There are probably dozens of productive, no-nonsense, and thoroughly grown-up ways to use OldNYC, the New York Public Library’s new interactive mapping system that overlays historical photographs of the city with their locations. But there are definitely more enjoyable ways to use it.
Released earlier this month, the surprisingly comprehensive database makes it easy to check out what your block looked like at various points in history. You can see pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge as it was being built or the South Street Seaport when there were still salty, grog-soaked sailor types milling around.
But what better way to see exactly how disorienting and fascinating a project like this is than by using New York hip-hop artists as your guide through history? Check out these photos of New York City locations name-checked by rappers as they looked decades before anyone ever spit a verse. And check out the rest of the project here — it’s pretty amazing.
In “Empire State of Mind,” New York’s favorite hip-hop son called out his “stash spot” of yore at 560 State Street. Today it’s a perpetual snarl of traffic in downtown Brooklyn. In 1941 there was a little more room to breathe.
In “Investigative Reports,” GZA rapped about Brooklyn’s “Putnam Avenue and Franklin,” a corner in fast-gentrifying Bed-Stuy. This is how it looked in 1942.
In “You Wouldn’t Understand,” Nas told about copping chocolate Thai — presumably not spring rolls with Hershey’s syrup — at Lewis and Halsey, also in Bed-Stuy. In 1936, one block south of that intersection, some very significant sewer repair was ongoing.
The Wu-Tang Clan rapped on “Impossible” about Staten Island’s Stapleton Houses, where some members grew up. The houses sit at the intersection of Broad and Gordon streets, shown here in 1931.
Both P. Diddy and Nas have given love to Pan Pan’s Diner, a now defunct soul food spot on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. In 1936 that intersection housed the Lincoln Theater, which was showing A Message to Garcia.