Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and the New York Public Library's collection of photographs offers a nearly endless supply of it. But as Don Draper once noted, in Greek nostalgia means "the pain from an old wound." And nothing is more painful than plucking out some historic photographs of NYC, reshooting them in present day, and placing them side-by-side. The exercise does, however, also offer a striking look at just how much the city has changed, while giving glimpses at things that have miraculously remained.
Below, as part of our Dear NYC series, we've recaptured old photos of New York through a 2020 lens. Photographer Scott Heins traversed the five boroughs for this project, and said, "[if] anything defines New York City, it's change. Almost every image from the 20th century is, in a way, impossible to recreate now..."
Previously we visited Staten Island; this time around we're headed to Manhattan.
Astor Place Cube, a.k.a. Alamo
Bernard Rosenthal's Alamo, also known as the Astor Place Cube, arrived in its spot at Astor Place and Lafayette in 1967, as part of the Cultural Showcase Festival exhibition in October of that year. Following its debut, locals petitioned to make it a permanent installation, according to the NY Times. And so it remained, a Cor-Ten steel structure that weighs thousands of pounds and is more difficult to spin than it may appear (many people have reported the cube as being "stuck," but those people are just too weak!).
Love or hate this hunk of steel, the Astor Place Cube remains today (after a brief hiatus a few years back) — a beloved, albeit mediocre piece of public art. The surrounding area has changed a bit, however — a luxury glass condo with a Chase bank on the ground floor now stands where you see the parking lot in the original photo.
Grand Street & East Broadway
While the NYPL offers a wide date range on this photo (1940-1979), it was definitely taken in the 1970s because you can see one of the Twin Towers in the distance. The World Trade center opened in 1973, and this was likely taken that year as it appears completed. The storefronts feature Leibowitz's meat & poultry shop, and Aldo's luncheonette, neither of which remain today.
While the storefronts are different — now a cleaners and pizza shop — and the background now features One World Trade Center, all of the buildings remain in the forefront remain to this day.
Central Park Lake
This photo was taken at least four decades ago at the Central Park Lake. One of the most notable buildings in the backdrop is the two-tower San Remo, just two blocks from another famous residential building, The Dakota. The San Remo opened in 1930, and not long after — during the Great Depression — many of its larger units were subdivided in an effort to rent them out; this added twenty more units the building.
The San Remo (now largely a home to celebrities) remains today, as do the surrounding buildings in the original photo. The most striking change is that the view hasn't changed at all — Central Park's perimeter is now dotted with supertalls, but this view remains historic and untarnished by modern development.
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking through the New York Public Library's vast offering of photographs which span the history of the city. You can find these images through the NYPL’s Digital Collections portal, which is open to all.