New York in the 70s: A Remembrance
Dirty, dangerous, and destitute. This was New York City in the 1970s. The 1960s were not yet over, and war still raged in Viet Nam, fueling resentment against the government. Nixon and the Watergate scandal created even more resentment, cynicism, and skepticism. Economically, stagnation coupled with inflation created a sense of malaise. The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 delivered another blow to the U.S. economy, and brought the misery of long lines to buy gasoline. Conditions in Harlem and Bed-Stuy were horrendous, with abandoned buildings and widespread poverty. The subways were covered everywhere with ugly graffiti and they were unreliable. It seemed as if the entire infrastructure was in decay. Political corruption, sloppy accounting, and the cost of the war were killing the city. Times Square, the crossroads of the world, was seedy and sleazy. Pimps, hookers, and drug dealers owned the night there. Crime was rampant, and the police were powerless to stop it. Random killings by the "Son of Sam" made New Yorkers even more fearful. The parks were in decay, with and litter and bare lawns, and it was home to muggers and rapists. When the proud City of New York had to beg the Federal Government for a financial bail-out, the President said no. The Daily News headline said it all: "Ford to City - Drop Dead."
The contrast between the tremendous wealth of the liberal media capital of the U.S. and the rampant poverty in the ghettos and barrios was striking. It had been only a few years since the civil rights movements and race riots of the 1960s. Large sections of the city such the South Bronx, Lower East Side, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Harlem looked like European cities which had been bombed during World War Two. Sometimes entire blocks or several blocks would contain crumbling buildings, abandoned by their owners because the tenants could not pay rent. Conditions in these areas gave rise to street gangs and crime that spread city-wide. People tore the boards of the windows or smashed the concrete blocks in doorways to gain access to these abandoned buildings, which were then used by gangs, drug addicts, and children playing. Eventually, some people moved into these buildings as squatters, and efforts were made to rehabilitate or replace substandard housing. The lack of jobs and housing put enormous stress on the city's public assistance programs including housing, education, and healthcare. Many middle-class whites were deserting the city for the suburbs, perceiving African-Americans and Puerto Ricans as threats. And many corporations left New York as conditions deteriorated, since new communications technology made it possible to do business anywhere. Television production also fled to the West Coast.
But downtown, something was stirring. Manufacturing in New York City had been in a deep decline for many years, lured to the suburbs, down south, or overseas by lower costs. Traditional garment factories around Lower Broadway moved out of the old lofts and narrow streets. Before it was called SoHo, the area of loft buildings below Houston Street was called "Hells Hundred Acres" because of all the fires that occurred in these run-down buildings. The Washington Market, formerly the central food market for the city near the Hudson River, had moved to the South Bronx due to a government decision, and many of the loft buildings in what is now called Tribeca were also empty. The piers that once were the heart of New York City's maritime trade were falling apart. One day in 1973, a large section of the roadway of the elevated West Side Highway collapsed, rendering the entire structure useless. It would be hard to find a better example of the city's crumbling infrastructure.
New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, and President Ford's decision to deny financial assistance to the city seemed like its death-knell. Eventually, the city was bailed out, and by a combined effort of politicians, unions, and civic leaders the city began a long slow road to recovery. When Ed Koch was elected mayor in 1977, on of the first things he did was to have the city government adopt proper accounting practices. The construction of the World Trade Center was helping to revitalize the financial district. After the destruction of so many landmarks for urban renewal projects, preservation of buildings and neighborhoods became a priority. Thus, the cast-iron facades of the buildings in SoHo were recognized as an architectural treasure, and the district became officially protected from change.
The name "SoHo" is actually a city planner's acronym for "South of Houston Street". Bounded by Houston St. on the north, Broadway on the east, Canal St. on the South, and West Broadway on the west, this run-down industrial area was poised for a renaissance. Starting in the 1960s, landlords desperate for rental income began to rent floors to artists hungry for space to do their work. The vast spaces and high ceilings were perfect for large paintings, sculpture, and performance pieces. But living in these lofts was totally illegal, violating building and fire codes. Some artists had elaborate setups that would hide their kitchen or bed in case of a fire inspector's visit. Soon there were so many artists living in lofts that city had to do something, initially certifying who was an artist and who wasn't. This system gave way to a revision of the fire codes so that artists could be considered as "light manufacturing" and their lofts could be legally occupied. Where artists go, galleries follow, and they in turn are followed by bars and restaurants to serve artists and gallery-goers. A few boutiques opened and the slow rebirth of the cast-iron district was underway.
Even before this economic rebound, however, there was a different kind of prosperity. This prosperity was the wealth of creativity and freedom flourishing amidst the dilapidated buildings and mean streets of downtown Manhattan. Art, music, theatre, dance, and cinema had a chance to blossom in this environment. It wasn't limited to SoHo, as the groundbreaking movements of the Beatniks in Greenwich Village and the Hippies of the East Village shows. But SoHo was the New Bohemia, and living the life of an artist was the reason to be there. New York City had a vital art scene for many years, with the abstract expressionists of the 1950s and the pop artists of the 1960s. Pop art continued to be strong into the 1970s, and it spawned photo-realistic painting. Artists who were doing "happenings" and "event\ now were being called performance artists. Since the barriers of what is art had been broken by these pioneers, younger artists, many of them fresh university graduates, felt free to try even newer and bolder things.
In terms of lifestyles, the cultural and political revolution of the 60s ceded to hedonism and decadence. Sex and drugs were a big part of what was going on in the 1970s. As a subject for art, nudes were only a starting point, with painting and sculpture getting more graphic. Happenings and performance pieces often contained nudity. Public nudity and sex were accepted, commercialized, and even glorified. Times Square became a center for the production and distribution of pornography. Sexual freedom, fought for and won in the 1960s, expanded into forms of expression, especially in the gay world, where cross-dressing in public was now permissible. In the nightworld, sex was the motivator and the objective, from the singles bars uptown to the hip clubs downtown. As discos returned (remember the Peppermint Lounge of the '60s?) sex and drugs became the force propelling the all-night and after-hours scene. Cocaine made it possible to stay awake and dance for hours and hours. It also facilitated picking up a member of the opposite sex. Unlike smoking a marijuana joint, it was discreet to use. Cocaine was definitely the drug of choice for the nightworld. Legal but misused drugs such as amyl nitrate provided even more stimulus on the dance floor. While sex was an ingredient of the disco and club scene, it was the main theme at other places. The Hellfire Club in the Meat Market district catered to the Sado-Masochism crowd. Plato's Retreat was the biggest and wildest club for straight swingers, with an orgy room as its centerpiece. There were also gay bathhouses where men could have totally anonymous sex with others. These were closed down when a fire killed several men at one, but the real end to these kinds of places was the scourge of AIDS. Many, many talented New Yorkers died from AIDS-related diseases. Nightlife itself became a casualty of AIDS, as more and more people became reluctant to have casual sex.
As certain places and trends were popular, so were certain people, many becoming pop icons like Andy Warhol and John Lennon. Warhol was an extremely prolific artist, working in painting, graphics, film, photography, and publishing. No wonder he called his studio "The Factory." He collaborated with many people, creating his own constellation of "Superstars," who in turn spun off their own hyperstylized imitators and followers. Andy was always on the scene, both as documentarian and celebrity. Lennon had settled in New York City after the breakup of The Beatles, finding it a place where he could be himself and be left alone. He too collaborated with other artists, such as downtown protest singer David Peel. Several solo albums and joint efforts with Yoko Ono were recorded in New York. Lennon withdrew almost completely from view after the birth of his son Sean. After five years of seclusion, he emerged in the summer of 1980 bursting with creative energy and enthusiasm. With his tragic assassination, New York City - and the world - lost a big part of its heart and soul. So when Warhol, Lennon, and many other creative people left the scene, a cultural vacuum ensued which has remained unfilled.
Other intangible elements of the time made it unique. Besides the overflowing creativity and experimentation, there was receptiveness to new ideas. There was a sense of community and sharing with others. There was a lack of greed or sense of entitlement. There was excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism. New media such as video spawned artists and groups seeking to explore the possibilities of this new technology and ways of expression. Outlets for new media such as public access cable TV provided new ways of communicating with larger audiences, and satellite made it global. Again, the cheap large spaces made it possible not only for artists, but for video co-ops, filmmakers, dance troupes, and experimental theater companies to work and live.
How did I get here?
"Yeah, you know how to take pictures," SoHo News publisher Michael Goldstein said to me after flipping through my portfolio in the fall of 1973, "I'm giving you an assignment. We pay $5.00 per photo. If you do a good job, I'll put you on staff for $40.00 per week." Accepting his assignment to cover the Avant-Garde Art Festival in Grand Central, I left his loft thinking, "YES! This is it - the break I've been waiting for!"
Having been graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Art, and having studied with professors who came from the New York art world, it was natural for me to gravitate to SoHo. The Broome St. Bar was one of my hangouts, and it was there that I first saw the SoHo Weekly News, a new eight-page free paper. When I found out they were looking for a photographer, I went to the office with my portfolio.
The 1960s were a great influence on me, and also led up to this moment in the SoHo News office. In 1964, when I was 19, I drove with a friend to San Francisco in his 1940 Studebaker. I sensed something was happening there, and wound up spending over three years there during the 1960s. Soon I became part of the hip scene in North Beach and Haight-Ashbury and met lots of creative people. I got interested in photography and I taught myself camera and darkroom technique. This was a very exciting time, with inexpensive concerts at the Fillmore and Avalon, love-ins in Golden Gate Park, and political demos against the Viet Nam War. It was a time of experimentation with psychedelics and unlimited sexual freedom. It was easy to cross paths and interact with underground legends and leaders of the cultural revolution. I spent time racing around town in a car driven by Neal Cassidy, the "Dean Moriarity" character in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. After taking my first concert photos of Jimi Hendrix, I was backstage with him. Janis Joplin would say "Hi" on Haight Street.
Reality came crashing in, though, and all the 'Peace and Love' had a dark side. By the Fall of 1968, the San Francisco scene was burned out, and grad school was a drag. I drove back to New Jersey to live with friends in a farm house. I got a job as a welfare caseworker in New York City, and commuted to the office and to the field. But I wanted to be taking pictures for newspapers or magazines. To do this I needed to be in New York City. I moved to a communal brownstone in Brooklyn and drove taxi and worked as a bartender. On my days off I would go to events such as parades and political rallies to take pictures and develop a portfolio.
It takes the perspective of time to make sense out of the chaos of the moment in which we live. What seemed like random events and choices all pointed me in the direction of that day I went for the interview at the SoHo News. My time as a caseworker showed me areas of New York City where there was appalling devastation and poverty, while at the same time making me comfortable in the ghetto and el barrio. Taxi driving gave me knowledge of the city and the skills to get places quickly. One cannot get that kind of experience anywhere else. Most of all, it was a photo of Jimi Hendrix, taken in 1968, that made Michael Goldstein stop flipping the pages of my portfolio and say, "You know, I was Jimi's publicist for a while."
Goldstein liked my photos from the Avant-garde Festival and offered me the chief photographer position. I accepted, but since the pay was so low, I insisted that the paper pay for materials, that I would also have the title of Photo Editor, and that I owned all my negatives and copyrights. He agreed. Thus began an adventure that would turn into one of the best jobs in New York City. Unlike a photojournalist covering a war or working on a documentary project, I was unsure where the SoHo News would go in terms of my photography. I told myself that, at the very least, I would someday have a body of work. Early on, I went to talk with Ralph Gibson, an artist in photography whose work I admire. He told me cryptically, "The work will show you the way." It did.
© Allan Tannenbaum
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