After These Crowded Streets

Over the summer, I went on well-documented Twitter quest to find the location of the above photo, the cover art for Dave Matthews Band’s best album, 1998's Before These Crowded Streets. Why did I do this? Well, why did Jake Gyllenhaal let himself nearly get murdered in a California basement and let his marriage go to shit while obsessively hunting for the identity of the Zodiac Killer? Sometimes you just need to know things. And sometimes you can’t stop until you find out for sure.

I first loved Dave Matthews Band (“DMB” for real fans, “Dave” for the I’ll-see-them-once-a-summer-in-a-drunken-haze crowd) at 13, listening to my brother’s Under the Table and Dreaming and Listener Supported burned CDs on the bus. My digging into their back catalog lasted two years and coincided with the group releasing the ’05 album Stand Up amid their typical locomotive touring. This is around when I when to my first DMB live show, on July 13, 2004, and changed my AIM screen name from SOAD814 to DMBkid44. (“Chop Suey!” was out; “Two Step” was in.) I’d go on to see them seven times in five years, once even camping out for a two-nighter in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. where The Hold Steady opened. It was a strange fit, but they played “Chips Ahoy!” and I could hear Franz Nicolay whoaing from the cheap seats, so that was fun.

The main takeaway from my time as a dyed-in-the-wool DMB fan—especially in Western New York, where the band’s following has long been cultish—is that being one is a full-time thing. You study set lists and deconstruct them. You speculate on unreleased songs’ chances of popping up live. You look forward to certain segues and outros as much as the songs themselves. You exchange mp3s of show rips. And on it goes. At one concert, I got back to the car and texted a friend about a particularly jammy performance of “Warehouse” I’d just seen that interpolated “Louie Louie” near the end (something the band does frequently now). He hit me back, “Yeah, I heard about ‘Louie Louie.’” In the pre-Twitter age, he already knew about something that had happened literally minutes before. That’s how it’s a full-time thing.

And that’s why I couldn’t get it out of my head in June 2016, seven years since I’d stopped following DMB or listening to them regularly, that this album cover photograph was shot somewhere in New York City, probably not far from where I worked, and that I needed to find that very intersection immediately. The hunt was on.

I found out quickly that the BTCS cover locale was a topic of intermittent discussion on some fan message boards, one that had never been fully solved. There’s not even agreement about in which city the photo was taken, though the two dominating theories pinpoint it as either New York or Charlottesville, Virginia, the band’s hometown. A 2004 book named Charlottesville as the definitive location and Ellen von Unwerth as the photographer (who is indeed credited in the liner notes), as was pointed out to me soon after I began my search. This very well may be, and as I’ve never been Charlottesville, I can’t confirm or deny the existence of a street corner resembling the one on the cover.

But look closely: Isn’t that the Empire State Building? Few other structures in American cities look like that, tall and rail-thin and pleasantly grid-lit in the early evening. And Charlottesville, a college town, isn’t exactly known for its skyscrapers. The city’s three largest structures all apparently max out nine floors above ground, and the building on the BTCS cover was certainly larger than that. You know a New York street when you see it, and this was definitely a New York street. Now the question was, which one is it?

One forum commenter about a decade ago mapped it out using Google, resulting in a not-great comparison photo that’s nonetheless convincing. After some digging, I found this intersection to be 38th St. and Fifth Ave., four blocks north of the Empire State Building. The current Google Maps photo isn’t a perfect fit, mainly because you simply can’t see the ESB from that particular angle. But you could presumably see it in person. So I went there. I figured if I stood a little to the left, it’d work.

And it worked! Well, sort of.

It was not a flawless match, of course, but it was closer than any other approximation I’d tried on Google Maps up to that point. If you compare the BTCS photo and the one I took above, some key matching elements emerge: the flagpoles protruding from the Zales jewelry store to the left, the facade of the building to the right (now apparently a CVS), and the approximate distance to the ESB.

The biggest problem, though, is the huge glass building blocking most of the ESB view, a structure that absolutely does not appear on the album cover. But there’s a reason for this: It’s too new. That tall building is, in fact, now one of the tallest in the city: Langham Place, a luxury hotel/skyscraper located at 400 Fifth Ave built between 2008 and 2010, a decade after the latest possible date the photo could’ve been captured given the album’s release on April 28, 1998.

Propelled by this discovery, I was feeling vainglorious on June 28 when I boldly declared via Twitter that the search was over and that the photo was definitely captured at 38th and Fifth. No question about it. Case closed.

But a few months later, I noticed a tiny detail I hadn’t considered before that led me down another wormhole. In the bottom right corner of the cover, just behind the blur of a passing bus, the name of a store is visible: The Athlete’s Foot. I poked around to find if there had ever been one at this intersection (nope), and in that blind stumbling, I landed here: a fan forum thread suggesting the locale could be further north than I’d thought.

Heading three blocks up Fifth to 41st reveals a better view of the Victorian building visible just in front of the ESB on the cover, and going another block up to 42nd reveals something extraordinary—no, not The Athlete’s Foot, but very possibly where it once operated, at the ground level of 500 Fifth Ave., a historic Art Deco skyscraper opened in 1931. The building’s address rests in a high doorframe three windows down from the corner, features it shares with the building to the right in the photo. The smaller frame to the right of the doorframe also matches the one in the album photo (and is now a Solstice sunglasses shop). And while the corner spot isn’t The Athlete’s Foot currently—it’s a Zara clothing store that opened in November 2008—several New York magazine ads from 1978 confirm that, at one time, it was. This could only mean one thing.

The intersection of 42nd and Fifth, looking north, was the exact spot I’d been searching for. It had to be. When I went there to capture a photo of my own, I felt it.

Just shy of asking Unwerth herself (or anyone in the band) for the exact location, this is about as hard as evidence gets. The only lingering weirdness for me is the unmistakeable New York landmark that stretches from 41st to 42nd streets on Fifth Avenue, just behind the row of trees in the photo above: the New York Public Library. How the hell did the city’s most recognizable front steps become a mere black abyss on the album cover?

One answer is that it could’ve been hidden intentionally. Maybe DMB (0r longtime art designer Thane Kerner) sought a photo that epitomized urban life hinted at in the album title but that was unspecific enough to work universally. Maybe they knew they needed a New York shot that seemed like it could also be anywhere. Maybe Unwerth just snapped a great photo that everyone loved, so they dappled it with ringed cocktail stains and called it a day. Or maybe, as is shown in the photo above, you simply can’t see the library from that angle. It’s likely as simple as that.

Today, due to constant construction along Fifth Avenue, the BTCS album cover is the only place you’ll be able to see that particular view of New York. But that doesn’t matter. It’s more about tonality in service of the music anyway. And across the album’s 70 minutes, that tone swings from nocturnal (“Halloween,” “Crush”) to contemplative (“Spoon,” “The Dreaming Tree”) to dreary (“The Stone,” “Don’t Drink the Water”) to buzzing with cosmopolitan glow (“Panta Naga Pampa/Rapunzel,” “Stay”). Between the album’s 11 songs reside bursts of spontaneous studio jamming and hidden melodic gems, all totaling a weighty, imperfect beast of its own making. The music, like its cover art, is for both bustling your way down the sidewalk and stopping, just for a moment, to point your phone skyward and snap something evocative for Instagram. “Before These Crowded Streets.” Now that’s a good caption.