognisable from its beginnings 400 years ago. New York’s first Custom House was built on the site of the fort but burned down in 1814. After relocating a number of times, it was rebuilt here at the beginning of the 20th century (low building behind skyscrapers to the right of Battery Park). Today it houses the National Museum of the American Indian, which is strikingly appropriate given that the European settlement of New Amsterdam first took root on this spot through the dispossession of the indigenous people. The area looks a little different now however.
The top picture is entitled Corner of Greenwich Street, and was painted by Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville in 1810. It depicts the corner of Greenwich and Dey Streets in New York City, a beautiful residential area close to the northern limits of the 18th century city. A century and a half later, it was buried underneath the World Trade Centre Plaza. Same spot, different time.
The top picture above is of the Stadthuys in New Amsterdam/New York, which was the first city hall built by the Dutch in the settlement. On the approximate site today stands the global headquarters of investment bankers Goldman Sachs, which dwarfs the earlier buildings in front of it. Those smaller buildings incidentally do give a good idea of how the city looked in the pre-skyscraper era. Same place, just a time difference of around three and a half centuries.
The trio of images above were all drawn or taken looking down Wall Street towards Trinity Church at three different times. The first is a sketch of 1789, featuring the original Federal Hall where George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States that same year. The middle image was photographed in 1893, with the new Federal Hall halfway along on the right, complete with statue of Washington. Finally, the last fantastic picture was taken in the 1960s, and includes several awesome American cars. One difference that seems very obvious and jumps out at the viewer (in all the pictures) is the fact that there’s a lot less sky in the more recent modern images, obviously due to the need to build upwards as city populations grew ever denser.
Here we have the famous Flatiron Building at the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway. The first picture shows the location in 1885 with the original buildings that would shortly be cleared to make way for the iconic structure. The second picture shows the Flatiron shortly after opening in 1902, and the third image is from the present day. To be honest the modern buildings in the background are nowhere near as elegant and attractive…..in my opinion anyway……and it’s my blog.
The images above are also from the junction of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, opposite the Flatiron Building, with the first at the beginning of the 20th century and the latter present day. I know we reckon we’re pretty fashionable and stylish nowadays (I’m not including myself here obviously) but it’s fascinating how dressed up men and women were when heading out for a walk about town over a century ago.
Finally we have the most amazing sequence of images of this post examining Times Square, and tracking the development of the area over a century. The top two show the area when it was still called Longacre Square at the end of the 19th century. The first one was taken during a blizzard in 1888, and the second around 1900, and it is obvious how underdeveloped the area is…..not surprising as the main city still centred around Lower Manhattan. The third image features trams and some attractive old buildings, including the recently built (c. 1903) New York Times building, which gave the location its new moniker of Times Square. Finally, the last picture shows the modern location, which has changed A LOT!! Personally I think the older Longacre/Times Square was a hell of a lot classier…….not difficult in fairness. Same spot, different times, less sky, way more tackiness.
So that’s our whistle stop time travelling tour through Manhattan. Like I said, it’s all simply a question of time and place. According to my extensive research (a quick Google) Albert Einstein once said that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”. I remain convinced time travel is possible…..Hollywood never lies right?………so any time traveller reading this drop me a line. Who knows, maybe you already have???? In my next blog, I’ll complete my history of New York from the Commissioners Plan of 1811 to the present day. Something to look forward to for you crazy kids.