American Cities Then & Now: See How New York, Los Angeles & Detroit Look Today, Compared to the 1930s and 1940s

Palimpsest has become clichéd as a descrip­tor of cities, but only due to its truth. Repeat­ed­ly eras­ing and rewrit­ing parts of cities over years, decades, and cen­turies has left us with built envi­ron­ments that reflect every peri­od of urban his­to­ry at once. Or at least in an ide­al world they do: we’ve all felt the dull­ness of new cities built whole, or of old cities that have bare­ly changed in liv­ing mem­o­ry, dull­ness that under­scores the val­ue of places in which a vari­ety of forms, styles, and eras all coex­ist. Take New York, which even in the 1930s pre­sent­ed the gen­teel­ly his­tor­i­cal along­side the thor­ough­ly mod­ern. The New York­er video above places dri­ving footage from that era along­side the same places — the Brook­lyn Bridge, Cen­tral Park, Harlem, the West Side High­way— shot in 2017, high­light­ing what has changed, and even more so what has­n’t.

Los Ange­les has under­gone a more dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tion, as Kevin McAlester’s side-by-side video of Bunker Hill in the 1940s and 2016 reveals. “An area of rough­ly five square blocks in down­town Los Ange­les,” says The New York­er, Bunker Hill was from 1959 “the sub­ject of a mas­sive urban-renew­al project, in which ‘improve­ment’ was gen­er­al­ly defined by the peo­ple who stood to prof­it from it, as well as their back­ers at City Hall, at the expense of any­one stand­ing in their way.”

The 53-year process turned a neigh­bor­hood of “some of the city’s most ele­gant man­sions and hotels,” lat­er sub­di­vid­ed and “pop­u­lat­ed by a mix of pen­sion­ers, immi­grants, work­ers, and peo­ple look­ing to get lost,” into an attempt­ed acrop­o­lis of works by archi­tec­tur­al super­stars, includ­ing Frank Gehry’s Dis­ney Con­cert Hall, recent Pritzk­er-win­ner Ara­ta Isoza­k­i’s Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, and John Port­man’s (movie-beloved) Bonaven­ture Hotel.

Above the clas­sic Amer­i­can build­ings of Detroit stands anoth­er of Port­man’s sig­na­ture glass-and-steel cylin­ders: the Renais­sance Cen­ter, com­mis­sioned in the 1970s by Hen­ry Ford II as the cen­ter­piece of the city’s hoped-for revival. Three decades ear­li­er, says The New York­er, “Detroit was the fourth-largest city in Amer­i­ca, draw­ing in work­ers with oppor­tu­ni­ties for sta­ble employ­ment on the assem­bly lines at the Ford, Gen­er­al Motors, and Chrysler plants.” But soon “fac­to­ries closed, and jobs van­ished from the city that had been the cen­ter of the indus­try.” The Motor City’s down­ward slide con­tin­ued until its 2013 bank­rupt­cy, but some auto man­u­fac­tur­ing remains, as shown in this split-screen video of Detroit over the past cen­tu­ry along­side Detroit in 2018. It even includes footage of the QLine, the street­car that opened in the pre­vi­ous year amid the lat­est wave of inter­est in restor­ing Detroit to its for­mer glo­ry. As in any city, the most sol­id future for Detroit must be built, in part, with the mate­ri­als of its past.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lon­don Mashed Up: Footage of the City from 1924 Lay­ered Onto Footage from 2013

Paris, New York & Havana Come to Life in Col­orized Films Shot Between 1890 and 1931

Watch Life on the Streets of Tokyo in Footage Record­ed in 1913: Caught Between the Tra­di­tion­al and the Mod­ern

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

Pris­tine Footage Lets You Revis­it Life in Paris in the 1890s: Watch Footage Shot by the Lumière Broth­ers

The Old­est Known Footage of Lon­don (1890–1920) Fea­tures the City’s Great Land­marks

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, 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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.