Seventy years from now, new generations of New Yorkers will be able to watch old episodes of Law & Order or Girls to get a glimpse into a past life in the city. Our generation isn’t so often afforded that luxury, unless we’re looking at a grainy black-and-white video. But a clip from the 1949 film Mighty Manhattan – New York’s Wonder City showcases some of the NYC’s most iconic sights in amazing Technicolor.
As Untapped Cities notes, “If you can handle the quintessentially mid-century voiceover by James A. Patrick, apparently known then as “The Voice of the Globe,” the cultural generalizations and the patriotism, you can then revel in New York as it was nearly 70 years ago.” Not surprisingly, the clip opens with a shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by a view of the much leaner skyline with the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building dominating the screen. Made in the age of the automobile, the film then turns quickly to the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, George Washington Bridge and Riverside Drive.
Chelsea Piers looks wildly different, as steam ships are docked there. Wall Street also looks like another world, especially with the elevated trains running through the area.
The cultural generalizations come into play when the film hits the Bowery, referring to it as a “sad reflection on the best laid plans of the city founders…a fantastic maze of blight and shadow” where “dreary men and unfortunate outcasts of society” spend their final days. Chinatown is called a “tourist attraction” and “popular meeting places for the Chinese who live in greater New York…a mecca for their reunions and assemblies,” but the actual residents of the neighborhood are not addressed.
The film also highlights architectural gems such as the “so-called” Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building, Trinity Church, Temple Emanu-el, and others. When it looks down the shopping corridor of Fifth Avenue we can see one of the double-decker buses that was common at the time.
Horse-drawn carriages at Central Park
Funnily enough, when the narrator takes us through Central Park he notes that the horse-drawn carriages that take couples on romantic strolls are becoming rarer and rarer. A visit to the Central Park Zoo shows a sea lion feeding, the “carnivorous and quite dangerous” white polar bears, and the hippo, the “laziest animal in the zoo.”
Rockefeller Center Gardens
When we arrive at Rockefeller Center we get a rare glimpse of the rooftop gardens, which were open for public tours in the ’40s. The film ends with the Woolworth Building, “a fitting symbol of mighty Manhattan’s spectacular growth.”
Video and images via Mighty Manhattan – New York’s Wonder City