There goes the neighborhood

It’s always a treat to get a glimpse of the city you live in as it was once was, and it’s perhaps even more of a delight to get a 70-year-old overview of the very neighborhood in which you reside. is a fun site that revisits neighborhood profiles that were first published in 1943. As is described on the site, “In 1943, four local newspapers published a New York City Market Analysis. Largely forgotten in the 70 years since, the document provides an amazing window into New York’s neighborhoods of that era.”

The intro continues, “The 250-page Market Analysis provides hundreds of photos & color-coded maps, statistics, and short narratives about neighborhoods across the city. The statistics and maps are based on the 1940 Census, providing a rich complement to the individual 1940 Census records that are available online.”

What did we learn about our own neighborhood of Chelsea? We learned that the average rent on our block in 1943 was between $30-49. It’s now perhaps 100 times that (we live in a rent-stabilized apartment, so we’re not sure what the average monthly tariff is for non-stabilized flats, but our own rent is 40 times that thirty dollars).

We also learned (well, had confirmed—we sort of knew it already) that, in those days, Chelsea was “a very active industrial and manufacturing district.” The overview mentions the meatpacking district, which, when we first moved to the neighborhood, was still going strong, but is now mostly chi-chi shops and expensive eateries and nightspots. And the manufacturing is mostly long gone; there are more art galleries than anything else in the neighborhood now.

In 1943, Chelsea was home to 20,584 families, of which Italians made up the largest single “foreign-born group.” And yet, we’re not sure we’ve ever encountered someone who was born in Italy in 23 years of residing in the neighborhood.

If you live in New York City, you’ll get a kick out of learning how your neighborhood has changed in the past 70 years; if you don’t, just pick a favorite area of the city and start exploring.

Those were the days

It’s a common trait among New Yorkers, both native-born and émigrés of long-standing: We’re all convinced that city’s glory days are now behind it, that the latest arrivals from such outposts asa Waukegan, Wewoka, and Walla Walla are clueless as to what they’ve missed as the city continues to renovate, refurbish and remake itself and beloved retail establishments, eateries, nightspots, and culture centers close their doors for good.

Mind you, this attitude has not become prevalent in just the past couple of years or even the past couple of decades. It’s been this way for at least a century and probably longer. All it takes the closing of a favorite dumpling house, dive bar, or quirky boutique, and we quickly jump to the conclusion that the city just ain’t what it used to be.

Well, what the city used to be is easier to ascertain now, with the opening of the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery. This collection of more than 870,000 images lets New Yorkers (and those who wish they were) browse the city’s past with ease, whether one prefers to browse a particular collection of images or use key words to search the entire gallery.

We naturally searched for sepia images of our neighborhood, Chelsea, and we learned that the city is much better off today than it was in the 1930s in at least one key category: In looking at several 1931 shots of our very own block, we were struck by the utter lack of foliage.

Say what you will about the good old days in NYC, the city had a distinct shortage of trees back then, as the photos below demonstrate. As quickly as we’d jump at the chance to time travel back to 1931, we think our block looks significantly more appealing today than it did then (the cool old cars aside), and if you’ll click on the images, you can get an even better look.

Long ago and far away in a town called Midland Park

the 1965 Midland Park High School yearbookWe’ve been thinking a bit of late about the scavenging through artifacts left behind from decades not long past that we do on a regular basis.

They often yield surprises we don’t expect.

A few years ago (aw heck, we’ll come clean—it was 1997), we were wandering through a tiny flea market in our Manhattan neighborhood, just a few blocks from where we reside.

We were taken by a 1965 yearbook from Midland Park Junior/Senior High School in Midland Park, New Jersey. We kind of liked the design of the book, and we enjoyed, as we always do when browsing old yearbooks, taking in the faces and fashions of the students and faculty. The year 1965 was on that cusp between the bouffants and crew cuts of the Fifties and early Sixties and the coming Mod look of the late Sixties. Most of the pictures could just as easily have come from a 1959 yearbook, frankly, but there were a few signs of what was to come: In one candid shot, for example, a boy was dressed in rather psychedelic-era duds, with longish hair and a beret (though it seemed to have been a costume).

But mostly, we were intrigued by the mystery of whose yearbook it was. There were, throughout, inscriptions to someone named “Jack” [We’ve changed all the names in this account to preserve anonymity]. One full page one was filled with the sentiments of a young man bemoaning the fact that he and Jack had never gotten closer, though he expressed agreement with the way Jack had once assessed their relationship: They were too much alike, Jack felt, to ever be very close.

Despite that, Bob, the inscriber, praised Jack. “You, as the ‘Banger,’ really know how to make the wild scene, but always keep your sense of values within firm grasp.” Bob goes on to urge Jack to remember that, “[H]aving a good time means many things to many different people—never ridicule anyone who would rather sit home and read rather than go ‘upstate.'” Bob quickly dropped that stance, however, admitting that he had no place to lecture Jack.

Jack’s English teacher, Cathy Cartwright, an attractive young brunette in a black turtleneck sweater and with a B.A. from Paterson State College in Paterson, N.J., writes, “Jack—One of the few we shall never forget. It was quite an experience having you in class these two years. You made it worth it [emphasis Miss Cartwright’s]. Keep in touch tomorrows.”
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