Recently, Bizarre Publishing released photographer Meryl Meisler's book of photos, Purgatory & Paradise: Sassy '70s Suburbia and The City. In the book, Meisler "juxtaposes intimate images of home life on Long Island alongside NYC street and night life – the likes of which have never been seen. Quirky, nostalgic and a bit naughty, it’s a genuine cultural capsule of a decade that captivates today’s generation."
I asked the photographer a couple of questions.
Q: How do you see suburbia and the city as different and/or similar in the 1970s? Where did the cultures and aesthetics overlap and diverge?
A: From my personal perspective, both NYC and Long Island people identified as New Yorkers. Most of the Long Islanders I knew had a strong connection to The City, whereas the connection of city dwellers to Long Island was less apparent (unless they summered at LI beaches or had family there).
The majority of the people I grew up with in Long Island had roots in The City. My parents bought a brand new split-level development home in North Massapequa, Long Island when I was two years old. The farmland that surrounded our development grew into more developments so rapidly I don’t even remember the open land other than in my father’s photographs of the of our house being built. The suburbia I knew was neighborhood after neighborhood of predominantly 1st and 2nd generation Americans, who grew up poor during the Great Depression, mostly in The Bronx or Brooklyn, and bought their homes with the GI bill with the hope of giving their children a better life. Nearly everyone had a two-parent household with two or more kids. Most of the dads worked in The City, and moms I knew were stay-at-home moms until the kids were a little older. Divorced and single parent households were rare. I can’t even recall a family that had “only” one child.
Our town, Massapequa “Matzah Pizza,” was predominantly Italian, Jewish, Irish, German and very Caucasian. Jerry Seinfeld’s dad’s business “Kal Seinfeld Signs” was nearby. Seinfeld grew up in another section of Massapequa. In High School I didn’t even realize the kid with the last name Rivera was Hispanic. A girl in my Brownie troop whose family came from Cuba was the only person of color I knew. The kids whose family who owned the Chinese Laundry nearby were the only Asian students in our school. The next town over, Amityville, was predominantly African American, as were a few other neighboring towns.
Some families, like mine, brought their children into The City to visit family or enjoy theatre and cultural activities as well as to visit our family in The Bronx. Teenagers would take the LIRR or drive to go to theatre, concerts, or eat in Chinatown. NYC and Long Island were symbiotically connected. There were Long Islanders (then and now) who had no interest in going to The City, reminiscent of NYers who wouldn’t go above 14th St.
The NYC I moved to in 1975 was magnificently diverse. I met and socialized with people of multi- ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds with similar interests in the arts. The NYC I discovered was also a place where you could live alone or with friends, be part of a non “traditional” family, gay and lesbian, free to discover who you wanted to be. The punk and disco scene was emerging and then in full swing. “Bridge and Tunnel” people were excluded entry from the most exclusive clubs. On Long Island, there were a few discos that emerged that emulated the NYC club scene such at Uncle Sam's in Levittown, The Ice Palace in Fire Island, and clubs in the Hamptons.
In the Long Island I grew up in most people went to their local public school unless they went to Parochial Catholic School. You didn’t have a choice. Local “zoned” NYC public schools varied radically from neighborhood to neighborhood. Students in The City could compete to get into the better public schools. In 1979, I began my 31-year career as a NYC public school art teacher and got to know it and photograph it from an insider's point of view very well.
Rents in NYC in the early to mid 70s were affordable, especially with rent control and rent stabilization. The idea of rental buildings “going coop” was just starting to happen. By the end of the decade, it was increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. At the same time, the inexpensive homes in Long Island bought on the GI bill were becoming very pricey too.
Small businesses were prevalent in NYC and LI in the 1970s. My dad commuted 6 days a week to the printing company he owned and operated in Chelsea, Excel Printing Company. Dad would be very surprised that the site of his factory at 418 West 25th Street is a super luxury building in a hot gallery district. I miss the smell of litho ink emanating throughout the many buildings in Chelsea that were filled with printers.
Q: How does that all compare to today? As the city becomes more suburbanized, is this something you see through your camera lens?
A: The suburbs I knew in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s are becoming slightly more diverse. There are more businesses and opportunities to work in Long Island, but there is still a large influx of commuters who work in The City. Growing up, everyone I knew owned their home in LI but now I know of people who rent in LI as well.
There are children who are 2nd and 3rd generation Long Islanders, many people bought their parents' homes when the elders retired to Florida or other locales. Now I know of single people or people without children living in Long Island. The beautiful Long Island beaches still draw out NYC residents as day-trippers, renters, or vacationers. In Long Island and NYC, people are going further out in Suffolk County or neighborhoods in the outer boroughs to find more affordable communities.
I am far from a fan of big box or chain stores and cookie cutter mall culture. In my opinion they are destroying small family-owned businesses, making great stationery and hardware stores, for example, face extinction.
I like to photograph people and places I know well or find interesting. To me if you have seen one big box or chain store, you’ve seen them all. They aren’t subjects I am drawn to photograph.
all photographs © Meryl Meisler
You can find the book at The Strand and other independent local bookshops.
And you can find more of Meryl's work at her website.