For me, the history of NYC is what makes this city a romantic place to live. Not romantic as in romance (though, it is that too) but romantic in the way that, around a corner, if you look with your eyes wide open, you’ll find a slice of history that adds to the experience of living in New York City.
Super genius (IMHO) software engineer Dan Venderkam recently launched OldNYC, a collection of tens of thousands of images of New York City dating back to the 1920s and even earlier, each plotted on an interactive map at their point of capture. Find your street corner and click on the red dot to see what it looked like 100 years ago.
The images come from New York Public Library, where Vanderkam has been working with library staff since early 2013. Users of OldNYC click on a point on the map to bring up a list of images showing what was once there. The images all come from the New York Public Library’s Milstein Collection. While many photographers contributed to the collection, the majority of its images are the work of Percy Loomis Sperr, who documented changes to the city from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.(see more on this below)
Users are encouraged to flag inaccuracies and add their own anecdotes about the snapshots on the map, crowdsourcing personal insight into the city’s history – I’ve already added to my block!
The New York City photograph collection began in the 1920s, not long after the opening of the new central library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The goal was to document the changing face of New York City, with a particular emphasis on new building construction, and on the structures torn down and replaced. The method is clear in this 1937 progress report by librarian Sylvester L. Vigilante on obtaining photographs: “The old Union League Building and site was taken care of and the erection of the new building is being covered…. Through the newspapers and tips from interested people, we get a line on demolitions, events and street changes.”
Historical photographs complemented contemporary images, as the collection continued to grow systematically through commissioned photographs, purchases, and gifts into the early 1970s. The original photographs in the collection are mounted on heavy paper with identifying address information. Extensive captions are provided on the reverse.
Among the well-known photographers represented are Berenice Abbott, Alexander Alland, A. Tennyson Beals and his wife Jessie Tarbox Beals, Ewing Galloway, Samuel H. Gottscho, Fay Sturtevant Lincoln, and Irving Underhill, as well as photo agencies such as Brown Brothers, Culver Service, International Photos, Underwood and Underwood, and Wurtz Brothers. In addition, a Staten Island-based commercial photographer, Percy Loomis Sperr (1890-1964), working under contract and directed by Library staff, produced nearly 30,000 of the collection’s photographs to document changes in the City from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.