Photographer Efrain Gonzalez recently sent in some of his shots from 1980s and 1990s New York City, along with links to his incredible online collection. His photos are dark and dirty, scenes of smut and grit, the city in the moment just before it was whitewashed and sanitized.
Browsing through, you'll find ghostly scenes of men prowling the Christopher Street piers, shots of ravaged Ludlow and Rivington Streets on "a dangerous night" in 1986 (there's Spitzer's Corner Store before its name was co-opted by the "gastropub" that took it over)...
...the desolation of the old Meatpacking District during the day, along with its nighttime life, girls on the stroll. All gone.
If you have some privacy, don't miss Gonzalez's NSFW archive of photos inside New York's kink clubs and scenes of Folsom Street East before the condos came to kill it.
He also has some rare (NSFW) shots inside the basement of Cave Canem (later Lucky Cheng's). When I explored that building's illustrious history here, I'd only heard rumors of lesbian sex parties, but Gonzalez has the photos to prove it, including shots of a "pool party for the Sirens, a lesbian biker club."
What makes this photo collection so special is that it preserves and reveals a part of New York that most New Yorkers never witnessed. Efrain ventured into the city's transgressive spaces. He returns with proof that another city existed once, and that its people were something to see. I asked the photographer a few questions about that:
Q: You took photos of places most New Yorkers never ventured into--sex clubs, the piers, dangerous neighborhoods at night. What attracted you to those places?
A: Because it was different, wild and crazy, and full of people living outside the envelope. People expressing forbidden desires and living their sexuality out proud in special clubs and social gatherings. These were the places where you can be your true inner self, and do it among like-minded, accepting souls, in a safe, sheltered place. I went there because I was one of them and I hungered to be with them.
Q: Do you think NYC still has that gritty underbelly?
A: That underbelly is slowly being snuffed out because it is getting harder and harder to find out of the way places where you can be permitted to express yourself in that way. Rising prices of land makes it harder to find cheap places where it is safe to do so. There will always be an underground sexual society--swingers, gangbangs, gay or transgender sexual players, bikers, tattoo and piercing players who modify their bodies as a truly unique art form, those who hide their passions for fear of being ostracized--and they need those old out of the way places to gather, socialize, and play safely to their heart's content, without fear of society calling the law upon them and crushing them with mediocrity.
The old Meatpacking District and Chelsea, as well as the East Village and Lower East Side, acted as a cheap out of the way place to have sacred space, and it became a "critical mass" where these clubs could gather, feed off each other, and grow out of the sight of the mainstream. Once these places became high-price real estate, the underground players were no longer welcome, their erotic reality interfering with the peace and comfort of the moneyed classes and those who were lacking in passions.
The passions are still there, but culture is changing. Fear of being gay, leather, or trans is fading away. The old guard who started all these places and clubs are slowly dying away, their memories of what was, and how we gathered to create our special societies, dying with them. And the Internet is bringing the underground out of its secret sacred spaces and into the glare of a computer monitor, where all can marvel at a spanking, a Japanese rope bondage, or an over-the-top crossdressing festival. The forbidden becomes fodder for every man's imagination, and the delicious sense that you belong to a special secret space fades in that light.
Q: What has NYC lost without those places?
A: A place where you can form a real deep community of people to people contact. With the Internet you can have a million friends who share an interest, but none of the personal human contact of sweat and smells, loud voices and personality. You knew the person as a person, with all his beauty, frailties, bad habits, farts and scars, and you can grow your friendships from the person you can reach out and touch and feel and discover. A friendship based on a personal sharing and attraction to who that person was, how you enjoyed being next to him or her, how the human chemistry reacted to form emotional bonds that could last a lifetime. How can you taste someone over the Internet? How will you know the sound of their voice?