Who can argue that New York wasn’t a sexier place to photograph 30 years ago?
I’m looking at Sue Kwon’s work in “Street Level,” a collection of photos taken of some of the city’s neighborhoods from between 1987 and 2007. What leaps off those pages is a much more culturally and racially diverse place. Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the crime and graffiti, but in the sanitizing he scrubbed away some of the color and character. Nobody wants to go back to the days when muggings, graffiti, garbage strikes and police corruption were common but look at what was lost.
There were legitimate artists colonies in The Village. Neighborhoods had distinct characters.
In Kwon’s book, punk rockers with shaved heads spill out of CBGBs. The Beastie Boys, long before any of them had gone gray, goof for the camera during a rehearsal on Mott Street. In another pic, a group of Spanish kids cook burgers on Elizabeth Street.
CBGBs, one of the all-time great music venues, is closed. Puerto Ricans and the artists got priced out of the Village and Chelsea. The Hell’s Kitchen Irish community is long gone. There was once Italians in Little Italy but no more. Most of these areas now teem with affluent young families and ascending tech workers. Take a photo of people living in the Upper West side now and it’s unlikely to be distinguishable from one taken in midtown or Alphabet City. The place that best illustrates the arc of the city’s transformation is Times Square.
TS is an international attraction but native New Yorkers detest it for the tourists and blinding illumination from the countless jumbo screens. To long-time New Yorkers, Times Square is now the world’s most overhyped amusement park, with people walking around dressed as cartoon characters and boxes of candy. The area is dismissed typically with a single word: “Disneyland.”
What was Times Square before? This is how Gael Greene remembered it:
“Even as an intrepid girl reporter for the Post, I had avoided the sleaze of Times Square. And now in the late seventies, the neighborhood was scabrous, full of desperadoes, dealers conducting brazen drug sales on Forty-second Street, scantily dressed runaways from Minnesota in white plastic boots offering themselves on Eighth Avenue.”
I get it, that New York was interesting to photograph but not so much fun to live in. Here’s hoping that a more polished New York still has plenty of interesting stories to tell.