Check Out Downtown, Then And Now

Andy Blair, Chris Lewis PhotosAt the corner of Crown and Orange, a 15-year-old held up his Kodak Pocket Instamatic 40 and froze a 1970s instant: A bright red Oldsmobile and an avocado-green Dodge, cruising through New Haven’s furniture district.

Four decades later, a new photographer is taking aim from the spots where that teen stood—and documenting what a difference time makes.

The new photographer is Chris Lewis, a web developer who moved to town last August. Poking around online one day recently, he came across on Flickr a cache of old photographs of New Haven, taken by Andy Blair, who used to bike into New Haven from Milford as a teenager in the 1970s.

“Walking around town, the idea occurred to me,” Lewis said. He set out to recreate the photographs Blair had made. Over a couple of days of shooting in the last several weeks, Lewis has made 21 photographs to match Blair’s: Same location, same framing, same focal length.

With Blair’s permission, Lewis made an interactive website where the two sets of photos are matched. The result is a before-and-after treasure trove, a gallery to marvel at how much has changed in 40 years, and how much has stayed the same.

Andy Blair PhotoAt the corner of Crown and College, 15-year-old Blair stopped and captured an image that includes an old man with his head down, selling balloons. Close observation of the photograph reveals that “The Exorcist” was playing at the Roger Sherman Theater, now the long-shuttered Palace Theater. Star Shoe Repair and Ascot Formal Wear, both shown in the photo, have been replaced by Pacifica and Oaxaca Kitchen restaurants.

Chris Lewis PhotoThe most dramatic change is that while in 1974 Blair’s lens found no sign of plant life at that intersection, Lewis captured a half-dozen trees with his Nikon D80 on April 9 this year at the same spot.

Andy Blair PhotoThat difference in city arboreality is apparent in a number of photos, including the two photographers’ images of the New Haven Green. New Haven’s central park looks like it was much less leafy in the ‘70s.

Perhaps most striking is the evidence of design changes over the years, especially to cars. Blair’s photos offer a glimpse of long-gone models, like the the green Chevy Vega and a red Opel Cadet that wait at the light in his photo of the Green.

Andy Blair, Chris Lewis PhotosIn Blair’s view from the top of the Temple Street parking garage, a set of distinctly ‘70s-style cars is lined up.

“1970s car heaven!” Blair’s Flickr caption reads. “Ford Maverick, Chevy Vega, Oldsmobile, Mustang, AMC Javelin, even a red MG. (sorry, no Ford Pinto).”

Lewis’ photo from the same spot shows how the concrete has aged, earning a patina of green lichen. Another tell-tale detail: A black metal guardrail has been installed, perhaps a sign of an increasingly litigious society.

Thomas MacMillan PhotoOn Wednesday afternoon, Lewis, who’s 35, took a break from coding at Green Well coffee shop on Crown Street to talk about his journey into New Haven’s past and present.

“What blew my mind is there was a Macy’s here,” he said. It’s now the site of Gateway Community College.

You usually think of city getting either bigger or smaller over time, Lewis said. “New Haven seems to have done both.” While the city has new buildings, it also seems to have new empty lots, he said.

Lewis noticed that many of the traffic lights downtown are still the same, hanging over intersections on the same silver arms. The street lights, meanwhile have been changed in some spots to more ornate, antique-looking lamps.

Lewis said he makes his photos by first standing at the spot where Blair seems to have stood, then trying to match up the edges of the image, to frame his photo just like Blair did. He then uses his iPhone to compare Blair’s image to the one on the back of his Nikon D80.

He said got better at duplicating the shots as he went along, figuring out through experimentation that Blair probably had the equivalent of a 50-milimeter lens. (Blair actually used a Kodak Pocket Instamatic 40, which used 110 film.)

Lewis wasn’t quite happy with the way his photo looking up Orange Street from Crown Street lined up with Blair’s. He was working to get a better one on Wednesday when another shutterbug showed up, Chris Randall of I Love New Haven.

As for that other shutterbug, teenaged Andy Blair, he’s now 54 years old and living with a wife and kids in Pear River, New York, where he’s “a senior systems analyst for a large telecom.”

“I’ve always been kind of a street photographer,” he said. As a young teenager, “I couldn’t drive yet. I used to take the bus or bike in [to New Haven] from Milford.”

Blair said he would walk around town and photograph whatever street scenes caught his eye. “As a 14-year-old, I really wasn’t focusing on history, or what [the pictures] might look like in 2013.”

Blair said he’s a fan of Lewis’ project. “I think it’s awesome. I’m incredibly flattered that someone would find the pictures” and then try to re-create them four decades later.

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posted by: DingDong on April 26, 2013  10:51am

“A black metal guardrail has been installed, perhaps a sign of an increasingly litigious society”

Or a sign of a society that places a greater value on safety.

posted by: vintanthromodernvintage on April 26, 2013  10:59am

Great story! I discovered these photos on flickr too - what a great idea to recreate them.  For anyone who truly loves New Haven these are a must see.  Andy Blair’s shots from the 70’s are a treasure and I’m so glad that Chris Lewis is adding to the tradition for future generations of New Haven residents.

posted by: FromTheHill on April 26, 2013  11:23am

Wow, this is great, I remember always walking downtown when I was a teenager-I still do but I think I like the 70’s downtown New Haven much better.  Thank You for this article and these fantastic pictures!

posted by: Mister Jones on April 26, 2013  11:34am

Star Shoe Repair not long gone, just moved a few doors down, to a storefront closer to the theater marquee.

[Good point! I’ll make a correction.—TM]

posted by: robn on April 26, 2013  11:43am

Awesome. Maybe New Haven should chane its motto to “Die Hard”

posted by: ISR on April 26, 2013  12:44pm

Remarkable for how little has changed rather than for how much.

Sure the cars are different, but the architecural bones—as they say—are all still there, which is a good thing.

More remarkable would be then-and-now photos in the suburbs with development having paved over centuries-old farms.

posted by: Mister Jones on April 26, 2013  1:41pm

DingDong, safety yes, and more specifically, probably because of changes in building safety codes. The Temple Street Garage—Paul Rudolph’s cathedral for cars—underwent serious restoration which presumably included code upgrades.

posted by: dumblarry on April 26, 2013  2:44pm

” Blair’s photos offer a glimpse of long-gone models, like the the green Chevy Vega and a red Opel Cadet that wait at the light in his photo of the Green. “

I have to correct you in the above statement. That is definitely not an Opel Cadet. It is a 1969/1970 red Volvo 142. My father had one when they were new and I had one in the late 90’s. Great car.

posted by: TheMadcap on April 26, 2013  3:17pm

The trees really do make such a simple but huge difference to the street. It feels much warmer and friendlier with them.

posted by: anonymous on April 26, 2013  4:13pm

“The trees really do make such a simple but huge difference to the street. It feels much warmer and friendlier with them.”

Good observation.  But it’s not just a “friendliness” issue, it’s a money issue.  From just about any rational perspective, street trees are by far the most cost-effective, highest-return investment that any city can make. 

It’s an absolute tragedy that City Hall, the new Board of Aldermen, and the State DOT hasn’t made them even more of a priority. 

I know trees aren’t sexy, but given the payback, they should be at the very top of the list.

posted by: Stephen Harris on April 28, 2013  6:52pm

“1970s car heaven!” Blair’s Flickr caption reads. “Ford Maverick, Chevy Vega, Oldsmobile, Mustang, AMC Javelin, even a red MG. (sorry, no Ford Pinto).”

That’s because it kept blowing up. (Remember that joke?!). I also noticed there were much less street signs back then.

posted by: Stephen Harris on April 28, 2013  7:00pm

@ Anon,

Just to niggle at bit. European cities, by and large, don’t have a lot of street trees, except on true boulevards. I don’t see why we need to have trees on every street.

Nevertheless, this is a cool photographic thing to do.

posted by: Elihu on May 4, 2013  1:25pm

Fantastic project - will definitely share Andy’s website with friends and students.  The matching of scale and perspective in the pairings is outstanding.  Love the neon signage on Orange Street still around in the 1970s.