Design Architecture

Would You Recognize These 9 Iconic Streets Way Back When?

America’s streets are paved with remarkable history. Some of the nation’s earliest historical routes; ones that once wound through quiet boroughs and townships, are today's prominent avenues and boulevards. Join us as we step back in time to compare the trails traveled by our forebears to their modern-day incarnations.
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Then: Elfreth's Alley (Philadelphia, PA)

A classic sedan has only inches to spare as the driver navigates Elfreth’s Alley, the nation’s oldest residential street. More than three hundred years ago, this street was home to hardworking residents: craftsmen, carpenters, and the silversmith, Jeremiah Elfreth, for whom the street was named. The street, and the beautiful Georgian townhomes along this narrow lane, went virtually unnoticed until the 1930s, when Philadelphia began extensive restoration efforts.

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Now: Elfreth's Alley (Philadelphia, PA)

Postcard-perfect and strictly pedestrian, today’s fully restored brick and red-shuttered townhomes on Elfreth’s Alley are a prime destination spot for sightseers. Visitors to the alley can tour the Mantua Maker’s Museum House and take a leisurely stroll along the lane’s ageless bricks and cobblestones. If you can, schedule your visit for the first weekend in June when Elfreth’s Alley’s residents open their homes, allowing the public a rare glimpse inside these historic treasures.

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Then: Bourbon Street (New Orleans, LA)

Built in 1825, the Old Absinthe House, a New Orleans landmark, silently awaits the evening’s enthusiastic patrons. This is historic Bourbon Street, named after the ruling family of France—the House of Bourbon—in the heart of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, the French Quarter. A fire destroyed many of the buildings in 1788, and the area was rebuilt in Spanish-style architecture, giving the street a distinctive mélange of cultural influences.

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Now: Bourbon Street (New Orleans, LA)

Flamboyance and flair define today’s Bourbon Street. A raucous mix of bars, gentlemen’s clubs, and colorful Cajun restaurants give visitors a sense of Mardi Gras all year long. Multi-level balconies, restored Baroque structures, and blazing neon signs offer an eclectic combination of history and contemporary culture. Visitors can take part in the French Quarters’ endless merrymaking at local establishments, such as Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo.

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Then: St. George Street (St. Augustine, FL) via Boston Public Library

Nestled in the oldest city on the United States (St. Augustine was founded in 1565), Old St. George Street was named after King George III in the late 1800s. Depicted here in the 1940s, the street was once dotted with quaint shops and markets—but nary a sidewalk in sight.

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Now: St. George Street (St. Augustine, FL) via Jordi E

A tourist’s paradise today, this pedestrian-only thoroughfare stands at the heart of downtown St. Augustine. Visitors can while away the hours at a variety of indoor/outdoor bistros, gift shops, taverns, and boutiques. Trolleys drive past the area, offering sightseers a unique perspective, while charming courtyards tucked between the tiny storefronts provide a quiet place relax and enjoy the street’s ageless ambience.

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Then: Acorn Street (Boston, MA) via Boston Public Library

Sporting hoop skirts and bonnets, pedestrians on Acorn Street celebrate Old Boston Day in 1925, retracing the footsteps of the city’s earliest residents. Dating to the 18th Century, the lane’s modest Greek revival brick buildings once served as residences to coachmen who worked for wealthy families that lived in mansions elsewhere in Beacon Hill’s historic neighborhood. The cobblestone lane, barely two-cows-wide, was a bumpy ride for wagons and new-fangled horseless carriages.

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Now: Acorn Street (Boston, MA)

One of the few remaining streets paved with true cobblestones, today, Acorn Street is considered one of the “most photographed streets in the U.S.” Fully restored brick townhouses, complete with picturesque window boxes, operable shutters, and gaslights tucked tightly against brick walls, transport visitors to an earlier time. Working-class blokes no longer live here. A restored Acorn Street townhouse can set you back two million dollars, or more.

Related: 7 Ways to Trace Your Home’s History

Then: Wall Street (New York, NY) via ADiamondFellFromtheSky

As the Twentieth Century dawned, Wall Street was already showing signs of the bustling avenue it would one day become. “De Walstraat,” a 1653 wooden stockade built by Dutch colonists for protection, was now paved and lined with tall buildings. In 1817, the New York Stock Exchange was established and after that, Wall Street steadily continued to build upon its reputation as one of the most important financial districts in the world.

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Now: Wall Street (New York, NY) via David SM

Boasting some of the tallest buildings in the city, Wall Street also houses the Federal Hall National Memorial, The Library of Congress, and many other landmark structures. Visitors can catch a glimpse of relics from the Gilded Age, blended with Art Deco and Neoclassic architecture as they gaze toward the ornate Trinity Church that sits at the end of the street. 

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Then: Pennsylvania Ave (Washington, D.C.)

In the 1930s, Pennsylvania Avenue was already renowned as the street that connected the Capitol building and the White House. Constructed during the founding of the nation, and nicknamed the “Grand Avenue” by George Washington, the street was often ridiculed as being too wide. To keep the dust down, it was first paved with cobblestones, then wood, and then Belgian blocks before finally being paved with asphalt in 1876.

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Now: Pennsylvania Ave (Washington, D.C.)

Pennsylvania Avenue lights up the night with automobile traffic. A whopping eight lanes keeps traffic moving, thanks to the street designer’s prudent planning. The avenue runs nearly 6 miles, but the most famous part, the 1.2 miles between the White House and the Capitol, often set the stage today for marches and protests. Stately buildings, replete with massive Greek columns, dominate the impressive route.

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Then: Broadway (New York, NY) via Boston Public Library

In the 1940s, cable cars and automobiles competed for the right-of-way on New York City’s busy Broadway Street. What began as a Native American trail on Manhattan Island, morphed into a thoroughfare when Dutch immigrants settled the area. After the Civil War, musical theaters popped up along the prestigious street. It wasn’t uncommon to hop a streetcar in the 1920s, to take you from one end of Manhattan to the other.

Related: What 11 Ordinary People Paid to Live in Your Favorite Movie Homes

Now: Broadway (New York, NY) via Tim Wilson

In the city that never sleeps, Broadway is home to dozens of professional theaters making it a dream destination of thespians around the world. Today, the street runs one-way along its busiest length, with portions blocked off to automobile traffic altogether, such as where it crosses Times Square. In and around Broadway’s theater district, visitors will find countless shops, restaurants, and upscale retailers.

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Then: Washington Street (Boston, MA) via City of Boston Archives

In 1899, the wedge-shaped Ferdinand Building, constructed in the late 1800s, dominated the junction of Washington and Warren streets in the quickly-changing city of Boston. Trolley tracks crisscrossed the brick-paved street, challenging horses and buggies, and offering residents an alternative method of commuting. In the 1800s, the route was populated with taverns, tailors, riding schools, and even a clairvoyant or two.

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Now: Washington Street (Boston, MA)

As a result of two and three centuries of solid construction practices, and due to faithful restoration efforts, you can still see many of the historic buildings that were built on Washington Street in its earlier days. The old Ferdinand building, now a Walgreens, is just one of the notable structures that remain. Others include the Old State House, circa 1713, the Old Corner Bookstore, erected in 1712, and the Paramount Theater that still boasts its 1930’s Art Deco style.

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Then: Royal Street (New Orleans, LA)

The late 19th century brought an air of prosperity to Royal Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Charted during the French Colonial era, the buildings on Royal Street were constructed of French and Spanish architecture, blended with a smattering of Creole influence. Wrought iron railings were hand-forged and wealth was evident in every detail.

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Now: Royal Street (New Orleans, LA) via Kent Kanouse

Although much has changed in New Orleans, Royal Street still caters to those who enjoy the finer things in life. Rare antique dealers, jewelers, and stylish art galleries along the lane cater to the high-end shopper, and luxury hotels abound. Visitors to Royal Street should wear their walking shoes, as parts of the street close to traffic during the afternoons to allow street performers and jazz bands to entertain pedestrians.

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