A Look at New York City Before the Cars Totally Took Over

Video screen capture. MOMA video

An amazing movie restored and released by MOMA shows a city that's both the same and very different.

In 1911 the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern made a movie of a visit to New York City; the Museum of Modern Art has adjusted the speed and added a bit of a soundtrack and released it on Youtube. I do not live in New York but have spent a lot of time there, and recently have been writing about the conflicts between people who drive, bike, take transit and walk.

In many ways, New York looks much the same; the road patterns and many of the buildings survive. But there are many differences; there is not a single person of either sex in the movie who is not wearing a hat, and in most cases, they are walking wherever they want. The sidewalks are almost always wider and more comfortable, and they are always busy,

264 fifth avenue then

MOMA video/Video screen capture

This photo shows 264 Fifth Avenue, and the sidewalk appears as wide as two car lanes.

264 today

Google street view/via

Here it is today, and there are six car lanes.

Flatiron building then

MOMA video/Video screen capture

On the other hand, the area in front of the Flatiron building at Broadway and Fifth is all road, with some kind of pedestrian control posts and ropes, but everyone is still walking everywhere.

Flatiorn today

Google street view/via

Today, Broadway has been pedestrianized, there are bike lanes and plants, and in this case, one might say it has actually been improved.


MOMA video/Video screen capture

Madison Avenue looks like a lovely walking street back then, with wide sidewalks and stoops leading from what appear to be gracious homes and apartment buildings.

madison today

Google street view/via

Today, Madison is a car sewer, albeit with a few trees down here. But all those stairs into the buildings are gone, the street is widened and hardly attractive.

car on street

MOMA video/Video screen capture

We do see the beginning of the invasion of the automobile, as a wealthy family gets chauffeured around town. A lot of other people and vehicles defer to the much faster car. But it does share the road and let a delivery vehicle cut in front to turn.

women in hats

MOMA video/Video screen capture

The overall impression one gets is that this is a city that was occupied by people walking, not driving. They were everywhere and they owned the place. They all seemed to dress up, and there are some amazing hats.

Street in NY

MOMA video/Video screen capture

It is hard to believe that even in New York, the streets were for people, not cars. Watch the whole remarkable video: