Saturday, January 7, 2012

New York New York

‘The basic fact of modern civilization is the city. Wherever we may live, city influences surround us. Even in rural areas, city ways and city preoccupations have to a great extent displaced traditional habits and interests. Whether we love the city or are repelled by it, our homes and our clothes, our forms of entertainment and our jobs, our political attitudes and our powers of social behavior, all directly or indirectly reflect the influence of urban modes and urban methods. For the city is the most dramatic and compelling expression of the creative energies released by the interaction of democracy and industrialism, the twin forces which are reshaping our world. There is no corner of any land, no island in the sea, where the shadow of the city’s towers does not fall. There is no human being anywhere who is exempt from the agony and triumph, the despair and aspiration, out of which those towers spring.’ — from the preface of The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York (1953) by John A. Kouwenhoven

Packing, shifting, sorting and trying to make sense of moving a household to new ground, good friends uncovered from under a lamp on top of a wardrobe last week a long forgotten book. The first thought must have been, “What in the heck was this doing up there? I thought we had lost this book.” Fortunate indeed it was not lost, and more fortune in the fact that it hadn’t suffered much wear and tear or exposure to sunlight. I say that because the book is not an old dogeared and valueless reprint of Danielle Steele, but rather a 1953 first edition of The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York by John A. Kouwenhoven. And it is a truly matchless compilation of drawings and photographs covering 300 years of the city’s growth. My friends were kind enough to allow me some time to peruse the book and make some scans of a few representative photographs. Special treat for a book lover. Below are some examples…

1953 first edition of The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York by John A. Kouwenhoven

Row of houses on State Street facing Battery Park (1864); at the time of the photograph all were occupied by army offices.

Back porch of 436 West 27th Street about 1872; the house was built around 1825, the longtime residence of actor, Edwin Forrest. At the time of the photograph it was owned by the Drummond family shown gathered on the steps.

Hester Street looking west from Clinton Street toward the Bowery; taken in 1888, the photograph is of the area commonly called the Pig Market, the principal shopping district of the most crowded slum district in the city. The left background shows a short stretch of the old elevated railway.

These two photos show construction of the Times building. The left was taken in 1902 from below 43rd Street looking north across the triangular plot between Broadway (right) and Seventh Avenue (left). The right photograph was taken in 1904, looking south along Broadway from 44th Street. The steel frame of the Times building is already being covered with its sheath of terracotta and pink granite.

From a series of Ellis Island photographs of immigrants taken in 1905

A 1906 photograph of the Flatiron Building, designed by D.H. Burnham & Co. and erected in 1901-02; the building was for several years the world’s most famous skyscraper. The photograph here is by Edward Steichen.

Gerrit A. Beneker’s 1911 drawing, A Drink of Water; steelworkers who built the city’s great bridges and skyscrapers were romantic symbols of the constructive energies shaping the modern metropolis. The bridge under construction in the drawing is the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. In the background is the Brooklyn Bridge and the tower of the Singer Building.

This photograph by the well-known Walker Evans was taken in 1932 and is titled South Street, New York.

A wide-angle photograph from about 1940, looking straight up from the lower plaza of Rockefeller Center, site of a skating rink in winter, and in summer outdoor dining.


  1. We couldn't have put it in better hands. What a great blog. I love the photos you chose and there were so very many to choose from. I'm very glad we found the book after so many years, and I'm glad we were able to share it with you.

  2. What a wonderful post today. Historical pictures do tell a story, don't they? The early pictures were taken about the time Mother Sibley was born in Boston.

  3. Of all the arts, photography perfectly captures a moment in time. Subjective only in the placement of the camera (and if not staged), no other medium is so arresting in the depiction of its subject. A writer may take a 1000 words to describe the scene but a photograph is a lively moment stilled and the viewer supplies his own story about that moment. Grand photography in a beautiful book.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America