Photos Of New York City From Each Decade Have People In Awe Of Its Transformation

From the towering majesty of the Empire State Building to the verdant beauty of Central Park, The Big Apple is as much a New Yorker’s pride as it is a tourist’s dream. But go back through the years, and the city is almost unrecognizable — but just as magical. Step back in time with the following photographs, which reveal just how much NYC has changed over the years.


Brooklyn Bridge builders

It’s hard to believe that the Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t always just… there, but photographic evidence proves it didn’t randomly pop into existence. This amazing photo shows the iconic bridge not only during construction, but onlookers surveying the monumental event from a scarily high walkway⁠ — and in dapper hats to boot! A few more cogs and this could be a painted landscape straight out of a sci-fi steampunk art book. 

Store fronts

If you think internet pop-up ads are bad, you should have seen 1880s New York⁠ — the ads lined the buildings! The marketing approach to old stores seemed to be ‘write your name in letters as large as possible and attach it to your place of business.’ Looking at this picture is almost like seeing the ancestor of the modern mall. It’s hard to believe it’s an NYC street and not a cowboy town, though. 

The “el”

For New Yorkers who routinely ride the subway, the now-scrapped 1870s elevated train⁠s — or “the els”⁠ — are whimsical pieces of societal nostalgia. Sure, they revolutionized public transport in a time when crossing the street was far more dangerous. But as history professor Clifton Hood told website Bloomberg in 2016, “The els were loud, dirty, messy and slow… run by monopolistic companies that provided bad service.” At least the subway’s fast. 


Penny Farthings

Early Penny Farthing bicycles, with their overly large front wheels and theatrically small rear ones, are a quintessential Victorian image. And it’s true that English inventor James Starley made them. Yet they weren’t just used across the pond! New Yorkers rode them too, and seeing the asymmetrical vehicles side-by-side with a modern bicycle just highlights how strange and alien they look to us now.

Ice skating in Central Park

Are you familiar with Central Park’s ice-skating scene? Maybe you’ve even been on a romantic date there, or enjoyed a fun time with your close friend. If it holds sentimental meaning to you then you’ll get a kick out of how ice skating has a long history in the park, going back over a century. Just look at these two partners cutting shapes, connected to you over the years by common interests.

Oyster snack

Coastal cuisine has existed in The Big Apple for a long time, though it’s evolved over the past couple of centuries. You may be familiar with luxury seafood restaurants such as Morty’s Oyster Stand in the Hamptons. Yet back in the 1800s they were stands by name and by nature⁠ — just a person selling their wares on the dockside. Now the seafood business has come out of its shell. 

Girl in a doorway

If you’re one of the people who don’t like street meat, when you see how food was displayed in the 1890s you’ll blow a fuse. This photo of New York’s lower east side shows how grocery shops used to let it all hang out⁠ — literally. The food would just swing in the breeze, exposed to the elements, flies and whatever else that came its way. Hotdogs don’t look so bad now, huh?


Wallack's Theatre on Broadway

No matter how familiar you are with Broadway, you won’t see anything resembling Wallack’s now, but in its day the theater was famous. Actor Lester Wallack originally built it, though the building changed both names and hands multiple times. It even appeared to rise from the ashes of its demolition before astonished early movie-goers, though this was simply a reversed film shown to symbolize New York’s cyclic construction. 

Garbage clean up

Then there was life without garbage trucks. We take those huge vehicles for granted now, maybe curse them under your breath if you’re one of New York’s unlucky drivers. But back in the 1800s, they were just carts overflowing with society’s debris, and by the look of the streets they had a lot of work. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.


Women-only subway car

Did you know for a short time NYC had women-only subway cars? The idea was obviously to prevent women from being harrassed and targeted by male criminals. It didn’t last though, because women often preferred to ride with men and didn’t want a few bad apples to spoil the bunch. Interestingly, some countries⁠ — notably Japan⁠ — still have subway cars reserved for women.

Central Park Mall

We’re cheating a little bit here, because the majority of these photos show eye-popping transformations. But what makes this picture so incredible is how little has changed since the early 1900s. Central Park Mall looks more or less the same as it did back then! Sure, the benches are modernized and there are a few more street lamps, but it almost looks like it’s frozen in time.

Brooklyn Bridge

You’ve seen pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge under construction, and here it is completed! After its public opening, worrisome rumors created concerns about the bridge’s stability and even led to a stampede that proved tragically fatal for 12 people. Happily, none other than P.T. Barnum calmed the panic by taking 21 elephants across the bridge to prove its safety.

Manhattan Island

This woman taking a ferry to Manhattan Island is an incredible example of how much fashions have changed over the decades. Yet contrary to how you might imagine older attire, she’s very elegant and refined: she’s a stark contrast to the smoky industrial hardness in the background. And of course, the architecture gives a fascinating glimpse into how Manhattan itself has risen since those early days. 

Cab stand at Madison Square

It’s infamously difficult to catch a cab in the Big Apple, especially at certain times. Yet the cabs of the past were a different matter entirely. For one, they weren’t even cars! New Yorkers in the 1900s caught horse-drawn carriages, which we refer to as cabs. But perhaps even more mystifying, they actually waited at the side of the roads for customers. Can you even imagine?


Baseball game

The more things change, the more they stay the same! Baseball, the nation’s pastime, has played a large part in the U.S. throughout recent history, and New York is no exception. When a game was on, the Polo Grounds would flood with baseball fans, glued as ever to the action on the field. A sea of boater hats replace baseball caps, but it’s a familiar image at its core.

Fire-escape steps

Some fashions seem to be on a constant loop of re-emergence, but this one hasn’t returned… yet. New Yorkers Winnifred Brown, left, and Louise White embrace the trend of their age by rolling their stockings down to the tops of their shoes. This was quite a controversy in the 1900s, signifying a spark of rebellion when women were vying for independence.

Penn Station

Penn Station isn’t just one of the busiest rail hubs in the U.S., it’s also among the most popular in the world — so it’s unlikely that many people have seen it as empty as in this photo. Enjoy the sight while you can! The station was built in 1910 but has changed a few times over the years. This picture was taken just a year after it first opened.


Taxi cabs

Notice anything different about the early taxis, apart from the obvious? Look at the colors. Cabs used to be black instead of yellow! That’s not true outside the U.S.: in the U.K. they’re almost exclusively black, and some have even been imported⁠ — for a large fee, we might add. According to The Washington Post newspaper, in 2005 there were 265 black cabs in America, though that number may have increased since.

Amusement concession at Coney Island

Coney Island broke many conventions in the early days. Not only did people from all walks of life enjoy its attractions together unbound by social backgrounds, men and women were cuddling together in public without a chaperone. Unthinkable! It also featured the first roller coaster in the United States, the Switchback Railway designed by LaMarcus Thompson, which sped passengers along at 6mph. Okay, it’s no Kingda Ka, but that was fast for the time. 

News of the world

Believe it or not, newspaper stands exist today despite the rise of digital media… at least for now. In the face of their decline, modern proponents sought to find a way to keep them relevant. In 2017 New Stand CEO Andrew Deitchman told website Thrillist, “We can put a smile on someone’s face and help make their day a little easier... [news stands] are part of a routine.”

Precariously perched on the Manhattan Building

This incredible photo from 1929 shows Jack Reilly, a particularly adventurous young photographer, seeing New York the way few people ever have⁠ — 72 stories up on the Bank of Manhattan. It’s not just amazing for the location, though. It also shows Wall Street under construction in the background, so it’s as jaw-dropping for its history as it is for its dynamism.


Construction workers stop for lunch

In the 1930s health and safety laws were virtually non-existent. Get hungry while you’re building the RCA building in Rockefeller Center? Who cares if you’re 800 feet in the air, just sit your tuchus down on the steel girder you’re using and have your lunch. And if that thought isn’t enough to give you vertigo, check out the high-rise buildings in the background, far below the workers. Yikes!

Street vendors

Early street vendor carts were quite literally that⁠ — small kiosks the owner could push around to new locations when business was slow. They offered New Yorkers a chance to taste food from other cultures, since many vendors were actually immigrants trying to make a living. Much of that is still true, even if the carts are more advanced. And what better way to sample overseas delights from the comfort of your home city? 


Times Square on a rainy day

It’s easier to write off the rain as an inconvenience than appreciate the beauty of a downpour, but this photo of Times Square in the 1940s is gorgeous. There are a lot of differences from the modern-day square, the most obvious being the traditional street signs in place of their contemporary digital counterparts. The roads have been pedestrianized in recent years too, but in this image the wet roads reflect the square in all its glory. 



Famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson wasn’t just a renowned fighter in his day, he was also a business owner. As shown in this picture, Robinson had two businesses on the streets of Harlem, including a restaurant. And it appears as though business was booming! The boxer looked sharp in his ’50’s fashion, embracing the popular pink hues in both his dapper suit and classic Cadillac.

Grand Central station

Opinions are divided as to whether you should call it Grand Central Station, or by its previous name, Grand Central Terminal, since there are key differences between the two definitions to those in the know. But what’s in a name, right? Either way, Grand Central has undergone a lot of changes over the years, and this side-by-side proves they’re practically two different buildings. 

Hitting the bar

This young dating couple are fortunate they weren’t out on the town in the 1930s. At that time Prohibition was still in full swing, and simply going to a bar as these two were would have been against the law. Interestingly, this one seems to advertise its food selection even more than its alcohol, which is quite different to the bars of today. 

Newspaper strike on the subway

Before the news went digital, tabloids played an important role by not only informing people about the world but also keeping them entertained. So you can imagine how people felt in 1953 when engravers went on strike, essentially halting newspaper production. The long faces of the bored commuters in this picture prove just how important the medium was in its day. 

Why did the cow cross the street?

Well, now here’s something you don’t see these days, even on the streets of New York City! Barbara Jean Bossus, or Milkmaid Princess Kay, is pictured here with a prize heifer as part of the June Dairy Month tradition. Trying to do this in modern NYC traffic would be infinitely more difficult, but this one made it to the President’s Gettysburg farm safely.

Teenage street gang

Street gangs from the 1950s couldn’t be any more different to their modern-day counterparts. The youths in this photo look more like something out of West Side Story as they go on the prowl looking for potential new candidates. Maybe they need another member to help with the high notes? They were probably quite intimidating to their rule-abiding New Yorkers at the time, though! 



Back in the 19th and 20th century, immigration was high in the U.S. and New York in particular; those from China tended to settle in the same area. They came together to make Chinatown, a home away from home for those from the Far East. Although there are other Chinatowns across America, the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants arrived in New York, making it the largest of its kind in the country.


Payphones are something of a novelty these days — everyone has a smartphone in their pocket at all times, after all — but back in the ’60s you had to squeeze into a tiny booth to make your calls and hope no one had used it as a public toilet. They did improve a little and were redesigned as open-air booths later on. Sure, it felt less private, but it was an improvement over their claustrophobia-inducing predecessors.

Sunning in Central Park

New Yorkers are lucky to have such natural beauty as Central Park in the middle of the city, and three Broadway stars are taking a day off to have a lakeside picnic. The lovely ladies are, from left, Carnival’s Nicole Barth, Irma La Douce’s Virginia Vestoff, and Carnival’s Anita Gillette. The contrast between the lush greenery and the skyscrapers on the horizon is stunning.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie

Pizza Burger Pete’s has been in business since it opened in 1957 and even if you weren’t eating, you could enjoy watching the chefs making their pizza through the window. Looking at these images now, it’s hard to believe that pizzas were ever as cheap as 15 cents a pop, but the photographic evidence speaks for itself. Ah, the good old days. 

Times Square

This is another shot of Times Square, and the difference between this picture and its 1940s counterpart is already obvious. Its buildings are significantly higher than its past incarnation, and it’s much closer to its current structure. It was also starting to look more like the center of entertainment it would later become, with not one but two movie theaters in view.

New York City Police Department

The challenges police officers face are very different from those of yesteryear, but at least communication is a marked improvement. Back in the day, they only had radio microphones to pass messages along to each other and now they have a whole communications network. Considering how developed the city has become, though, the change was necessary and now they can be dispatched at a moment’s notice.


Taxi and nuns

Nothing screams the 1970s as much as the loosening of previously repressed morals. Sure, the ’60s brought about free love, but the ’70s introduced the sexual revolution, both on TV and in general society. Adult entertainment was on the rise, so to speak, as you can clearly see in this picture. Perhaps that’s precisely why the nuns are patrolling the streets of NYC?

Coney Island

Coney Island is a great place to survey the spectrum of fashion no matter what decade you’re in, and the ’70s were no exception. These two young men were very on point at the time. They seem to be displaying a combination of disco fashion with the prominent collars and glam rock — particularly the guy on the right, whose bare torso is a classic trademark of the style.


Riding the subway

The New York City subway shows such a variety of commuters, it’s like a kaleidoscope of society. If you can see them, that is, cramped into the subway cars as they are. This picture captures the atmosphere of subway travel perfectly, with its claustrophobic atmosphere and graffiti-covered train carriage. Though even in such conditions, it’s nice to see one man has managed to take the time to catch up on his reading! 


Bricked-up building

In recent times, wherever there are abandoned buildings, there are those who use them as canvases. Some people are against it, and see it as an act of vandalism. The counter-argument is that it’s street art, which brightens up otherwise depressing locations. Whatever your stance, there’s no question that an unidentified artist has made this condemned building more colorful.