Not if Kevin Walsh can get his hands on things first.
The Brooklyn-born Walsh runs the historical Forgotten-NY.com, a website that chronicles major parts of New York’s infrastructure — buildings, streets, defunct subway lines, signs and advertising — that are disappearing as the city constantly reinvents itself and in the process erases large chunks of urban history: the “infrastructure of a lost metropolis,” as Walsh’s homepage proclaims.
Walsh has divided the website into the topics that he has researched so far — “Subways and trains,” “Streetlamps,” “Cobblestones” and “Street necrology,” the latter a guide to the dozens of New York streets that have been razed to make way for new buildings and roads. Manhattan still boasts a West Street and a South Street, for example, but North Street and East Street have long since seen erased.
The site is a labor of love for Walsh, 45, whose passion for his hometown’s history started when he was a child growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
“It begins with lampposts,” he said cryptically when asked how he got interested.
“My mother or father and I would go for walks and bus rides when I was a kid,” Walsh said. “And I’d always be noticing the different styles of lampposts. In the ’60s, all the lampposts were changed to the modern streamlined ones, fueling my fascination. I think my interest in remnants of old New York City that are still there now is a natural extrapolation from my earliest fascination with lampposts and street fixtures.”
Streetlights: boring, mundane and functional? Not at all, explains Walsh in that section of his website. The visitor is treated to the surprising tale of how the city lighted its streets through the 20th century and how elegant cast-iron streetlamps, some known as “bishop’s crooks,” gave way to the more familiar streamlined “curved mast” aluminum lamppost.
Walsh has managed to find the first-ever curved-mast lamppost, which he describes thus on his website: “So the appearance of a strange, silver-colored streamlined lamppost on Third Avenue and 46th Street in 1950 was the precursor of the New York City streetscape for decades to come. Who’d’a thunk it?”
There is often a twist in these tales, Walsh noted. As he wandered around the city to research its past, he noticed that bishop’s crooks have made a comeback in some parts of the city and are often preserved or revived in an attempt to restore some gentility to historical districts — as on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village
Streetlamps may not be your thing, but the astonishingly detailed research that Walsh brought to lampposts is an indication of how he treats all his topics on Forgotten-NY.
Walsh started photographing and researching the remnants of old New York in 1998 and launched the website in March 1999. Currently he said the site takes about 10 to 15 percent of his week to update and maintain, but he wishes he could do more.
“It’s especially fun whenever I can do something on subways and trains, or road relics, by which I mean the oldest roads in New York City that have somehow survived to the present.” he said
Like those elegant lampposts, not everything old in New York passes into the dustbin of history.
Brooklyn’s waterfront offers long-forgotten railroads and piers. The Bronx contains “remnants of abandoned subway stations.”
Subways are one of Walsh’s favorite topics, although some of his readers have their own.
“I often get requests to do more on old theaters or banks. Ironically, that subject has the least interest for me, but I do them as a completist, and because people ask for them,” he said. “I have something on theatres in the pipeline now.”
The visitor to Walsh’s website will discover that a great deal of old New York may be forgotten but has actually survived in one way or another. Under the section named “Cobblestones,” one finds that there are hundreds of cobbled streets still visible in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights and elsewhere. Walsh calls the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, “New York City’s capital of brick-faced streets.”
But much of that which survives is in various states of decay. Walsh deplores the condition of the Fourth Avenue elevated subway station in Brooklyn, whose classical and art deco styles intermingle “in a seemingly effortless manner,” but which is poorly maintained.
Asked how strongly he felt about the question of preserving New York relics in a city where space for development is often at a premium, Walsh’s answer is pragmatic.
“I can’t call myself a strict preservationist. I believe that if something has outlived its usefulness, it should come down,” he said.
“There was a building on West 3rd Street in the Village that preservationists wanted to keep simply because it had once been home to Edgar Allan Poe. But New York University tore it down anyway. I did catch it on film before it was razed. That might be the site’s true calling: making a tangible record that something was there.”
Walsh admitted that he often draws on information in existing sources, but that he collates the material into his easily read website, adding his own now vast record of photographs.
“I’m largely a collator of lots of existing studies, but also a photo documentator. So much of what I’ve photographed has already disappeared.” he said.
The website is a passion that Walsh has to balance with his day job as an ad copywriter for a large Midtown store. But few New Yorkers can claim a more intimate knowledge of their city than Walsh, who’s traversed the five boroughs many times. Only the central sections of the Bronx and the southern reaches of Staten Island have escaped him to date.
“It looks like a lifetime project,” Walsh said. “I wish I could do more.”