Mapping Edward Hopper’s NYC reveals a century of gentrification

An interactive map newly developed by the Whitney Museum of American Art pairs present-day pictures of New York cityscapes with paintings by the artist Edward Hopper. The Whitney created the map to promote its current exhibition, “Edward Hopper’s New York,” which opened in October and runs through March 5, 2023.

Pins on the map all represent places painted by the artist. Hopper’s canvases often document New York City history and his nostalgic view of city life. Fearing change in a city he loved, Hopper largely ignored new or fancy buildings; the present-day photos that accompany the paintings show a deeply changed skyline, with skyscrapers towering over or even replacing Hopper’s chosen landmarks.

Kim Conaty, the exhibit’s curator, says both the map and the exhibit highlight Hopper’s dislike of gentrification.

“The city is always changing, the city is always growing,” she said, “and he felt, I think, very uncomfortable with that.”

Comparing Hopper’s paintings of New York with contemporary views tells a tale of gentrification.

Edward Hopper (painting), Timothy Schenck (photograph), courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Hopper’s story will sound familiar to many New Yorkers. He and his wife Josephine once had to battle an eviction notice from NYU when the school wanted to take over their home near Washington Square Park. (The Hoppers eventually won.)

“He and Josephine fought this fight,” Conaty said. “Josephine even wrote about it in notebooks: ‘It’s the same old story, the artists move in, then the rents go up, then the real estate developers come and wanna make something of it.'”

According to Conaty, Hopper’s dislike of change and a focus on history are evident in his paintings, which are often at street level and depict a more idealistic New York, devoid of too many people and skyscrapers. But at the time, New York’s population was booming, and the Chrysler Building, which was for a short time the world’s tallest building, was being built.

“Many of the subjects that he chose to depict in New York were not the brand new, the tall and sparkly,” Conaty said. “They were the opposite of that.”

Hopper’s view of the Queensboro Bridge, painted in 1913, reveals a view more placid than what we see now.

Edward Hopper (painting), Timothy Schenck (photograph), courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

That sentiment is most visible, she noted, in works like 1930’s “Early Sunday Morning” (seen at the top of this page), a painting that focuses on a sweet Americana row of shops. In the background, a towering, ominous gray object looms at the edge of the canvas.

“It’s sort of a signal, an omen of what is to come,” she said.

For Conaty, Hopper’s pictorial discomfort with the changes taking place only shows how much he loved New York City, which was his home for nearly six decades.

“Hopper said late in life that New York was the American city that he knew best and liked most,” she said. “And as simple as that may be, I think it says a lot.”

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