Pre-Instagram New York: Mean But Full of Heart

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Pre-Instagram New York: Mean But Full of Heart

Every time I travel to a new city, I try to read up on its history and the people who had resided there before. It’s fascinating to learn about how these former residents lived and loved and died. I have an even more intense desire to explore New York City’s past not only because I consider it home and the best city in the world. It is a city of many faces and has gone through a multitude of transformations and reinventions over the last few hundred years. The city either saved you, condemned you, or a little bit of both.

I remember speeding down West Side Highway in the early 1990s as a kid in my father’s car as he gestured toward Chelsea and told us what a dangerous neighborhood it was. In fact, as a suburban kid from New Jersey, the entire city seemed terrifying. What I didn’t know back then was that the 1990s actually marked the beginning of a turnaround for New York. Some of its worst decades in terms of crime and violence had already passed, and we would soon see its streets captured and memorialized in filtered, curated, and glamorized instagram feeds.

To get a sense of what New York was really like in the 70s and 80s, I turned to a really special photography book by renowned photographer Edward Grazda called Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1980. In 1970, Grazda moved into an artist loft at the corner of Bleecker and Elizabeth Streets, across from a statue of Christ that was part of the Holy Name Center. He would go on to take photographs all over the world but always returned his lens to New York. This book is a collection of Grazda’s black and white photos of his city, an important documentary of a New York right before its streets, in his words, “lost their souls.”

The streets in the photos seem wider to me or perhaps it’s because their subjects are so captivating, each one beckoning for closer examination. I’m not sure there is one central theme that ties the images together; on the surface, the photographs are all about the decay and abandonment that ravaged the city streets: a man lies on the sidewalk, motionless. A couple sits 10 feet from him, unconcerned. Is he just drunk or taking a nap? Is he dead? They don’t seem to care. A TV set ablaze; an apartment fire at Crosby and Houston; a burning garbage can at Bowery and Houston. Everything’s on fire.

Buried deeper throughout the book, though, are messages of hope, like the recurring photographs of the statue of Christ across the street from Grazda’s loft. The streets were mean, but they were home to the New Yorkers who struggled and hustled and eked out a hardscrabble living. Apparently, gay is on sale every Monday, with a “march & gay-in” set to happen on June 28th. A black owl with damaged feathers sits on the sidewalk; right across the page, though, a Ford Thunderbird with its doors and trunk and hood open look like it could take flight instead. A photographer shows off his work on a Polaroid 250. Prostitutes waiting for work, making eye contact with the camera.

These days, I come across many of the intersections and streets that Grazda photographed, but all I see are nice buildings and hipster eats. No wonder Grazda said in an interview that he no longer wants to take photographs of the city. If I had seen and captured the New York of his day, I wouldn’t want to either.

Interested in more photos from this book? Get your own copy!