March 22, 2002
5:19 AM   Subscribe

The New York City I first saw in 1985 has partially disappeared, and vanishes more everyday. The New York of 50 years ago, the veneer of daily life in the city, is but a memory. The city of 100 years ago is a shadow, remembered by no one. But the past remains, if not in direct human memory, in "lampposts, advertisements, bridges, buildings, signs, and things you pass every day in the street that bear silent witness to the NYC that once was." What lies forgotten below the streets? The decaying splendor of an bygone age, as well as the deep roots that have sprouted and nourished the present, living city...
posted by evanizer (37 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for throwing my morning right out the window. Fantastic post. And I've only even been to that first link so far.
posted by luser at 6:10 AM on March 22, 2002

And since it's relevant, I will once again post my desperate plea for help in re-finding one of the coolest sites ever about old parts of cities, and what's lost and gained over the years. The details are here.
posted by luser at 6:15 AM on March 22, 2002

Another one of note - The New York That Never Really Was.
posted by lampshade at 6:27 AM on March 22, 2002

Actually, another (and probably better link) to TNYTNRW is here.
posted by lampshade at 6:31 AM on March 22, 2002

Though I've never actually been to New York, I'm pretty sure the area you are referring to is the doman of the C.H.U.D.s.
posted by ColdChef at 6:37 AM on March 22, 2002

I'm filled with melancholy after looking at some of these links. Both of my parents grew up in Manhattan, and I have many old photographs that would fit right in with some that you've linked to here. I spent many a childhood weekend driving into Manhattan to visit family relatives, and I can almost hear and smell and taste memories of those days now. I lived in various parts of Manhattan after college, and every time I go back to visit, the whole city has transformed itself and I have to get to know it all over again. Ah, nostalgia.

In spite of the fact that the web design of most of these links seriously leaves something to be desired (like thumbnails and descriptive text aligned with the photographs), I'm going to spend the better part of the day looking through all of these, for glimpses of things I remember. A wonderful post, and so poetically presented. Thanks.
posted by iconomy at 6:48 AM on March 22, 2002

Forgive me for the long quote, but I think it applies here. It's from an excellent translation (by John Russell) of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss, chapter 11, pages 100-1.

“The cities of the New World have one characteristic in common: that they pass from first youth to decreptitude with no intermediary stage. One of my Brazilian girl-students returned in tears from her first visit to France: whiteness and cleanness were the criteria by which she judged a city, and Paris, with its blackened buildings, had seemed to her filthy and repugnant. But American cities never offer that holiday state, outside of time, to which great monuments can transport us; nor do they transcend the primary urban function and become objects of contemplation and reflection. What struck me about New York, or Chicago, or their southerly counterpart São Paulo, was not the absence of ‘ancient remains’; this is, on the contrary, a positive element in their significance. So far from joining those European tourists who go into sulks because they cannot add another thirteenth-century cathedral to their collection, I am delighted to adapt myself to a system that has no backward dimension in time; and I enjoy having a different form of civilization to interpret. If I err, it is in the opposite sense: as these are new cities, and cities who newness is their whole being and their justification, I find it difficult to forgive them for not staying new for ever. The older a European city is, the more highly we regard it; in American, every year brings with it an element of disgrace. For they are not merely ‘newly built’; they are built for renewal, and the sooner the better. When a new quarter is run up it doesn't look like a city, as we understand the word; it's too brilliant, too new, too high-spirited. It reminds us more of our fairgrounds and temporary international exhibitions. But these are buildings that stay long after our exhibitions would have closed, and they don't last well: façades begin to peel off, rain and soot leave their marks, the style goes out of fashion, and the original lay-out is ruined when someone loses patience and tears down the buildings next door. It is not a case of new cities contrasted with old, but rather of cities whose cycle of evolution is very rapid as against others whose cycle of evolution is slow. Certain European cities are dying off slowly and peacefully; the cities of the New World have a perpetual high temperature, a chronic illness which prevents them, for all their everlasting youthfullness, from ever being entirely well.

“What astonished me in São Paulo in 1935, and in New York and Chicago in 1941, was not their newness, but the rapidity with which time's ravages had set in. I knew that these cities had started ten centuries behind our own, but I had not realized, somehow, that large areas in them were already fifty years old and were not ashamed to let it be seen. For their only ornament was their youth, and youth is as fugitive for a city as for the people who live in it. Old ironwork, trams as red as fire-engines, mahogany bars with balustrades of polished brass; brickyards in deserted alleys where the wind was the only street-cleaner; countrified parish churches next door to office buildings and stock exchanges built in the likeness of cathedrals; apartment-houses green with age that overhung canyons criss-crossed with fire-escapes, swing-bridges, and the like; a city that pushed continually upwards as new buildings were built on the ruins of their predecessors: such was Chicago, image of the Americas, and it isn't surprising that the New World should cherish in Chicago the memory of the 1880s, for this modest perspective, less than a century in extent, is all that antiquity can mean in those parts. To our millenary cities it would hardly serve even as a unit of judgment, but in Chicago, where people do not think in terms of time, it already offers scope for nostalgia.”
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:56 AM on March 22, 2002

Lovely, lovely stuff. Makes me want to explore some of the dusty corners of Cardiff when I visit tomorrow.
posted by ceiriog at 7:17 AM on March 22, 2002

Terrific Katchor-esque post.
posted by BT at 7:22 AM on March 22, 2002

Yes BT. . .I was about to post Katchor's site. I revel in his work which could be New York although I kept seeing Old Los Angeles (yes there is one) in it.
posted by Danf at 7:52 AM on March 22, 2002

While we certainly may miss some of the cool old stuff in New York, New York is a vibrant organism that has been changing pretty much continuously, for better or for worse, pretty much since the get go. That's one of the cool things about it.
posted by bob bisquick at 7:58 AM on March 22, 2002

Not on the web, but the classic book of this genre is Lost Chicago, a large-format coffee-table work with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of some of the city's architectural gems -- among them, for example, the original Federal Building, a glorious explosion of Victorian baroque classicism, that was later replaced by the award-winning and ground-breaking glass box of Mies van der Rohe (but what wouldn't we give for the other today).

Vintage Chicago {slow, somewhat broken} covers the city using old postcards.
posted by dhartung at 8:31 AM on March 22, 2002

Fine post and fine remarks and leads supplied by the many posters! I love it. Ny is always a-making itself, a work of art in progress, much like the age we now live in, rather than the graveyard filled with relics from centuries ago. Sure, such relics are fine, gorgeous, but Ny has been for years a very exciting place, and the exotic mix of peoples, foods, shows, electricity in the air--all make the heart go bumpty bump. And the old myth about the coldness and indifference of NY is as always nonsense. If you have lived there you know this.
posted by Postroad at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2002

There's a Pizza Hut here in Woodside that is built in a tram station on Northern Boulevard. This store has pictures of the area when the trams actually ran, and the station was in use. It's very intresting.

But to be quite honest I don't mind the rate of change here in NYC. The weirdest is Times Square, I had not noticed how much it had changed in the past three years until I recently saw it in a movie shot in '98. Of course I did notice the British Airways Concorde billboard disappear, because the building it used to attached to, was demolished.
posted by riffola at 8:45 AM on March 22, 2002

metafilter's going up the tubes.
posted by jeb at 8:45 AM on March 22, 2002

Excellent post, evanizer! The City Hall station is gorgeous. I can tell this will be one of those MetaFilter posts I come back to over and over again. Here's a similar site (which has likely been linked here before), but it's appropriate. I love this sort of thing.
posted by biscotti at 8:46 AM on March 22, 2002

Oh yeah, I forgot to link to the abandoned missile silo site as well.
posted by biscotti at 8:50 AM on March 22, 2002

Magnificent, Evan. Thanks. The fact that you walk about the post, in every sense of the word, makes it live.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:15 AM on March 22, 2002

Here's a cool site about all of the abandoned Nike missile sites in and around NYC. My personal favorite is the Hart Island site, now home to Potter's Field.
posted by risenc at 9:16 AM on March 22, 2002

Five movies (out of many, of course) in which New York itself is a character:

Age of Innocence - Scorcese's portrayal of a time when being a New Yorker meant something much different. Feel the bittersweetness, as the upper-class characters are dragged into an era that is less glamorous but more egalitarian.

Manhattan - Woody Allen's gorgeous black and white love story, really more about his attraction to NYC than to Mariel Hemingway.

Escape From New York - Carpenter's portrayal of NYC as a massive prison of the future. A vital part of the plot revolves around the idea that the WTC will still be there.

Wall Street - Stone makes the buildings look like monsters ready to eat little Charlie Sheen as he struggles to backstab his way to Michael Douglas.

Marathon Man - Glamorous spy Roy Scheider leaves exotic Paris to visit his obsessive academic brother Dustin Hoffman in NYC. The strange interweaving of past and present, local and international events, could only take place there.
posted by bingo at 9:39 AM on March 22, 2002

Tom Beller's site has some tales of old New York to match particular places.
posted by liam at 9:47 AM on March 22, 2002

Neil 'Sandman' Gaiman devised his book and TV series Neverwhere around much the same idea. The action takes place in London Below, a network of sewers and abandoned Underground stations, where Blackfriars is the home of real Black Friars, there's a bridge in Knightsbridge guarded by a sinister knight and HMS Belfast (the battleship moored on the Thames) plays host to a Lankhmar-esque Floating Market after lights-out. It's got its own Subterranean Legendary Animal to match the NYC gators, too.
posted by CatherineB at 9:51 AM on March 22, 2002

I loved the Sandman and am a big Neil Gaiman fan in general, but the tv series of Neverwhere sucked in a major way. Supposedly it's bound for the big screen eventually; maybe a bigger production value and good actors will help it work.
posted by bingo at 9:58 AM on March 22, 2002

I am so excited to explore this post completely! I've only gone to the first link so far and I'm totally fascinated; I like old maps and roads, and those hidden alleys - especially the ones with the still-visible cobblestones - are very cool. I am going to New York at the end of April, and I will be there for over a week. I've already seen the "touristy" stuff and I was hoping to get more deeply into the city. I can't wait to go hunting for these treasures. Thanks, evanizer.
posted by rio at 10:04 AM on March 22, 2002

Neverwhere TV was a good idea badly realised. To be honest I'll be surprised if it ever makes it to film, and it might have worked better as a graphic novel or stand-alone book in any case - those seem to be the media that suit him best.

If it does hit Hollywood, it's going to need a director with enough creative vision to give life to Gaiman's imagination. You can't just shine a dim light at a brick wall, pump a few canisters of dry ice around, call it all 'atmosphere' and do him justice.
posted by CatherineB at 10:12 AM on March 22, 2002

This is why I love the 'Filter.
posted by inviolable at 10:42 AM on March 22, 2002

biscotti's link was the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. You've got to read the guy's trip into the Paris Catacombs. I am so jealous. I would LOVE to do that.

Seeing all the old beautiful stations in NY makes me sad. I guess because we just don't make things like that anymore, and we don't spend the time and money to make beautiful tunnels and public works of art. Too utilitarian now.

I could spend hours just following all the links on this!
posted by aacheson at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2002

Bravo Evan. A superior post. It was one of the best for this New Yorker.
posted by caraig at 11:44 AM on March 22, 2002

Great post. Not only what I love about MeFi, but what I love about the internet itself. Who cares about the dot com flame out? This is what it was always about, anyway.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:51 AM on March 22, 2002

Great post. This thread will become a button on my browser.

I saw the Katchor exhibit at the Jewish Museum last year. I don't terribly care for his caracatures (people), but his renderings of buildings are sublime (I especially liked the little film he narrated). His work evokes the mysterious black and white city I remember as a sub-ten year-old in the late 1960's (anyone remember the little candy machines on the columns of the subway with the little chicklet boxes, the mirror and the big knob?)

The last vestiges of the pre-1960's New York are best breathed in the other boros, and, perhaps, certain areas of Manhattan east of Broadway and south of 14th St. Especially on a cloudy day or at night.
posted by ParisParamus at 12:09 PM on March 22, 2002

Nice set of links, Ev. Another great way to feel the ghost of old New York is to read this book and then walk around downtown at night. Luc Sante understands NYC like almost noone.
posted by jonmc at 12:48 PM on March 22, 2002

Helprin's Winter's Tale is of New York as it was, as it is, as it might yet be (lost in the wall of clouds).

I read through the book again right before I visited the city. Walking into Grand Central station, I couldn't help staring at the reversed sky above in search of a downward glancing face -- that of the master of the great engines of the city, returned.
posted by Kikkoman at 1:02 PM on March 22, 2002

jonmc: I couldn't agree more about Lowlife. I only didn't link to it earlier, 'cos I had done so in a previous thread, and must rein in the urge to keep pimping my favorite things.
posted by liam at 1:34 PM on March 22, 2002

In the Viridian issue of Whole Earth magazine from last summer there's a neat little article by William Gibson entitled "Metrophagy" talking about just these sorts of things (and recommending a few books as well). If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.
posted by finn at 2:10 PM on March 22, 2002

Great list, bingo. I would add Once Upon a Time in America for that great Prohibition-era Lower East Side flavor, and The Bone Collector; while not in itself a great movie, the too few underground scenes of NY subway systems and catacombs were fascinating.
posted by iconomy at 5:44 PM on March 22, 2002

Thanks for the other suggestions, gang. They're all great. Our pal Lileks has a nice site devoted to New York postcards.

Another site I love is by Frank Jump, who photographs the fading painted ads of New York. Jump writes:
" It has become a metaphor for survival for me since, like myself, many of these ads have long outlived their expected life span. Although this project doesn't deal directly with HIV/AIDS, it is no accident I've chosen to document such a transitory and evanescent subject.
You can read the rest of Jump's description of his work here.

Also check out the haunting, lovely images by Phillip Buehler on his site 'Modern Ruins'. They're not all New York, but fascinating just as well.
posted by evanizer at 7:35 PM on March 22, 2002

There is also an interesting site here which deals with the history of the lower east side tenements and their occupants.
posted by sillygit at 10:03 PM on March 22, 2002

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