Tuesday, September 9, 2014

NYC 1973 - 1974

Recently, I came across the photography of Mike Frey, a group of shots all taken in New York City between September 1973 and June 1974, his freshman year in the NYU film program.

They show a city half-collapsed on itself, filled with dilapidated diners, cluttered fruit stands, and dusty Chinese restaurants, their cracked windows fixed with masking tape.

Everything in the photos looks dirty. I like the city looking dirty. It's hard to say why, exactly, but I do.

Trouble is, some moron is always coming around to say you can't like the dirty old city without also being a fan of rape and murder, which strikes me as an especially moronic thing to say. You can like the look of a time and place without celebrating its worst aspects.

Look at those garbage cans on St. Mark's Place, so quintessentially garbage can-like. They're not made of plastic, but metal and rust. They look like tired workmen, vaguely heroic as they perform a thankless job in the inevitable grip of entropy.

You don't see garbage cans like that anymore--and you don't see the word "transients" much either, except on very old signs that have yet to be ripped down. It's a good word. Transient: 1(a): "passing especially quickly into and out of existence," (b) "passing through or by a place with only a brief stay or sojourn," and 2: "affecting something or producing results beyond itself."

Look at this Staten Island boy. He styled his hair and put on those insanely tall shoes for a trip into the city. He wants them to be as shiny as they can be. He's got things on his mind beyond Staten Island. Did he ever find what he was looking for?

And there's the old High Line, the final stretch where it curves around Hudson Yards. It's being fussed over as we speak, glossed and readied for its reopening later this month. But back then, when Mike Frey was walking around with his camera, it was an old, imperfect thing, flanked by other old, imperfect things.

I liked it that way. I think of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi (loneliness, withered), a pleasure in the beauty of decay:

"If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi." "Wabi and sabi both suggest sentiments of desolation and solitude." (Wiki)

We don't get much of that anymore, either.

View the rest of Mike Frey's photo collection on Flickr.


Joe Bonomo said...


Caleo said...

Truly beautiful. Great find.
And a belated congratulations on a regular gig with a real paper.
Still looking forward to that book.

Anonymous said...

I don't think its moronic to honestly discuss early 70s NYC. You romanticize it because you didn't live through it. You don't get it. You look at these pics like people view art at a museum. Some of us are old enough to actually remember the reality. Sorry if the reality doesn't jibe with what you imagine it was like. But enjoy the pics and your fantasy of 1970s NYC. Typical how transplants who moved here after Giuliani was elected love the old NY or what they imagine it was. Sorry the reality burst your bubble.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Beautiful pictures, thanks for posting. I loved this NYC.

JAZ said...

Couldn't agree more with every word you wrote - and thank god for these photos.

There are some places around the city that still use the metal garbage cans, but I fear specifying them, lest the hipsters and assorted authentrifyers swarm in to pull them out by the roots and replace them with their 'fresh re-interpretation of the reliable old classics'.

Pat said...

Hells bells, we have transients thanks to airbnb.

Betty said...

Hi, 1:04 pm. I lived through those gritty times, and loved it. We all have our own experiences. The Japanese esthetic mentioned here truly describes the feeling of wandering around the city in those days.

Gojira said...

God, what a gorgeous city that was; traces of history and past lives everywhere, unlike today, when they've all been scrubbed away and replaced by featureless crap. I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Anon. 1:04, zip it - I was born here, grew up here, and would take the gritty old pre-Rudy days over the Giuliani/Bloomerg "betterment" - I mean, destruction - of New York any day. I know plenty of people like me who look back on the "bad old days", when New York was a real city instead of a tourist trap outlet mall, and mourn their passing. Hint: you may be in the wrong place; I hear there's a great "How Sex and the City Saved New York" blog you may want to follow instead.

Anonymous said...

Those old metal garbage cans were the first weapon you ran for back in the day when you had to defend yourself in the city's hostel 70's street environment.You just had to hope they were not chained down to something. Awww, those were the days!

mch said...

" I like the city looking dirty. It's hard to say why, exactly, but I do." Me, too, even as I also like the city now and then, here and there, looking bright and shiny and clean. Living in the country (well, certainly by NYC standards I do) and as a gardener, I suggest a kind of analogy here. The parts of the garden/yard that are properly weeded, mulched, and producing loving arrays of green and flowers and vegetables, vs. those that, well, have gotten "seedy" with "weeds" (that is, a plants growing in a place you don't want them to grow). The latter, the out-of-control crazy spots: they're good, too. They give birds stuff for nests, rodents places to grub, raccoons and the like places to fight out whatever they're fighting out, and deer a place to "park." Not to mention woodchucks and rabbits.

And these places in the garden/yard, these "wild" spots, are not just all that but also places of inspiration. Who knew that maiden fern would like that spot and grow so beautifully there? That lamium would thrive in that spot.

One thing a gardener can assure everyone of: dirt wins in the end. Keep the faith.

Anonymous said...

But actually there is plenty of trash/garbage in present day NYC, especially since 2009 or so, during the Bloomberg years.

The corner garbage cans in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn (and probably elsewhere) surge over with garbage spilling on to the sidewalk and street. (Rodent issues too) Much of this is the result of the increase in tourism, surge in "frat" demographic, increase in street food vendors, the concomitant proliferation in chain fast food (Chipotle etc), the establishment of pedestrian plazas, increase in corporate "street" events/fairs and the overall increase in development - coupled with insufficient funding for Sanitation pick-up.

Former Mayor Bloomberg believed in unfettered development and did not care about necessary infrastructure.

laura r. said...

good photos. i have no memory of crime. i dont like filth, but like the indivuality of the businesses. there were always chichi places in NY, something for everyone, truth to be told i liked living on the upper east side more than the EV even when i was 22 years old. i did enjoy the social life in EV untill 1970.

Anonymous said...

I live in Brooklyn now after leaving Chelsea about 4 years ago. Sadly I'm giving up on Brooklyn as soon as I can figure out a place I want to move to. NYC is never going to be what I moved here for some 22 years ago. It's gone forever and will remain only in these photos. I leave this city to the frat boys and girls who will appreciate a good Dairy Queen or Nail Salon. I see no reason to pay $2000 for a studio, 45 minutes into Brooklyn to live in an overcrowded suburban mall that caters exclusively to uber rich and tourists. Might as well move somewhere and at least appreciate the money I earn.

Mitch said...

I am old enough to remember the 1970s (I was born in 1960), and I was in NYC at the time. I find myself unimpressed by the arguments of the likes of Anon 1:04. There are many cities in the world that are today just as dangerous as NY was then - and people live in them and even love them. Furthermore, the crime rate was actually considerably worse in the 1980s and early 1990s (see, e.g. this http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/436-13/mayor-bloomberg-police-commissioner-kelly-2013-saw-fewest-murders-fewest/#/0) Put another way: in 1973 I had just over twice the chance of being killed in NYC as I did in 2000. That's important, but it in neither case was it the most important facet of my life in NYC.

What *was* different in 1973 was that crime was considerably worse than it had been just a few years before. We had an unimpressive mayor, a global recession and a fiscal crisis. Maybe for these reasons, people seem to have a thing about how bad it was in the 1970s, but you don't hear it so much about the 1980s - even through crime itself was actually worse.

At any rate, having lived through the 1970s, my recollection from the time (and which I still feel today) was that if I am nostalgic about anything, it would be for New York in the 1930s and 1940s (before I was born). That was when all the beautiful, decaying stuff that was around me in 1973 was new, and the city was healthy.

D. Berrios said...

New York was very hard place back then. Very hard. It is not easy to understand how tough it was for so many people. Yes it was cheaper. Yes it was gritty. But it tore people and families apart. The lawlessness if you weren't a rich person is hard to imagine if you did not live through it.

If you were not rich back then you were lucky to miss the terrible crime. The city going bankrupt. The assaults and rapes and muggings. The overdoses. The empty rat filled buildings. Just remember the Bronx and how land lords burned people out of buildings. It was a nightmare if you were a poor person and not white. And hard if you were poor and white.

Some good things happened in the 1970s and 1980s. But so many people were destroyed by that old New York. Beame lost control. Then there was crack and AIDS. Dinkins was in office during a terrible riot and what did he do? You might not like Rudy Giuliani but he turned things around.

It is easy to romanticize pictures and nostalgia. If you lived through the worst then you can appreciate when things got much better under Giuliani and Bloomberg. They were the two best mayors New York had. Today It is the envy of the world.


Watching Law & Order re-runs from the 90s one can sometimes see in the background run down buildings and littered sidewalks. Often the area where the scene were shot are today all spiffed up. This is especially true of the Meatpacking district, which was a favorite of their location manager.

Anonymous said...

Mitch I didn't realize I was supposed to impress you with my comments. Betty I'm glad you have good memories. I do too. Gojira your response is typical. If someone has a different view you tell them to zip it. If you are so unhappy why stay? And yes those garbage cans were used for self defense. And Mitch I love your comment about the 30s and 40s. You mean pre civil rights NYC with legal segregation and discrimination?
There was a post here about photos from 1948 and how some wanted to 'jump' into them . Good to know the era you love. Hope you're a white str8 male or you won't like that era. If I post some great photos of 30s Berlin would you want to jump in those too?

Anonymous said...

Thank you D Berrios for your comment. The fact that NYC was bankrupt and the impact it had is either forgotten or glossed over. It took decades and public private partnerships to bring the parks and libraries back. The police and fire academies were closed. The garbage wasn't pick up so the rat population exploded. I could go on. People take things for granted like riding the train after 10-11pm. Or being out late. There is a reason it used to be quiet. You didn't want to risk being out. But pretend it was better back then. Some things need to vanish. Funny how the old timers interviewed by ev grieve never feel the way some of you do. I wonder why that is.

Mitch said...

@Anonymous - Possibly English is not your first language and you're missing the subtleties. "I find myself unimpressed by the arguments of the likes of Anon 1:04" does not actually mean that I think that you're "supposed to impress [me] with [your] comments". It actually means that I think you're wrong and actually mostly just trolling. See, that's what happens when I try to be polite. BTW, I know it's hard to fathom, but a sentence like "I wish I could have seen the Brooklyn Dodgers play." actually has nothing to do with legalized segregation or homophobia.

@D. Berrios - Actually, crime started to decline under David Dinkins (who, among other things, was the first to expand the police force) and as a percentage it went down more under his mayoralty than under Giuliani, who is conventionally given credit.

Unknown said...

70's Last great period in NYC. Champagne brunch for $5.95 at Wednesday's, Thursdays, or Fridays, All you can drink and eat Italian in our cozy Village joint,
six young actors sharing small apt. in Hells Kitchen.
I never noticed it was particularly dirty.

Anonymous said...

Add me to the list. Born '64, and loved the city in the 70s (and 80s and even 90s). The mix of business, and people; poor and rich but also strongly working class even in lower Manhattan. It felt like you had options, and freedom, and variety.

Also, tThe crime wasn't nearly as bad as people claim it was, and like someone said the late 80s crack wars were far worse than anything in the 70s.

I understand 1:04, some prefer the spiffed up, gated community that is Manhattan these days. He could have done what so many others like him did back then flee to the 'burbs. But he waited it out, and - good for him - he doesn't have to anymore, as the burbs are now here, in all their sterile, boring, sameness.

Me? I loved the city and never wanted to live in the burbs.

laura r. said...

its 6 of one 1/2 a dozen of the other. NY was better in the 1973 in many ways, it also was worse in some ways. there was much more privacy & space those days. you could walk for a mile & see no one. (remember there were factories, the meat market the fish market). now so much is residential and commericial. its the commerical that is the problem. the main industry is tourism, & realestate investment. (also college expansion). now there are crowds almost everywhere. shopping looking shopping looking eating. cant seem to wrap my mind around this, especially weekdays on 9th ave & the w/40s. friends tell me how packed it is. it was always quiet there even the last time i visited (9th) in 2007. i hear the busses are slower than ever, maybe they cut back? as for rats crime drugs, i avoided those areas for most of my life in NYC. the people who glorify that didnt move to NY untill around 1990. most of them are not from the city, & stuck w/a post college mentality. i am 4th generation NY, we go back to 1900. the buildings are still there. no one w/any decency or standards would want filth or crime. these johnnycome lately's have an either "or" mentality. what i miss in NY are the options for peace& quiet.

Anonymous said...

Think we all like dirty places because they carry the traces of human presence. But, postmodern capitalist architecture is against memory, it needs to erase the fact that everything in the city is the result of human activity, of labor. But here-s my question: could this nostalgia be more than a conformist acceptance? Shouldn't we be in a struggle right now rather than making sad poetic texts like this?

Anonymous said...

I too am fascinated by the old new york I love to walk around hells kitchen and imagine the 70s n 80s. But at the same time, Im glad I can do it without gettin mugged or proped by a hooker. For a a sobering account of pre-Rudy New York read the true crime masterpiece "The Westies".

Ralphy said...

The grittiness of tha kitchen then n now is a beautiful thing.

RetroRichie82 said...

My name is Richie, & now they call me Retro Richie.

I used to ride my bike under the FDR drive to South St Seaport NYC, & on my way to the Seaport, I stopped by the Seaport Diner that's in the photo to get a cup of hot chocolate. The Seaport Diner was around till the late 90's. Back then people knew each other their were break dancing posses, graffiti crews, roller skaters, skate boarders, fire crackers like moon rockets, whistlers, roman candles, boomers for 5cent each. Their were boys & girls clubs for cheap, & older students volunteered to help at the boys club for school credits. That's where I did my homework, & played video games like street fighter. We socialized. I remember playing your it: Game is really called man hunt. The Push brothers game, & even snow ball fights, it was all fun. We knew each other, & if you did not know anyone people were very social you knew at least one person that knew that person & so on. If their was a fight it was one on one, things can get bad, but you had a lot of options."There was Unity" The innocent times, creativity, artistic. Movie actors were at their best, they did not have computer generated imagery like now & most of the new actors are bad today with remake movies. Music like the real VH1, & MTV. Radio stations like CD 101.1FM 92.7FM Long Island Radio. 92.3FM K-Rock. There are is still the Jazz88.3FM today, & 96.3FM moved to 105.9FM Classical radio NYC. Girls were all natural, most of today's girls get Botox surgery, face lifts, etc... You can find my: Retro Richie's Classic Collections on Youtube.com Just type in youtube search: Retro Richie

NOTE: There are just a few places left like the Pearl Diner that's still around 55 years now, & if you want to save them we must sign petitions, & even protest!

Remember: They don't make them like they used to, They were built with spirit.