THE CURRENTS OF THESE STREETS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT FIRST APPEARED IN 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott’s comprehensive visual essay Changing New York had already weathered several years of bitter struggle over its content, a debate between Abbott’s New Deal-era sponsors at the Federal Art Project and her publisher, E.P.Dutton, over just what kind of book it should be. Berenice and her partner, writer Elizabeth McCausland, envisioned the tour of the the five boroughs as a documentary, at a time when the very term itself was new, with virtually no one agreed on what it even meant. Abbott’s idea for the book was to show skyscrapers and shacks, apartment towers and wharf warehouses, side-by-side, to illustrate the constancy of evolution, of a city that not only never slept but hardly ever slowed down. Meanwhile the Feds and Dutton had their own separate agendas, resulting in a fierce tug-of-war over the final configuration of CNY. In the end, Abbott was forced to severely modulate her vision. However, in the broad sweep of history, even her “mutilated” masterpiece proved essential, not only in the history of New York but in the development of photography as a fine art.
Over the years, I have seldom been without a copy of Changing New York, which began as a collection of over 300 plates and was published with just under 100. Different “restored” or “complete” versions continue in print to the present day, and the reader is welcome to embrace Abbott and McCausland’s original sequence and text, or an exhaustive compendium of everything she shot, and draw his/her own conclusions. With the past year involving a lot of looking over my shoulder at my own accumulated photographic output, I recently found that, quite unintentionally, I have, over the last twenty years or so, made pictures of several of the very same street scenes that were covered in CNY, creating a very personal “before and after” comparison between the Manhattan of 1939 and that of today. In a few cases, many of the players….buildings, transport systems, street configurations…have remained remarkably stable. By contrast, a look at the two images of Columbus Circle shown here, Abbott’s from 1938 and my own from 2015, may as well be comparisons of the sun and the moon.
We tend to think of cities as static things, as fixed objects which are always “there”. And, in the case of a few mile markers like the Empire State or the Statue of Liberty, that’s certainly true. But in general, urban areas are being both created and destroyed every day, the currents of their streets ebbing and flowing. Abbott tried to demonstrate this in the New York of the Depression years, a time when convulsive social change, tremendous economic disparity and an uncertain future showed a city that had already begun to obliterate its pre-1900 past in the name of progress. Despite the art-by-committee compromises that Dutton and the FAP visited upon the first version of Changing New York, Berenice Abbott succeeded better than she could have known in giving us a detailed, unsentimental record of the way of cities in The American Century. And today, when we make our own pilgrimages to those same streets, we cannot help peering through her viewfinder in pursuit of our personal visions.