Cities are organisms that expand, contract, and shed their skin on a constant basis. What was once a nefarious (or, depending on your proclivities, divine) dive bar can turn into an outpost for quinoa and fresh-squeezed juice within an instant. Entire neighborhoods can change in the course of a few years, leaving behind few, if any, links to their past. To live in a city is to observe a series of snapshots; to take in what is present while it remains, and perhaps too, to bemoan what is left in its wake. Old New York is a concept, rather than a place. What is one person’s old days is another’s new beginning, and few institutions are left spared from the path of constant renewal. This makes hunting for antiquity somewhat of a pastime within the five boroughs, with entire sites devoted to remembering the city for what it used to be. History is a commodity, and our city has it in spades. All one needs to do is a little digging, and entire exoskeletons of years gone by are there for the taking.
These scavengers of New York’s past have a new tool in their arsenal by way of OldNYC, an interactive mashup of digital maps and archival photographs from the New York Public Library. A group of intrepid programmers put in the painstaking work to pinpoint the where and when of the NYPL’s 800,000 archived photos in the Milstein Collection, the library’s division dedicated to local history, national history, and genealogy.
For more on documentation, stay tuned for The Brooklyn Quarterly’s next issue, dedicated to documentation and memory.