Assorted Ideas

It’s 1911, And New York City Is Rising

It’s 1911, and New York City is rising fast. Electric elevators, subways, cities merging… All these sent the city soaring, and a newly colorized film from MOMA tells the story.

By David Stone

The New York City we know today is a child among urban giants in 1911. It didn’t exist until 1898. That’s when Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island merged with Manhattan and the “Annexed Section,” forming a major metropolis out of competing towns.

low angle photo of flatiron building
The Flatiron Building, ahead of its time, already split Broadway and Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street in 1911.

In the early 20th Century, the first automobiles compete with horse-drawn wagons and streetcars. There are no stop signs or traffic lights, and nobody rides a bicycle.

The Annexed Section is The Bronx, part of New York County since 1874, not yet home of the Yankees.

That, along with two other inventions, made an exciting brew.

The electric elevator, popularized in the 1880s, made skyscrapers feasible, and the New York City subway opened in 1904, bringing hordes of commuters for the first time.

But there’s more to that story than rapid growth and urban power, and you get the idea from a remarkable video offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It shows a city in 1911 that has many familiar sites but also people visibly on the cusp of change.

1911 New York City Rising

Although the video starts and ends with a cliche, views of the Statue of Liberty, it’s really about the streets of New York.

Another recent invention, horseless carriages compete with street cars, horse-drawn buggies and pedestrians in the days before painted crosswalks.

One of the first chauffeured vehicles carries a jammed in family down the avenue, cheerful driver contrasting with a stiff head of the family. (Don’t miss the grinning daughter in the back. She seems to be having the most fun.)

The Flatiron Building, Madison Square Park — without the Shake Shack — the Third Avenue El curling north and Chinatown, all make appearances. Crisp, clean and thoughtfully colorized.

1911 New York City Rising, MOMA Video

What strikes me in this video is something that stayed for decades, until culture exploded in mid-century: Almost every man wears a suit, tie and hat. Women? Fewer on the streets than today, but all fully covered in long skirts and high collars.

A puritan ethic prevailed, nice in its way, until it wasn’t.

After watching this video, take a walk and see how much changed. We talk about computers and the digital revolution, but it’s the people. The public differences are so dramatic, it’s hard to imagine the flux stopping here.

From buttoned up formality to ripped jeans and Tees… What comes next?

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