Archival Footage Lets You Explore New York City’s Diverse Neighborhoods Circa 1939

December 4, 2016 5:00 am
Little Syria (US National Archives/Time, Inc./YouTube)
Little Syria (U.S. National Archives/Time, Inc./YouTube)
Audrey Amidon


The National Film Archives recently released some unused New York City street footage shot for a documentary called Metropolis 1939. A portion of this footage has been collected into a single, 10-minute video that focuses on some of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, most notably Little Syria and Harlem. These slice-of-life shots of the city right before the start of World War II are a fascinating peek into yesteryear. (RealClearLife has teased out specific locations, which are either still standing or long gone, via time-stamps in the video below.)

Little Syria
The video opens in Little Syria, which ran down Manhattan’s Washington Street from Battery Park to right above Rector Street. Named for the population of Syrian immigrants who lived there (many of whom were Christians escaping religious persecution), Little Syria was a diverse neighborhood whose residents came from present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

The Nile Restaurant’s signage (0:14) is prominent here, as is Son of the Sheik, another Syrian restaurant (0:30, and in closeup at 0:53). A. Sahadi & Co. Importers (2:14) is still in business today as Sahadi Fine Foods.

Today, few signs of Little Syria remain. The neighborhood has since been either absorbed into Tribeca or demolished during the construction of entrance ramps to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Harlem (US National Archives/Time, Inc./YouTube)
Harlem (US National Archives/Time, Inc./YouTube)


Harlem’s presence in the video is announced by the Rhythm Club (4:07), which was a favorite late-night haunt for jazz musicians during the 1920s, many of whom went there to improvise and jam with their peers. Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet (who led the house band), and Willie “The Lion” Smith are just a few of the legends who played there.

The Harlem River Houses make an appearance here as well (7:30). One of the first two housing projects built in NYC, the Houses spans nine acres, and had only been open to residents for two years when it was filmed for this video. The project was built as part of FDR’s New Deal, and was designed to incorporate as much sunlight, air, and recreation/community space as possible. To this day, it is considered the city’s most successful housing project, and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1975, among other honors.

Harlem has changed significantly since 1939. What was once a predominantly African-American neighborhood now has a substantial Latino population (specifically in East Harlem), and is adapting to gentrification and new wealth elsewhere.

Still, it’s worth watching these outtakes to see the similarities between that New York and the current one. Beyond the rakishly-tilted hats and high-waisted pants, the pace and energy of the city hasn’t changed at all.

Watch the whole video below.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.