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

Video Anti-Muslim Sponsor of Texas Cartoon Contest Draws Ire

Pamela Geller's supporters say she speaks truth about sensitive topic, while critics say she preaches 'that Islam is inherently evil' More

East Meets West in Exhibition Showing Chinese Influence on Fashion

Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition juxtaposes influence of art, imagery and culture, from Imperial China to the present day, on Western fashion and design More

South Africa Begins New Love Affair With Vinyl Records

Enthusiasts say the 'rebirth' of vinyl is resulting in a rebirth of music in South Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Mass Grave Exposes Entrenched Trafficking in Thailandi
X
May 05, 2015 5:50 PM
Police in southern Thailand have found two more camps believed to have held human trafficking victims -- one containing a buried skeleton. This comes just days after officials announced arrests in connection with the grisly discovery of 26 bodies in a mass grave at another location. Officials suspect as many as 400 mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar were being held for ransom at the remote camp near the Malaysian border. Steve Sandford reports on developments in the case.
Video

Video Mass Grave Exposes Entrenched Trafficking in Thailand

Police in southern Thailand have found two more camps believed to have held human trafficking victims -- one containing a buried skeleton. This comes just days after officials announced arrests in connection with the grisly discovery of 26 bodies in a mass grave at another location. Officials suspect as many as 400 mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar were being held for ransom at the remote camp near the Malaysian border. Steve Sandford reports on developments in the case.
Video

Video Russia's 'Victory Day' Glory Over Nazis Overshadowed by Ukraine

ussia is preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, known since the Soviet era as “The Great Patriotic War,” with a massive parade on May 9th of military hardware and millions of medals handed out to veterans or their relatives. But critics say the Soviet-style display of power and nationalism overshadows tragic scars during and after the war that still influence politics and foreign policy, especially in the current Ukraine crisis.
Video

Video WWII Anniversary Brings Old Friends and New Worries

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has special significance, with Russia becoming more assertive in Ukraine and sending its military planes to the edges of western countries’ airspace. Changes in the geostrategic balance and the transatlantic relationship are felt across the continent, not least in German towns that have hosted U.S. military bases since the defeat of Nazi Germany. VOA’s Al Pessin visited Schweinfurt, Germany, where a large base closed last year.
Video

Video Abraham Lincoln Funeral Re-created for 150th Civil War Anniversary

Over the last four years, commemorative events to mark the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War have brought thousands of visitors to battlefields and historic landmarks across the country. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, the final event in the Civil War's sesquicentennial honors the final journey home of the slain American President, Abraham Lincoln.
Video

Video Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalists

Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Volunteers Pull Together to Aid Baltimore Riot Victims

Calm has returned to Baltimore, Maryland, after authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed almost a week ago to stem the rioting that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray - the 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. Six police officers, three of them African-American, have been charged in connection with his death. Baltimore is now trying to get back to normal, in part with the help of volunteers who responded to calls to help those in the city'
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Obama Praises Work of 3 Immigrant Journalists

President Barack Obama met with three immigrant journalists at the White House Friday to praise them for their work ahead of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. In attendance: Dieu Cay (his pen name) a blogger from Vietnam recently released from prison; Lily Mengesha from Ethiopia who was harassed and detained for exposing the marrying off of young girls as child brides, and Fatima Tlisova, an ethnic Circassian from the North Caucasus region of Russia, who works for VOA's Russian Service.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”