The Dark Days of New York City

Subway Interior - New York, New York

Subway Interior – New York, New York (July 2012)

My sons thought it was dirty. I agree. Compared to the sparkling trains in Tokyo and Singapore, the New York City Subways are dirty. But they’re a heck of a lot better than they used to be. How bad was it 30 years ago?

I came across this wonderful Time.com article with accompanying photographs. It’s definitely worth a look. 15 images from Photographer Chris Morris, who documented the dark days of the subway system and the city back in 1981.

New York wasn’t always the sparkling and vibrant metropolis that it is now. Back in the early 80’s, NYC was only a hand full of years out of near bankruptcy. The dirty, graffiti covered subways are what I remember as I commuted for hours everyday to High School. Trains often broke down and were late. The heater was sometimes on full bast in the summer. Normal levels of graffiti withdrew into the background, becoming part of the fabric of everyday city life. Only exceptional levels of defacement raised eyebrows. I remember one day, the entire inside of a subway car was spray painted in a single act of vandalism, the windows, the seats and the floor.

I remember meeting Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angles that patrolled the subways. Imagine that, an unarmed citizen activist group to help protect the general public. That was the state of NYC at the time. Photograph 10 features a picture of this group.

People may now glorify graffiti as an art form. To me it’s just a form of public defacement. My opinion, no doubt, colored by my daily commute through people’s defiant self-expression recast as art expression. But the grittiness of the city is burned in my psyche. I am a product of the city. Even living in Austin, and in the suburbs for 20+ years, the city calls. I’m sure that’s part my motivation to create Urban Landscapes — why I return over and over to the dirty 6th Street in Austin.


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10 thoughts on “The Dark Days of New York City

  1. I grew up in New York. I rode the subways beginning when I was 13.They were disgusting back then. They are still pretty disgusting as of the last time I rode them … about 3 years ago. And very stinky. But. they are cheap and they go pretty much everywhere in the city. There are places in NY you can ONLY get to by subway.

    GREAT picture. Definitely not taken at rush hour 🙂

  2. It’s good to see somebody agrees with my view of graffiti. Once you get past the ideas that taggers are seeking to affirm identity otherwise chewed up by the city, and that the more elaborate forms of graphic graffiti equal art refusing to be repressed — it’s pretty much vandalism. And it’s damned depressing to live in a world incessantly being spray painted by people who are basically saying f**k you. Odd, too, how the sight of graffiti cues memories of the smell of public places and facilities also decorated with urine.

    Rather than end on that note, I can give thanks for having lived in New York as a kid in the late ’40s, early ’50s. Streets (al least in midtown Manhattan) were washed…yes, washed…regularly. Central Park was a safe and delightful place. Double-decker buses with the top deck open to the sky patrolled Fifth Avenue. The el train still covered Third Avenue, making it a dark and noisy place with drunks sleeping it off overnight in doorways, yet it was perfectly safe for a kid to walk alone along Third for a dozen blocks to get to a movie theater with a children’s section. It was a different world. Not just sanitized by the uninformed eyes of innocence — we knew where and when to be careful. Then, by the ’70s, it was gone.

    1. Michael, wonderful story. Thanks for sharing. It is heartwarming to know, at least in the past, NYC was a clean and safe place. I’m hoping and it appears that it’s moving back in that direction.

      When I grew up there, things were less ideal. I remember Times Square used to be wall to wall X rated theaters. It’s almost like “Back to the Future part 2” when a change in a past derailed that town into a seedy nightmare of an alternate universe. Time Square, for the most part, is cleaned up. Perhaps a bit amusement park like, in a way, but so much better than before.

  3. Quite a difference between your picture and the photos in the Time article. The underground in London was rather bad too in the late 80s, early 90s but when I went back in 2010 I was surprised by how much they cleaned up the place. Similar story for the Paris Metro. Maybe we’re learning, evolving even 😉

    1. I went do London for a week in the mid 80s. While it wasn’t as dirty as NYC, I thought the city had seen better days. It’s good to hear that things there as well as in Paris have improved too.

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