These cities have had unbelievable transformations
What did the major cities around the world look like before they became the sprawling metropolises they are today? We have a collection of photographs of cities from North America, to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, comparing what they looked like before they were some of the world’s largest. Come watch the transformation!
Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was virtually nothing just 30 years ago. The city was founded sometime in the 7th century and has been used since then as a merchant hub because it is strategically situated on the Persian Gulf.
A budding pearl trade flourished for centuries until the early 1920s. The Great Depression was hard on the country, but then everything changed when oil was discovered in the area in 1966. Dubai and other emirates such as Abu Dhabi got help from the British to develop infrastructure, but it still took a number of years before Dubai became the metropolis that it is today.
The British left in 1971 and Dubai became part of the UAE two years later. This enabled the country (and Qatar) to develop its own currency, and the rise of Dubai began. In 1960 Dubai had a population of 40,000 people, while today that has swelled to 2.5 million.
In the middle of the photo is the crown jewel of Dubai—the Burj Khalifa. The structure took five years to build and was completed in 2010, standing at an eye-popping 2,722 feet, which is over 600 feet taller than the next-tallest building in the world. What’ll blow your mind is that the oil industry only accounts for 1.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Las Vegas, 1930
The city of Las Vegas was first incorporated in 1911, which was a year after gambling was declared illegal by the state of Nevada. But of course, the law didn’t prevent gambling and vice from moving underground, as well as a budding racketeering industry.
Vegas’ roots with the criminal underground followed it through to the 1970s, but it was actually the population boom that came in conjunction with the construction of Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) in 1931 that cemented Vegas as a playground of vice. Brothels and speakeasies sprang up, and Fremont Street, shown above, became the center of it all as the town’s only paved road.
Las Vegas, 2019
Fremont Street is quite the spectacle (powered by the hydroelectricity provided by the Hoover Dam) and has maintained its theme of the Old West. However, when mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky combined forces to open the Flamingo in 1946, the center of Las Vegas relocated to what became “The Strip.”
Starting in the 1960s, the mafia’s influence in Vegas waned, and when Steve Wynn opened up the Mirage mega-resort in 1989, it served as the new model for resorts. Old resorts were dynamited to make way for new ones, and now the mega-resorts that make up the Las Vegas strip bring in close to 40 million visitors every year.
Tokyo was not the site of any atomic bombs being dropped, but it was subjected to something worse—fire bombing, and firestorm. The raid on Tokyo on March 10, 1945 produced one of the world’s first firestorms, killing over 105,000 people. To put that in perspective, 70,000 people died in Nagasaki when the the second atomic bomb was dropped on the city.
The American military was certainly responsible for the destruction of Tokyo, but they were also responsible for rebuilding it. When economic woes in the late 1940s threatened to see Japan go the way of communism, the American high command decided to act.
North Korea went the way of communism after WWII, and the U.S. was not going to let that happen to Japan. Seen below in a jubilant fireworks display is the Tokyo Tower, which was built in 1958 and meant to mimic Paris’ Eiffel Tower. This tower attracts tourists, but serves as a radio and TV antenna, signaling Japan’s growth.
As of 2019, there are over 37 million people that live in Tokyo, and to put that in perspective, consider New York City, a city over four times the size of Tokyo. It has about 20 million. Tokyo now has over 16,000 people living in a square mile area, which amazingly doesn’t even crack the top ten of the most densely populated cities in the world.
Abu Dhabi, 1970
We’re headed back to the UAE for our next city, and the before and after photos are incredible. The capital of the UAE has certainly had its share of growth, and unlike Dubai, an enormous percentage of its economy is centered around the oil industry.
As mentioned before, Abu Dhabi gained independence from Britain in 1971, and you can see from the photo above what it was like prior to that. The emirate happens to control over 92% of the country’s natural gas and 95% of its oil. This has led to a boom that has made the country the second-largest economy in the Middle East, second only to Saudi Arabia.
Abu Dhabi, 2019
The 25 biggest skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi were all completed after 2009, and what a transformation the city has seen. The UAE is still heavily dependent on natural gas and oil, but that money has been invested around the world, and the return has resulted in a population, tourist, and construction boom.
The UAE, as advanced and beautiful as it has become, is very much a regulated society. Foreign publications are censored before anyone can get their hands on them. The government also heavily censors the internet, targeting opposition politics and religious material. A citizen has to have a permit just to take a drink in Abu Dhabi, though hotels and nightclubs make it easier for tourists.
New York City, 1900
At the time of this photograph, New York City had a population of around 3.3 million people, which is just a little smaller than modern-day Seattle. This photograph is also a picture of Times Square before it was Times Square.
In 1900 it was known as Long Acre Square, and as you can see, it’s a far cry from the dazzling lights and electronic screens that light up the night these days. Around that time, Adolph S. Ochs, owner of the New York Times, was looking for a centrally located area to move his headquarters in a highly visible area. In 1905 they moved into the newly constructed Times Tower.
New York City, 2017
The Times Tower is no tower at all in modern-day New York, but at the time it was an architectural marvel and was the second-tallest building in the city. The Times didn’t stick around long, though, and relocated within a decade. But not before they started the greatest New Year’s Eve tradition in history.
On December 31, 1904, Ochs hosted the first New Year Year’s Eve spectacular and the tradition has stuck around ever since. Three years later, the first electronic ball was dropped to mark the coming of the new year, and just like now a dizzying fireworks display followed. Seven different versions have been constructed since.
Singapore is an absolute marvel in growth and prosperity, producing one of the most successful and honest economies in the world. No kidding, it’s ranked as the third least corrupt country on planet Earth (the U.S. doesn’t even crack the top 20). In fact, the only dishonest thing about the country is how it got its name.
Singapore translated means, “Lion City,” but as far as historians know, no lion has ever naturally graced the city. In the 13th century, the founder of Singapore incorrectly claimed he saw a lion (maybe it was a tiger), and now the story has reached mythological status, much like another famous city, Rome, which claims to have been founded by a twin raised by a wolf.
Speaking of Italy, Singapore is one of only three surviving city-states (Monaco and Vatican City are the other ones). While those countries have strict laws, perhaps Singapore has the strictest. People could serve two years in prison or pay a $100,000 fine for selling gum, and pay a $1,000 fine for spitting in a public place.
Strict rules aside, Singapore’s economy has grown an average of 9.5% since it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. Singapore is the banking hub of Asia, and is only eclipsed by London and New York City. But even though it’s one of the most successful countries economically, it ranks in the bottom 10 nations in its attention to income inequality.
Rio de Janeiro, 1929
When Brazil declared independence from Portugal on September 7, 1822, Rio de Janeiro became its capital. When the photograph below was taken, Rio was still the capital of Brazil (in an attempt to spread their economy more inland, the capital was moved to Brasilia in 1960).
Of course, what Brazil is most known for, outside of its futbol, is Carnival. This photograph was taken right around the time that the first samba—a type of dance and expression—schools began to open. The parade competitions that we know today were started in 1933, and were a chance for people to dress and do pretty much whatever they wanted.
Rio de Janeiro, 2019
Outside of soccer and Carnival, Christ the Redeemer has to be Brazil and Rio de Janeiro’s most iconic contribution to the world. Construction began in 1922, and it was finished just two years after our last photograph was taken (1931). It’s over 125 feet tall, and is the largest Art Deco statue in the world.
It towers above the city at an altitude of nearly 2,300 feet on top of Corcovado Mountain. In 2007 it was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It’s been damaged over the years by weather—including two lightning strikes—and vandals, but thanks to a restoration effort in 2010, you can see that it looks just about as good as new.
San Francisco, 1906
This photograph of San Francisco shows that it was already a bustling city, and rich in trade as the harbor reveals. But this photograph must’ve been taken after April 18, 1906, because an estimated 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the city for nearly a minute and reduced most of it to rubble.
Initial reports of deaths from the earthquake (and subsequent fire that lasted for days) were drastically underestimated, and today experts believe over 2,000 died. Fortunately, reconstruction of the city was swift, and allowed planners to develop a much improved city. It also led to the population sprawling out to outer areas, which was a good thing considering how crowded it is today.
San Francisco, 2019
With the advent of new personal computing technologies, neighboring Silicon Valley blew up in the early 1970s, and although it’s had its ups and downs, it is very much thriving. There are more tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area than any other city in the United States.
That may sound great, but San Francisco has reached its capacity in terms of population. There are almost four jobs for every one resident in San Francisco, but there’s nowhere to live! People are being priced out, as a recent study showed that out of the 100 most expensive zip codes in the country, San Francisco has 48 of them.
Seoul, South Korea, 1900
Seoul, and the rest of the Korean Peninsula, were largely closed off from the world until the late 1800s. In 1910 imperial Japan invaded and claimed it as part of their empire. Korean culture was nearly wiped out, as the Japanese occupation was cruel, and lasted for 35 years.
Even when Korea gained its independence in 1948, it still looked a lot like the photograph above: surrounded by mountains (8 in fact), and not many buildings that went past one or two stories. Then war came again as North and South Korea split, followed by an invasion by both American and Chinese forces.
Seoul, South Korea, 2019
After the Korean War from 1950–1953, North Korea sank into isolationism, while South Korea prospered to unprecedented levels. They call it “the miracle on the Han River,” in reference to the river that runs through the city and the development boom experienced from 1953 onward.
In 2017 Seoul was named the fourth-largest metropolitan economy in the world. That large tower you see in the background on top of the hill is called Lotte World, which is an amusement park that draws 7.3 million people every year. It’s also the “most wired city in the world,” as it ranked as the first in technological readiness.
The year 1932 was an important year in Sydney, Australia’s history, as the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge (see below) was opened. On March 19, 1932, the bridge opened with a grand celebration, but the ceremony was hijacked by a madman.
According to reports, just as the Premier of New South Wales was about to cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the bridge, a horse-mounted soldier in full military dress uniform rode up and slashed the ribbon with his saber. He was promptly arrested, and the ribbon was retied for the Premier to give it another go. As for the crazy man, he was proven to be sane, then successfully sued for wrongful arrest.
As you can see from the photograph below, even though the Sydney Harbor Bridge got off to a rough start, it’s now the site of one of the best New Year’s Eve fireworks displays in the world. Just before the bridge, you can catch a glimpse of the famous Sydney Opera House, which had problems of its own.
The Sydney Opera House is an absolute marvel of architecture, but it was supposed to be completed in 1963—construction was so difficult it didn’t open until 10 years later. Not to mention builders had a slight cost overrun—it was supposed to cost $7 million, and instead cost $102 million. Yikes!
Berlin, Germany, 1945
On April 16, 1945, the remnants of the German army, mostly boys and old men, were hit with an onslaught of 20 Russian armies with 6,300 tanks and 8,500 aircraft. The Battle of Berlin had begun. The amount of carnage that ensued was absolutely catastrophic for Berlin, as the city was nearly completely destroyed.
The war would be over in a matter of weeks, and afterward a new nightmare would fall upon the people to the east of the Brandenburg Gate (pictured here). First the city was divided, and then the Soviet government started building a wall in 1961 to keep people from leaving, which divided the city for almost 30 years.
On November 9, 1989, after 170 people had died over three decades trying to go over, under, or around the Berlin Wall, the first section of it came down. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the first step in the reunification of Germany, which officially happened in October 1990.
Since then it’s become a place of culture, with over 180 different museums, and there are over 1,000 shops where a person can buy alcohol at all hours of the day and night. In short, Dubai and Abu Dhabi could learn a thing or two from Berlin. But Singapore wouldn’t be too happy, as it’s estimated that there are 2.9 billion cigarette butts littered every year.
Washington D.C., 1930
Washington D.C. was selected as the capital of the United States in 1790, which was odd because the land selected was swampy—right on the edge of the Potomac River. The conditions caused malaria to flourish, and open sewers enabled airborne viruses to spread that may have cost the lives of two presidents.
From this photograph of the National Mall taken in 1930, we can see that the Capitol Building, the White House, Washington Monument, and Museum of Natural History were already created. The image as we know it today was meant to honor the Civil War, with the Lincoln Memorial on one side and General Grant’s statue at the other end.
Washington D.C., 2018
The Jefferson Memorial was added during WWII, and today a monument to that war is one of the greatest and most beautiful attractions. Today, the Washington Monument stands at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other, and the WWII Memorial is right in the middle. Not to mention the memorials to two of the wars that have been fought since then—the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Both are completely different memorials, and both are absolutely stunning. Looking in the those soldiers’ eyes in the Korean Memorial and seeing them looking back at you is really something. While at the Vietnam Memorial, the reflection in the onyx stone allows you to see yourself among the names of the fallen.
If only we had a photograph of what Athens looked like 4,000 years ago. Sigh. But as you can see, even though Athens grew outward it didn’t really grow up. Thousands of years of history and there still wasn’t a building above 200 feet. That changed in 1963 when the Athens Hilton was completed, rising a whopping 213 feet.
The Athens Tower was built in 1971 and is currently the highest building in Athens, at a measly 338 feet. No building in Athens is allowed to rise above 12 stories, so as to not obstruct the view of the Parthenon.
Growth in Athens after WWI was as slow as Athens buildings are short. But prosperity returned to the capital of Greece when the country joined the European Union in 1981. This led to the large international Athens Airport, and the construction of a metro system.
The 2004 Olympic games were a major success for the city, but economic woes have plagued the city for most of the 21st century. The 2008 financial crisis was particularly hard on Athens, and Greece had to be bailed out a number of times. As of August 20, 2018, however, the books are closed on their financial woes, and the city is no longer in financial crisis.
Bangkok managed to stay mostly untouched during the Japanese occupation of the area during WWII. Not having to recover from bombardment aided in its growth after the war, and the city was further encouraged to modernize and develop thanks to financial aid from the United States.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 was hard on Thailand, and was the match that sparked the fire that we still see today. The corrupt billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra assumed power as Prime Minister in 1994, and although he’s responsible for much of Bangkok’s modernization, there has been nothing but turmoil since. Above we see a traffic jam, which used to be Thailand’s worst problem.
As you can see from the photo below, Bangkok has gone through quite the transformation. This development is right down the road from the previous photograph, and shows the modernization of the city. Thaksin was indeed corrupt, but he was responsible for the introduction of several western businesses to the country.
In 2006 the military staged a coup while Thaksin was in New York City, and he hasn’t returned to the country since. Instead, he lives in Singapore, where he pulls the strings of Bangkok puppets. Since 2006 there has been coup, after insurrection, after civil war. The first election in years just took place there, and it was riddled with corruption.
Just like in San Francisco, Toronto is another city that was rebuilt far more efficiently after a great fire. But if the fire wasn’t enough, it was hit by a devastating hurricane right after. The fire and hurricane in 1904 resulted in better infrastructure, and with it came a population boom from immigration.
At the time this photograph was taken in 1930, Toronto was already the second-largest city in Canada (second to Montreal). In 1934 the Toronto Stock Exchange took over as the nation’s largest, and Toronto has never looked back. By the 1980s, it became Canada’s most populated city.
Only New York City, Mexico City, Chicago, and Los Angeles are bigger than Toronto on the North American continent. What’s crazy about that is Toronto is also listed as one of the top four cities to live in on planet Earth! Not bad for a sprawling metropolis.
Somehow, the city that is far to the north has over 300 days of sunshine annually. Canada is known for its kindness and we can see why Toronto would be a great place to visit. Reports say that around 40% of the population are not native Canadians, making for a very cosmopolitan city where anyone can get along.