Old photographs possess a special kind of magic. They can freeze people and places in two dimensions, locking time on a 4X6 surface. But when seeking answers from the past, as OnEarth has been all this month, photos can also help us unlock times gone by, providing a reminder of forgotten life lessons that still apply today.
Especially in a city as fast-paced as New York, where I live, sometimes what is spectacular to see in the frozen scenes from old photographs is not the change, but the continuity. We’ve given new names to many of the old behaviors that once defined city life—sidewalks represent “new urbanism,” shopping at a farmer’s market makes you a “locavore,” taking public transportation makes you “carbon conscious”—but really, many of the hot trends in sustainability were here all along.
In the face of our childhood obesity epidemic, the sight of kids racing down the street takes on new meaning. Back in 1931, a fleet of children racing toward the intersection of 28th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan wouldn’t have seemed out of place, while almost a century later, children march down the same street, but with their parents in tow.
New York’s High Line sat decaying for years after the elevated train track on Manhattan’s west side fell into disuse, after this picture was taken in the 1950s. Today, the High Line has found new life as a park and pedestrian walkway—a demonstration that in an urban environment, old discarded things can be new and useful again with investment and energy.
Central Park’s designer wouldn’t have loved watching it fill up with runners, walkers, and bikers every morning. Though he believed in public accessibility, Frederick Law Olmsted thought horse-drawn carriage rides were the proper way to experience nature, and the park’s byways are designed with that in mind. But people find their own uses for public space—whether quietly sitting on a park bench, as these two Central Park visitors did in the 1950s, or hooked up to a mobile GPS jogging app today. What’s important is recognizing the community need for shared ground.
This open-air farmer’s market stand on Bleeker Street was the common way to purchase produce in 1937. Today, supermarkets are everywhere, yet the Union Square market and others like it around the city are all the rage.
New Yorkers have always been good walkers. In the 1920s, you could ease your long commute-on-foot by hopping on a public street car, while today, tourists carry on the tradition at the intersection of Broadway and Battery Place, hopping on and off tour buses to explore the city.
The rules for riding the subway haven’t changed much over the years—and neither have the crowds, as seen in this picture from 1953 and the scene today in 2013.
Original photos from New York Public Library Photo Archive, Friends of the High Line, and Time online archive. New photos taken by Mary X. Dennis.