One of our favorite internet pastimes is browsing vintage pictures. We love having them as sort of a time capsule to visit whenever we want to travel to a place unknown to us. It’s good to remind yourself every once in a while that there were many lives happening years before you were born. Here are some of our favorite vintage city photographs that show us how much the world around us has changed.
L.A. is a city with an ever-changing face. In this photo, the six-decade difference is in sharp relief. Back when the picture was taken, several L.A. landmarks, such as the Statler Hotel and the L.A. Times building were still under construction, and the Hollywood Freeway was brand new. What’s most striking to us, though, is the sheer difference in scale between right and left—look how much taller the buildings are now, and how much of the sky was still visible from that vantage point in 1951. This is a beautifully striking snapshot of the passage of time, modeled by one of the most iconic cities in America.
The thing that makes this side-by-side comparison of past and (relatively) present Shanghai so striking is the comparatively small time difference—only 20 years! Two decades bore witness to a veritable urban explosion, resulting in much less green space, but a truly breathtaking skyline. Today, the charm of the pleasant port in the top photograph is buried beneath the futuristic glam of skyscrapers and city lights, but Shanghai’s status as the biggest city in China—and the biggest in the world, by population—stands as a testament to its great financial strength. Although it has always been an important sea port due to its extremely favorable location, these days there is absolutely no mistaking Shanghai as a place of power.
Ah, London: land of fish, chips and smog. Maybe you think the horizon in the top picture looks faded because it’s over 100 years old, but we’re willing to bet that it’s just a precursor to the Great Smog of ’52—and no, we did not just make that up. 1900 was the last year of Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign, and the year that London switched from its old government system of districts over to metropolitan boroughs. Just one year later, a smallpox epidemic swept through the city, killing over 2,000 of its citizens. Today, London sort of looks like a stockier, more robust version of its old self, with cars instead of horses, and—at least from this angle—only a few ultra-modern skyscrapers piercing through that impressive cloud cover. We do like the one in the back that looks like a glass rocket ship; it is informally known as The Gherkin. The more you know!
Maybe this is one of the more nontraditional photographs of past and present New York City, but that’s kind of why we like it. The bridge is not the iconic Brooklyn Bridge that everyone seems to expect in pictures of the Big Apple; it is the Williamsburg Bridge, which was opened in December of 1903 and for a time held the record of longest suspension bridge on Earth. What catches our eye the most in this set of photographs are the lights, and the tiny swath of buildings that’s visible beneath the bridge in present day. Although we’re quite sure the bridge would have been lighted back when the first shot was taken, being able to see the lights with such clarity somehow helps to solidify the passage of time here. And look, once again, at how drastically the skyline changed—what was once a rather barren stretch gave rise to huge, sparkling towers.
We had to check and make sure the top photo was real, because it looks like a fantasy landscape to us, something out of a particularly urban-centered Tolkien novel, maybe. The shocking thing here is the amount of sprawl; that whole empty countryside in the back is now covered in the same crowded blanket of buildings. Even the base of the mountain’s been swallowed by urban expansion. Greece may be facing some heavy economic trials today, but these pictures are irrefutable proof of a people’s ability to thrive. Interestingly, this is the only photograph that doesn’t prominently feature at least one enormous skyscraper—different architectural priorities, perhaps? The ruins aren’t visible either, but we suppose that might be going back a little too far.
This one is absolutely incredible—it’s practically impossible to tell that these are pictures of the same city. At the time the first was taken, Qatar had only been independent for six years–since 1971—and its new capital city of Doha was just emerging. In 1973, the University of Qatar opened, followed in 1975 by the Qatar National Museum. While this was happening, the old neighborhoods were being demolished in favor of new suburban developments. The next twenty years saw an amazing boom in population, and after that, the city took off. Now, Doha is the site of Education City, a 14-kilometer complex devoted entirely to educational facilities. The city has also hosted international sporting events, as well as its own film festival. Recognized as a world city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, Doha has reached a place where it can definitely hold its own as an emergent metropolis in the world.