Sunday, August 25, 2019

Then and Now: Third Avenue at 29th Street, NYC

East 29th Street at Third Avenue, Manhattan

East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC,
East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC, in 1980.
There is a great deal of subtlety to the changes in Manhattan over the decades that is difficult to convey. People who weren't in New York in the 1970s and 1980s might not realize how dramatically the overall feeling of the city has changed since then. While a lot of New York City has remained the same over the past forty years, there has been a general change in the overall ambiance. I may not be using the best word for what I mean, so by that, I mean that a lot of the city's rough edges have been scraped down and made into more normal-looking edges. I saw the above fairly random street scene from 1980 - I have no idea what the photographer was aiming to capture, which makes it perfect for my purposes - and wondered how it has changed over four decades. It turns out that this scene has changed a bit, and how it has changed makes my point about ambiance. Accordingly, I decided to do a comparison of East 29th Street at Third Avenue from 1980 to 2017.

East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC,
East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC, in September 2017 (Google Street View).
First, I had to find the right spot. This turned out to be a fairly mundane area in Kips Bay. Fortunately, the original photo had a street sign in it, so the scene had to be somewhere on 29th Street. We're looking up an avenue, so that only leaves a handful of choices. Finally, the Chrysler Building is sticking up like a sore thumb in the distance, so that narrowed the choices down to basically Third Avenue - which it turned out to be. Verification is shown on the right (east) side of Third Avenue, where the same streetscape greets us four decades later. However, it's the left (west) side of the street that makes my point about ambiance. So, let's focus on it first.

East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC,
East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue (west side of Third Avenue), NYC, in September 2017 (Google Street View).
Walking around New York City was a different experience in 1980 than it is today. It was more... raw. There were many empty lots, lots with half-finished construction, sweeping vistas to midtown because of the absence of tall buildings. I may be exaggerating a bit, but the original 1980 picture reminded me of how common it was back then to see ... nothing. On seemingly every street there would be some lot that looked like nobody cared about it even though it was prime real estate within walking distance to midtown or downtown. You can see that on the western side of Third Avenue in the 1980 photo. Notice how distinctly the Chrysler Building shows up? There was nothing blocking it. Now, you can barely see it over the jumble of buildings.

East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC,
Biltmore Plaza, 155 East 29th Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
That empty spot on the left in the original 1980 photo, the one where if you look closely there appears to be a construction fence and maybe even one of those mobile homes they use as offices, was about to change. The Biltmore Plaza at 155 East 29th Street was already in the process of being built and was completed the following year in 1981. Doesn't it look more impressive than some empty lot or decaying 1900 building that had been neglected since the 1950s? Well, maybe you don't agree and prefer less clutter, but nothing speaks to wealth and growing confidence than putting up a 35-floor rental building in a neglected area of the city. That kind of investment tends to raise surrounding property values, too.

East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC,
Third Avenue, NYC, looking north from East 29th Street during July 2018 (Google Street View).
Looking further north, we see that there are a number of new buildings lining the western side of Third Avenue now. That darkish, tall one on the left is the Bentley at 159 East 30th Street, which opened in 1987. Beyond it, the lighter building is the Windsor Court, a 32-story building completed in 1988. Now, it becomes a little clearer why it's more difficult these days to see the Chrysler Building from East 29th Street at Third Avenue than it was in 1980. There is new construction (new as in post-1980) running all the way up along Third Avenue. The western side of Third Avenue has experienced a dramatic rebirth which has turned empty lots and neglected old commercial building into elegant housing.

East 29th Street at 3rd Avenue, NYC,
East 29th Street at Third Avenue, NYC, east side of the street in September 2017.
The east side of the street, meanwhile, hasn't changed much at all. Although it looks similar, the tall white building in the distance has been replaced by a newer version, 200 East 32nd Street, finished in 1990. Nothing wrong with an upgrade. The rest of the buildings are the same. For instance, 413 Third Avenue (the one with the noodle shop) was built in 1930, 200 East 30th Street (the boxy one the corner) was built in 1967, and so on. This row was perfectly fine in 1980 and remains so today. The point is that the entire ambiance of this section of Manhattan has changed because there has been a great deal of construction since 1980 where it was needed most. And that is a subtle change that you only can appreciate by having walked the streets then, and now.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Some of the biggest changes in Manhattan over the decades are extremely subtle, and it is easy to overlook them if you don't recall how the city used to look. Also, New York City, unlike some other large cities, has been open to building new housing, and this has taken some of the pressure off of rents (which are still too high, but not as high as they would be without all this fairly recent construction). Please visit some of our other pages in this series!


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