The New York Public Library file for Percy Loomis Sperr consists of a few scattered relics of a life: a business card, a census report, some articles and brochures for long-past auctions. Digitally, however, the library has more than 17,000 of Sperr’s photographs, most of which capture New York City in detail. Wandering every borough from the 1920s to the 1940s, Sperr took more than 30,000 photographs of New York City while working under contract for the Library, which had tasked him with documenting a city that had already become something and was constantly in the midst of becoming something else. A Phillips auction catalog from 1980 described Sperr as “the official photographer for the City of New York,” adding that “whenever a ceremony took place or a new building was going up where another had been torn down [Sperr] was required to photograph these events.”
Born in Ohio in 1889, Sperr graduated from Oberlin College in 1912 before making his way to New York with plans to become a writer, but the success of his relationship with the library consumed his time and felled those more literary plans, despite a childhood encounter with meningitis that left Sperr often in need of a cane. In his census registration card, on file at the library, Sperr is described physically with just one word: “Lame.”
Sperr would attest that he was more of a storyteller than a documentarian. “My own interest is rather in the story than in the picture,” he once wrote, “The story which interests me is one that lends itself to unlimited photography — the tale of the city of New York.” He wrote about the city poetically: “Here is a theme which is big enough and rich enough to challenge your industry, artistic ability and photographic skill. It is full of contrasts and all sorts of lights and shadows. A child of the tenements is lost in a storybrook beside the ash cans at her doorway, and the gulls are wheeling in the billowy wind above our ferryboat.”
Sperr’s photos employ the simple, straight-shot effect of documentary photography, but the story in each photo is plainly there. There is a reason that directors and producers of movies such as The Godfather and The Great Gatsby, have, according to a 2000 New York Times article, rifled through the thousands of Sperr’s prints available at the library for inspiration. Through Sperr’s lens, one can see the New York that exists so squarely in the imagination it has become a part of the everyday veil through which the city is viewed. The shadows cast by the sun split between the tracks of the elevated train. The advertisements painted in sweeping strokes on the sides of buildings. The endless arrangements, the jutting-up-and-around of buildings that never looked like they’d fit beside the other until they did.
But Sperr’s New York is also a New York caught in a moment of rapid evolution. Deep in what was then the farmland of Queens, Sperr captured the rapid home-building that existed then as a retreat from city life until the city — Queens Boulevard, Rego Park, the ever-burgeoning expanse — caught up to it; in the 10-year span between 1920 and 1930, the population of Queens grew from 469,042 to 1,079,129, an increase of 130 percent. Sperr’s photos show this New York as something akin to suburbia, if only for a brief historical moment.
Perhaps none of Sperr’s photos show this change better than his glimpses of the Triborough Bridge (AKA the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) under construction. These show the East River framed by two massive pillars, and, in between, the seeming-small cables ready to hold up the bridge that would come to span the gap and all that bridge would represent: Robert Moses’s projects of expansion, the city’s surrender to the car and the car’s highways, the people thrust out of homes in Astoria, Harlem, and the Bronx for the sake of such growth, and the way growth, sometimes seeming impossible given the lack of space, is in many ways the ongoing, forever-story of New York.
In order to show both the way that Sperr captured a transient, fleeting historical moments and the way that the story of New York is, a story of growth, my photographer and I went to some of the locations of Sperr’s photos, which he meticulously marked with the nearest intersecting streets and the directiion in which the lens is pointed.
In some respects, such as in Rego Park and Elmhurst, Queens — places which used to be a series of grassy, dusty rolling hills stretching all the way out to Montauk — the juxtaposition of what we saw through Sperr’s lens and through our own eyes seemed almost fictional. Even Sperr at one point expected the changes that would happen “when industries have taken hold of the salt meadows and the remaining farmlands have been divided among the cottages.” But these changes happened, and they carried with them the good and the bad and the in-between of power and population and change. Post-war co-op housing. White flight. The Wagner-Steagall Act, which led to the creation of New York City Housing Authority project houses. New neighborhoods that would become the homes of immigrant communities and generational knowledge.
The population of Queens is now 2,258,582, according to a 2017 census estimate. Long Island City, which Sperr photographed nearly a century ago and which used to be the home of massive factories and bakeries, is now the fastest growing neighborhood in the country, with 12,000 apartments built since 2010. It’s also become representative of a new kind of living that embodies the nature of 21st century youthful, siloed wealth: glitzy, glass towers full of every amenity necessary, an affront to local business at the street level, a boom to app-based delivery services. For example, the 1,150 unit tower that is rising up out of the ruins of 5 Pointz, the graffiti capital of New York, contains a swimming pool, fitness center, and communal lounge; residents hardly have to leave. The building’s interior is decorated with “homages” to graffiti. All of this is reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’s forever-relevant musing: that we “expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.”
Sperr’s photographs show the importance of documenting the present, lest we forget what the world looked like before we lose it. By placing Sperr’s photos alongside the present-day documentations of those same locations, we can see change — or lack thereof — and name whatever feeling exists as a result. In some cases, there is a palpable loss of space, or aesthetic beauty, or nature, or business alongside an objective gain — a new building, a new business, ignorant to history or futilely trying to reproduce it.
What isn’t seen in these photos, however, are the lives of people radically transported, the lives who were forced to migrate when they couldn’t pay the rent. Today, nearly one in 10 neighborhoods is experiencing some sort of displacement, and 12 percent of neighborhoods are experiencing gentrification, defined here as “increase in housing values or rents accompanied by an influx of high-income, high-educated residents.” The consequences of these things are lived out in the present moment, because they are happening where life happens. Sometimes, it seems, New York forgets that; there’s always another tower rising toward the future.
The more we place the present alongside the past, the more we can see the story of New York, which is not only a story of growth, but one of power. Power is harder to photograph, because it operates in the margins, in the backrooms and backdoors. But with Sperr’s photographs, we can see its present effects: The Triborough Bridge spanning the gap of the East River. The buildings in the background of the train yard of Long Island City. The high-rises and skyscrapers that stencil out the sky. Here, then, are photos of New York City, some nearly a century apart. They are also photos of growth. They are also photos of power.