Janko Puls (photo: Kate Puls)
When I moved to New York as a journalist in 2006, I set out right away to explore my new home, workplace, and playground. Mapping my personal city in photos and stories gave me a way to solidify my impressions and share them with readers, friends and family. I was excited to place the quintessential architecture and famous parks in context, and to learn the lay of the city I thought I knew so well from TV, movies, and literature.

But something surprised me. Whenever I walked the streets with my wife, a born and raised Manhattanite, she would say “this used to be here, that used to be there.” I sometimes found that vexing, since I wanted to discover today’s city, not one from the past. But she was right, New York was disappearing: Suddenly I knew more vanished places then than actually existing ones. Luckily, greedy real estate developers replenished quickly what was left of our fair city — at times with something better, often with something worse. Within a few months, I was singing along with my wife’s lamentations. It was when I noticed that, I suppose, that I really became a New Yorker.

Berenice Abbott masterfully captured the essence of the ever-molting city in her 1939 photo book Changing New York. She may have chronicled one of the most active periods of the city’s transformation, but the city’s permanent self-renewal continues at an incredible pace. As O. Henry quipped several decades before Abbott’s photo book, “It'll be a great place if they ever finish it.” Hopefully they never will.

The photographs in this book were taken between 2008 and 2014. But New York is an ever changing place, which means that some of the locales  here might appear different today. My approach, in short, is to try to catch the essence of a place or situation to let things speak for themselves. An architectural detail for example can tell so much about the spirit in which a building was planned, the intentions and the attitude. Sometimes I encircle my object for months before I connect, at other times I see it all coming together in a snap. There is no staging, I prefer available light. But this isn’t photojournalism or documentary photography. Through these images, I see and absorb, interpret and translate, and eventually create and map my very own city. Energy, diversity, beauty, craziness and sheer size lured me in like millions before me. John Steinbeck explains it best: 

New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But once you have lived in New York and it has become your home no place else is good enough!”*

On one level, then, this book is my personal map of the city, highlighting some of the sights I find meaningful and noteworthy. I chose not to create yet another city guide nor to cover the complete urbanscape, but to share with you my New York. 

It’s All About the Game

I would like to take you on a trip through the five boroughs, over a time span from 1524 to 2014. Don’t worry, it won’t take that long, and it’s not a history lesson either. Instead, I have made it into a game.

 The fact that cities, wherever they are, change over time is what makes them such interesting places. But in the City So Nice They Named It Twice — New York, NY — clocks seem to tick a bit faster than elsewhere, and the speed of change that results makes it really exciting. Because it appears so often in TV, movies, and literature everybody knows New York more or less, and even if you live here this change means nobody will ever know everything about it. But for what I have in mind for you, venerated reader, it doesn’t matter whether you live here now or have never even visited before. That you love this place is obvious by the fact that you are looking at this book. My challenge to you is: Do you really know this city you think you know?  In your time here have you ever stumbled upon wild parrots or a space rocket, marching elephants or an Egyptian obelisk, a Lenin statue or Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg? Here is a proposal: Let’s play a game and see how many of the locations you can guess. Nearly all of them are well known, but when I put this book together, I decided not to go the obvious route. Instead, I have included photos taken from unusual angles, or ones that give you just a hint about the location through an easily overlooked detail. 

The last thing I want is to frustrate you, so if you really can’t nail down a location in a photo, just look it up on the map. Or use the index, that gives you the proper address and beckons with some tidbit about the location you might have known or not. Just don’t spoil the fun for yourself — don’t give up too quickly.  If you want to see these places yourself, grab the map and start walking. I chose to include only photos from locations that are publicly accessible at no cost. No heroic efforts were necessary to take these images, only a few of which are of interiors. Some sites are easy to locate even for a visitor, while others are likely to challenge even the most sharp-eyed denizen. In any case, you will have fun with this book and you may just learn something new on the way. 

I’m hoping, in fact, that solving these visual conundrums will inspire you to explore the city in more depth, and in your own fashion. Use the map in the back to put together your own itinerary, whether it’s populated by photos, drawings, music or words. Create your own map of this wonderful city. I’ll continue to draw mine as I walk the city streets with my wife in a state of belonging and constant discovery.

Janko Puls, 2014

* John Steinbeck, “Autobiography: Making of a New Yorker,” New York Times Magazine, 102 (1 Feb 1953): 26–27, 66–67.