'In the Throes of Creation': Color Photos of New York from the 1940s

A set of rare images captures the city's classic buildings along with its timeless spirit

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All photos courtesy of the Charles W. Cushman collection at Indiana University

In 1905, after years of living in Paris, Atlantic author Alvan Sanborn came home to a New York City that was, he wrote, "a wilderness of sprawling ugliness." In Lower Manhattan, new 20-story skyscrapers were ruining the view, blocking the elegant spires of Trinity Church and the swoops of the Brooklyn Bridge. Even the city's stateliest sections lacked Paris's charm and symmetry, Sanborn complained; the buildings seemed to be "turn[ing] their backs most impolitely on one another." 

But after a month at home, Sanborn's disgust gave way to giddy excitement. He realized that the American city was "in the throes of creation," growing a new body to match its emerging mind: 

Materially, mentally, and morally, New York is growing helter-skelter, very much as the untouched forest grows,--big trees and little trees, straight trees and crooked trees, saplings, bushes, brakes, ferns, flowers, mushrooms, and toadstools in a bewildering tangle,--and it exhales a similar aroma of unjaded life, which cannot fail to thrill every man who has a drop of red blood in him.

After a generation of immigration, jazz, and Art Deco, that jumble of buildings sprouted into a true city. Its robust atmosphere comes through in these photos by Charles W. Cushman, an Indiana photographer who visited New York in 1941 and 1942. Cushman was one of very few photographers who shot on expensive color Kodachrome, and his pictures look disarmingly recent: the stones glow with real sunlight, and the people have the ruddy skin tones of living human beings. 

A modern New Yorker will see at a glance how the city has changed since Cushman snapped these photos. Some of the most iconic buildings were demolished long ago, and neighborhoods like the Lower East Side have transformed beyond recognition. But certain features are unmistakably familiar: the wry smiles on the faces, the charm of the street vendors, even the hodge-podge of old and new architecture. At a time when Americans are remembering the fall of New York's tallest edifices, these images remind us that a great city has a spirit that grows up alongside its buildings, and ultimately transcends them.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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