We have been a huge fan of Steven Siegel’s work, and feverishly check his Flickr photostream for daily updates. His documentation of “Pre-Guiliani” New York City has us in awe. The beauty in the rawness of the imagery leaves those too young to have experienced the 80’s in the city wishing they were able to live through the reckless and lawless times. As we promised before the weekend: we caught up with the artist behind the lens and had him break down the the beauty and grittiness of NYC in the 80’s.
I’ve been photographing the streets and subways of New York for the past 30 years. When young people today look at my shots from the 1980’s, they are aghast. To them, New York of the 1980’s is almost unrecognizable. And they are right.
Some older people are nostalgic for “the good old days.” For example, they remember the Times Square of the 80’s… And what they remember is not so much the danger but the grittiness and (for lack of a better word) the authenticity. Yes, there was sleaze, but there were also video arcades, cheap movies, restaurants, and weird places. These older people also longingly remember the subway art; which was a central part of most New Yorkers’ everyday experience. One day — in about 1987 — the subway art just disappeared from the trains… never to return.
These same people resent the “Disney-ification” of Times Square and the gentrification of virtually all of Manhattan and many areas of the boroughs, and the loss of cheap housing and local stores everywhere.
Some young people — who weren’t even born when these photos were taken — express astonishment over what New York looked like in the 80’s. Some feel they had been born too late, and fervently express the wish; that they had been around to experience the “romance” and “adventure” of pre-Guliani New York.
(By the way, many people refer to the New York of the 80’s as the “pre-Guiliani era.” I’m not sure how much credit to give to Guiliani or Bloomberg for the City’s transformation, but — in any event — it’s a handy way to refer to different time periods in the City’s history. On the other hand, using Guiliani’s name immediately ratchets up the emotions and the controversy. Maybe it’s a shorthand description that’s best avoided.)
Of course, others’ reactions to these same photos could not be more different. If they’re over a certain age, they remember the high crime, the twin crises of AIDS and crack, the racial tension, the lurid tabloid headlines about the latest street crime. They say: It was a nightmare, and thank God it’s over. And for people in their twenties who have a negative reaction to these old photos, their reaction is often expressed as: How (or why) would people live here (assuming they had a choice)?
Of course, both views are right.
Steven’s work, simply doesn’t end with his photography. He was keen to document the very last of the ‘running-train’ era of New York City. This is an excerpt from a film made in the 1980’s. The film showcases New York City from a kid’s point of view during the 80’s.
Pre-Disneyfied Times Square at night — as it existed in the 1980s. As seen from a teenager’s point of view.
The Big Apple Story is an offbeat fable of the plight of New York City during its last fiscal crisis of several decades ago — when the City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
All of Steven Siegel’s work is timeless and truly highlights the raw state, that New York City found itself in the 1980’s. Be sure to check out Steven’s work on his Flickr page.