News / Arts & Entertainment

New York Sounds Live On in Old Recordings

Times Square area near 42nd Street in New York City in the 1920s. Sounds from that era are now available online.
Times Square area near 42nd Street in New York City in the 1920s. Sounds from that era are now available online.
Adam Phillips
— In the hyper-visual world of today’s New York City, where digital video recordings of daily life are constantly made and instantly posted, it can be pleasantly jarring to listen to the everyday sounds of a different era, when audio recordings of everyday people were almost never heard or shared. 

During the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1929, the wind pushed a huge balloon float down toward the crowd, which scrambled to get out of the way. Almost all those people are now gone, but their humanity lives on in a sound-rich film clip that is typical of the trove of outtakes from Fox Movietone newsreels at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections

For three years, Princeton University historian Emily Thompson pored over those treasures with University of Southern California web designer Scott Mahoy. The result is their Roaring Twenties website, which they call "an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City."

New York Sounds Live on in Old Recordings
New York Sounds Live on in Old Recordingsi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

“This isn’t so much the objective, distanced, detailed description that professional historians often write," Thompson said. "But in evoking a world long gone that people have memories of or connect their families to, that kind of personal history, I think sound can provide a kind of emotional element that doesn’t fully come through, certainly in the photographs.”

One example of that element is a Movietone clip recorded while cruising down “Radio Row,” a stretch of Cortlandt Street crowded with shops selling vacuum-tube wireless radios and phonograph players, both high-tech gadgets at the time.      

“And to advertise their wares, these shops had loudspeakers mounted either over the front door or on the sidewalk," Thompson said. "So imagine 10 or 12 shops all within earshot all doing this at the same time and you can get a sense of why it was considered by many to be the noisiest place in New York City.”

Thompson says that fire engine and ambulance sirens from the era seem much louder to her than those in use today, as do foghorns from the city’s still-bustling port.

“When you hear the volume at which those things actually let out on some of our recordings of them, you can hardly imagine what it must have been like to hear that hundreds of times every night as you’re trying to sleep,” she said.

Movietone crews often recorded the growing city at work. They captured pile drivers digging into Manhattan’s sandy soil to make way for skyscrapers, and the elevated trains and subways that connected the city's five boroughs.

And they recorded indoor sounds, such as the clatter of an ultra-modern office building cafeteria of the time patronized entirely by female clerical workers.

But New York during the Roaring Twenties was also a city at play. An itinerant kazoo seller entertains a crowd, and in another clip, children enjoy a ride on a small horse-drawn merry go round.

On Coney Island, the fabled urban amusement park by the sea, a young man amuses his friends with a ukulele and barkers lure customers to try their luck on a Luna Park pig slide.

Thompson hopes these narrow slices of life from long ago will broaden our awareness of the world we inhabit today.    

“And perhaps something you can take away from that experience is to direct that same kind of mental energy at our own sound world and really don’t just hear what’s around you but listen to it, and think about what it means and celebrate the parts that you like and complain about the parts that you don’t.”

No one knows for sure which New York sounds will be heard by people in the next century, but one thing seems certain: there will be plenty of complaint and celebration in the mix.

You May Like

Uganda Court Annuls Anti-Gay Law

Court says law was passed in parliament without enough members present for a full quorum More

Multimedia Thailand Makes Efforts to Improve Conditions for Migrant Laborers

In Thailand, its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to work; one company, in-collaboration with other organizations, address safety concerns More

In Indonesia, Jihad Video Raises Concern

Video calls on Indonesians to join Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborersi
X
Steve Herman
August 01, 2014 6:22 PM
Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborers

Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video Public Raises its Voice on Power Plant Pollution

In the United States, proposed rules to cut pollution from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants are generating a heated debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with writing and implementing the plan, has already received 300,000 written comments. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, another 1,600 people are lining up this week at EPA headquarters and at satellite offices around the country to give their testimony in person.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

The public in China is welcoming the Communist Party's decision to investigate one of the country's once most powerful politicians, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the move by President Xi Jinping is not only an effort to win more support for the party, but an essential step to furthering much needed economic reforms and removing those who would stand in the way of change. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Los Angeles singer-songwriter Irene Diaz has a modern pop take on the jazz torch-song tradition. She sat down with Larry London on this edition of "Border Crossings" to perform and talk about her music.