I spend an awful lot of time here on Flaming Pablum waxing rhapsodic about New York City's bad old days and how much "cooler" the city was as an arguable result. "Coolness" and quality of life, however, are two very different things. In terms of aesthetics, it's been said that nothing inspires great art like adverse circumstance. As such, the city's most notorious period is roundly credited for also being its most creatively fertile period. This is inarguably true in the realm of popular music. New York's late 70s decline saw the respective births of disco, punk rock and hip hop. The art and cinema scenes similarly flourished. Things were happening. Envelopes were pushed. Simply put, "coolness" abounded.
Looking back, the gritty, crime-ridden squalor of New York City's former self – the one before Giuliani's storm-troopers and Bloomberg's bean-counters re-drew the map – has become a rote chapter to cite when seeking to enhance mystique in the name of context for artists across the board. Thurston Moore & Byron Coley's new book, "No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980." (the third book on the subject to hit shelves in a year – and, yes, I have all three of'em), features a forward penned by Lydia Lunch, who colorfully paints a portrait of late 70's Manhattan as a kind of syphilitic whore. She writes...
New York City during the 1970s was a beautiful, ravaged slag -- impoverished and neglected after suffering from decades of abuse and battery. She stunk of sewage, sex, rotting fish, and day-old diapers. She leaked from every pore.
Despite Lunch's penchant for floridly violent hyperbole, I don't doubt her depiction for a second. Back in 1978, the Bowery -- for an obvious example -- was a decidedly less friendly place than it is today. Such is the case with many other neighborhoods around town that have undergone similar architectural facelifts and revisionist reinventions. Everyone's heard stories and seen films depicting New York's shadowy late 70's incarnation as a roiling hotbed of strife, but for the new crop of folks who may have only arrived here in the wake of 42nd Street's Disneyfication (for me, the first sign that something big was afoot), the tragic events of September 11th and "Sex and the City," I spotted a gallery of photographs over on my pal C-Monster's amazing site and thought I'd share it here. Aptly titled "New York Brutal: 1965-1995," this collection of images (I wish I knew more about their origin and/or the photographer) unflinchingly depicts New York City at the depth of its notorious decrepitude. These are not pretty pictures.
I'm not trying to prove anything with this, necessarily. I just found these pictures to be jarring and thought provoking. Going back to the 42nd Street allusion, while I resent the gaudy, neutered, garishly-plastic place that exists today, that does not at all mean that I was in favor of the drugs, prostitution and violence that previously ran rampant on that strip. That said, couldn't we have found a middle-ground between the two extremes? Similarly, the images in this gallery are absolutely nothing to be celebrated, but is forcibly re-designing New York City as an exclusive enclave for the uber-wealthy that leaves no room for lower-income families and businesses really the best solution? The end results certainly don't exude "coolness," although a new form of brutality remains.