Book Review: New York Changing

New York Changing: Revisiting Berenice Abbott's New York, by Douglas Levere

The titling of Berenice Abbott's classic 1939 book Changing New York almost screams for what Levere accomplished sixty years later, a rephotographed update that documents the changing fabric of Manhattan and the other boroughs. In fact Abbott attempted that very thing in 1954 but gave up, complaining of increased traffic. While the fifties did see Modernist skyscrapers rise across Manhattan, it may have been too soon for change to be readily apparent. Spending his free time from 1997-2002 documenting this change, Levere's 81 photographs (about 25% of Abbott's original) come at a time when urban change is more rapid and accepted. Nevertheless, the comparisons between then and now are striking, even when the changes are minimal. Using the same cameras and lenses as Abbott, Levere overlaid a transparency of her shot to align and frame the scene, sometimes a simple feat but typically a difficult one when so little remains.

The photographs tend to fall into three broad categories: landmarks, the mundane, the urban fabric. In the first case, we see how postcard views of early skyscrapers, bridges and the like have been encroached by buildings in the intervening years. Some areas, like Wall Street, preserve the views to an amazing degree but more often than not we see the cruel nature of development and design choices. In the second case, small buildings, storefronts, and other unexceptional architecture exhibits the most change, being susceptible to the wrecking ball and changing tastes and trends. And for the people that find comfort in the lasting images of A. Zito & Sons Bakery on Bleeker Street, it has unfortunately closed its doors since Levere's photograph. In the third case, these images are the most dramatic, particularly when the photographers ascend to the rooftops for unique vantages of the urban fabric. Here we don't see the physical differences as much as we start to understand the city and its organic growth and evolution.