Almost A Cliché

The 1908 photo above is Cortlandt Street, looking east from West Street. In other words, this is a view of the heart of the lower Manhattan business district from the Hudson River. There’s an enormous amount to see here, and B. P. at “Stuff Nobody Cares About” has written a good blog post detailing the businesses in the foreground, the billboards, and the people. I want to talk about the bigger picture.

There’s a huge contrast between the foreground and the background, and it’s not just the height of the buildings. (In the background, left to right, we have one of the Hudson Terminal buildings, the City Investing building, and the Singer tower.) The buildings in the foreground were built in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, mostly mid, and housed businesses that are not connected with skyscrapers: low-end hotels, small-scale retailers and wholesalers, and even some small-scale industry connected to the port. The skyscrapers in the background are the white-collar future of the area. Everything still in existence in the 1960s, from where the camera was located to Church Street three blocks inland, would be demolished for the World Trade Center: there is a Cortlandt Street station on the 1 train, which follows the line of Greenwich Street – the street with the elevated trains in the picture – but there’s no longer a Cortlandt Street that far west, as it was demapped for the WTC.

The elevated serves as a nice boundary here: it was modern when constructed in 1868, compared to the old buildings around it, but it was the past by 1908, compared with the faster, cleaner, quieter, and higher-capacity subway under Broadway, two blocks east. Forty years is an eternity when discussing the maturation of a technology. Think about the IBM PCs of 1982 and the computers, tablets, and smartphones of 2022, and then think about the changes in building technology between 1868 and 1908. The differences between the new buildings and the old buildings in the photo is far greater than the differences between current-day buildings and the new buildings. Those early twentieth-century skyscrapers had analytically-designed steel frames, electric power, high-speed elevators, and modern plumbing, none of which were available in the older buildings as built. So what you’re seeing here is the difference between pre-modern and modern construction, and the changes since the modern buildings are incremental.

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