Other than one or two of the world’s supercentenarians, nobody remembers New York in 1911. Plenty of living historians and enthusiasts of the city have paid intensive attention to that booming time period when the city’s population fast approached five million, but none experienced it first-hand. They, and we, can get no closer to it than watching the footage above, originally shot by a Swedish documentary team which set out to capture the most celebrated places in the world at the time, a list also including Niagara Falls, Paris, Monte Carlo, and Venice. The practically immaculate condition of the film highlights both the similarities and differences between the street life of New York over a century ago and of New York today.
Take a look at the tailored or tailored-looking clothing on nearly everyone, even the one-legged man making his deliberate way past the Chinese grocery. Then as now, most New Yorkers got around on foot, and since the city’s first subway line had opened just seven years before, the dominant public transit options remained streetcars and elevated trains.
In the realm of private vehicles, horse-drawn carriages had only just begun to give way to motorcars. (Since 1911 was still the age of silent film, the ambient sound of all this was added later.) “Take note of the surprising and remarkably timeless expression of boredom exhibited by a young girl filmed as she was chauffeured along Broadway in the front seat of a convertible limousine,” says the Museum of Modern Art’s notes.
MoMA, which exhibited the footage last year, also points out familiar landmarks: “Opening and closing with shots of the Statue of Liberty, the film also includes New York Harbor; Battery Park and the John Ericsson statue; the elevated railways at Bowery and Worth Streets; Broadway sights like Grace Church and Mark Cross; the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue; and Madison Avenue.” Any modern New Yorker halfway interested in the city will know all those places, and even if the city has changed in countless other ways, they’ll sense the very same characteristic vitality in these clips that they feel there today. Will New Yorkers of the future have the same reaction, to, say, the Japanese high-definition video demo footage shot on those very same streets in the 1990s? It’ll take about eighty years to find out. We probably won’t be here by then, but New York certainly will.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.