Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1970s’

A Dutch sailor’s photos of the New York of 1979

July 3, 2017

In 1979, Peter van Wijk was a radio officer in the Dutch Merchant Marine. That summer, his ship docked a couple of times in New York Harbor, giving him the opportunity to visit Manhattan and wander the streets.

Like all curious newcomers to New York, he brought a camera along with him, and he took photos of iconic tourist spots like the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and Times Square.

But he also captured the seemingly ordinary street scenes that offer fleeting glimpses into the heart and soul of the late 1970s city: shoppers going in and out of mom and pop stores, musicians and vendors drawing crowds, and taxis navigating traffic-choked streets.

Thirty-eight years later, van Wijk decided to share his previously unseen images, and Ephemeral New York has the wonderful privilege of posting them.

It goes without saying that the Gotham of 1979 was a vastly different place. These days, everyone wants to live in New York; in the 1970s, residents couldn’t get out fast enough. The city’s population dipped an incredible 10 percent from 1970 to 1980, to just over 7 million.

Ed Koch had been elected mayor a year earlier on a law and order platform. The city’s nickname, Fear City (or more ironically, Fun City), was a nod to rising crime and rampant graffiti.

Cuts in city services left garbage on the streets, and shells of buildings sat empty in the South Bronx, East Village, and the Lower East Side, among other neighborhoods.

You wouldn’t know any of this from looking at these photos. The city in this collection of images is animated and colorful, with life and energy.

It’s a New York that feels almost small scale compared to the contemporary city—more a collection of neighborhoods rather than an island of cookie-cutter stores and development.

The gritty, street-smart New York of the 1970s is often hailed as a more authentic version of the city. How true that is has been up for debate lately.

These photos don’t take a side. They’re simply fascinating portals into the past that bring memories back of the city in the late 1970s, before crowded subways, a critical mass of Starbucks and Duane Reade stores, and an army of residents wearing white earbuds as they go about their day.

[All photos:copyright Peter van Wijk]

Why 1970s New York was nicknamed “Fun City”

December 30, 2016

New York City has had some colorful nicknames over the years—from Gotham and the Empire City in the 19th century to the Big Apple in the 1920s jazz era.

funcitytattoo

But the “Fun City” moniker of the 1960s and 1970s?

The term was supposed to be a joke, a take on a phrase used by Mayor John Lindsay during a 1966 interview with sports journalist Dick Schaap, who was then a metro columnist with the New York Herald Tribune.

funcitypeepshows

“Soon after the city was crippled by a transit strike on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s first day in office in 1966, Mr. Lindsay was asked if he was still happy to be the mayor,” wrote the New York Times in Schaap’s obituary in 2001, recounting how the nickname was coined.

funcityplaybill1972Lindsay responded, “I still think it’s a fun city.”

Schaap put the term in his column, using it “as an affectionate, if snide, gibe at the overwhelmed city,” stated the Times.

The phrase caught on with New Yorkers, who were unimpressed with the new mayor’s upbeat tone in a metropolis that over the next four years would endure a sanitation strike, a teacher walkout, a crippling blackout, and increasing financial distress.

Soon, the nickname was emblazoned on Times Square strip club marquees, city bus ads, and even on Broadway, where a short-lived play starring Joan Rivers debuted in 1972 (and closed a week later).

The term has mostly disappeared today—though a few critics dubbed Mayor Bloomberg’s New York of the early 2000s the “no-fun city.”

mays

But we still have Fun City Tattooing on St. Marks Place near Avenue A, going strong since the height of the Fun City era in 1976!

[Second photo: Fun City Peep Shows circa 1988: Michael Horsley/Flickr; third photo: playbill.com; fourth photo: unknown source]

Making 1970s Midtown a giant pedestrian mall

May 9, 2016

Madisonmall1970sNot a fan of the city’s car-free zones, or  “public plazas” as they are officially called?

Then you would have bristled at an idea Mayor Lindsay cooked up in the 1970s.

The plan was to create a “vast, H-shaped pedestrian mall that would straddle the heart of midtown Manhattan,” wrote the New York Times on December 8, 1971.

Forty-Eighth Street from Broadway to Madison Avenue would go car-free, though “a people-mover of some kind” would eventually be installed (sketch below).

Madisonmallsketch

Both Broadway and Madison Avenue between 45th Street and 57th Street would also be cleared of vehicles and turned into “a network of malls.”

The idea of completely remaking midtown came on the heels of a Lindsay administration experiment, which banned cars on Madison Avenue in 1970 and 1971.

MadisonmallstuffnobodycaresaboutThose temporary bans, inspired by the first Earth Day, were deemed a success by Mayor Lindsay and many pedestrians . . . though merchants weren’t happy to see people playing frisbee, not shopping.

It was the era of what the city called “Green Streets.” Nassau Street was about to become a pedestrian mall. Eighth Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue in midtown also tried out the car-free thing.

But while the H-shaped mall idea disappeared quickly, Mayor Lindsay stuck to plans for making Madison Avenue into a “Magic Promenade.”

Madison from 44th to 57th Streets would be “a permanent pedestrian mall with a widened street, large trees, many benches, and special lanes for small buses and trucks,” stated a Times article.

Madisonavenuemallnyt

By 1973, however, the idea was dead, thanks to an appeals court ruling that the Transportation department didn’t have the authority to turn a city street into a mall.

Of course, Mayor Bloomberg revived the idea in 2009. His public plazas—with their tables, chairs, and streets blocked off with planters—appear to be successful.

[Top image: streetsblog.org; second image: urbanomnibus.net; third image: stuffnobodycaresabout.com; fourth image: New York Times]

What a photo of 1970s Union Square reveals

February 15, 2016

Is this really the south side of Union Square a mere 40 years ago? Instead of Whole Foods and glass condos, it’s a crumbling stretch of discount stores.

Mays

This photo couldn’t be older than 1979; that was the year Sugar Babies debuted on Broadway. The bus ad for this musical references “Fun City,” a slogan dating back to Mayor Lindsay’s terms in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mays, a big box cheapo department store, occupied the enormous space between University Place and Broadway. Except for a couple of Woolworth stores on opposing ends of 14th Street, they didn’t have much competition.

One thing has stayed the same: the 14th Street crosstown bus continues to lumber along.

Here’s another view of Union Square in the 1970s—and the 19th century.

Santa has been spotted all over Manhattan

December 21, 2015

Santa Claus has come to town many times, and he’s hung out in some unlikely places.

Here’s proof, courtesy of New York’s street photographers. They always capture the weirdness and whimsy of the city…like the time Santa was waiting on the platform at Bleecker Street train in 1976 [Photographer: Richard Kalvar]

Santasubwayrichardkalvar1976

In 1982, Santa was caught poking around Central Park, across the street from the Plaza Hotel. Hopefully he wasn’t lost. [Photographer: Raymond Depardon]

Santacentralparkraymonddepardon1982

1968 was a tumultuous year of political and social upheaval, which might explain why he stopped off at this bar (with color TV!) next to a pastry shop. Even Santa needs a little nip now and then. [Photographer: Bruce Gilden]

Santaleavingbar1968brucegilden

Back when the Bowery had actual bums in 1977, Santa spent some time cheering up the down-and-out guys who made their home there. That garbage can probably held a nice warm fire. [Photographer: Susan Meisales]

Santabowery1977susanmeisales

Here he is in 1962, refueling at the coffee shop in a Woolworth’s, in a window seat at a booth with a formica counter. It might be Christmas Eve, so he’s in for a long night. [Photographer: unknown]

Santacoffee1962

The go-go bar of The Odd Couple’s closing credits

August 24, 2015

Remember the opening and closing credits of The Odd Couple? Those scenes serve as a tour of gritty 1970s New York.

Oddcoupleclosingcredits

Felix, just kicked out of the house by his wife, rests his bags on the sidewalk in front of a blue city bus. Oscar walks into wet cement after watching a girl in a miniskirt cross the street.

And at one point, Oscar looks in the window of topless go-go bar, only to be shooed away by a cop.

Oddcoupleclosingcredits2015

Could that topless bar in 1970 be this Toasties sandwich shop on 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues today?

It sure looks like it. In fact, there still is an Indian restaurant on the second floor, one that bills itself as the oldest Indian restaurant in New York City. Here’s a look at those entire closing credits.

[Hat tip to Dean at the History Author Show, which should definitely do an Odd Couple tour of New York City in an upcoming podcast.]

A rat attack near City Hall in 1970s New York

July 13, 2015

AnnstreetsignThe number one nightmare scenario of every New Yorker: coming into close physical contact with rattus norvegicus, or the typical city street and sewer rat.

Now imagine being attacked by a horde of these greasy creatures. That’s what actually happened to one woman while heading to her car parked on a street near city hall, where an empty lot that once held a tavern was now home to hundreds of rats.

It happened in the summer of 1979, during a tugboat strike that left trash and garbage rotting on city streets.

Annstreettheateralley

At about 9 p.m., a woman described by witnesses as being in her 30s was walking on Ann Street near Theatre Alley (above), south of City Hall.

“Judging from the various accounts, she seems to have been approached by the rats as she was walking toward her car,” wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

NYCgarbagestrike1981“She also seems to have noticed the rats coming near her, their paws skittering on the street. Witnesses said the rats swarmed around the woman. One climbed her leg and appeared to bite her.”

The woman understandably began screaming; a man tried to help her by waving his jacket in front of the rats, but unafraid, they simply climbed up the coat.

The hysterical woman finally made it to her car and closed the door, with the rats climbing all over it.

Theatrelley1999nyplWhen police arrived, “the rats were still there, scurrying through the streets and into Theatre Alley and into nests on a lot on Ann Street around the corner,” wrote Sullivan.

The unnamed victim of the rat attack was reported to city papers the next day. New Yorkers accustomed to living among rats shuddered.

Only the police doubted the story because nobody went to a hospital within 50 miles of the city for injuries consistent with a rat attack, wrote Jerry Langton in Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top. Sullivan’s book and newspaper accounts. however, take the story to be true.

[Third photo: garbage strike in a pre-gentrification New York City; NY Times; fourth photo: Theatre Alley in grittier days in 1999; NYPL/Dylan Stone]

The man who dove off the Flatiron Building

June 15, 2015

Henri LaMothe was a showman by trade. Born in Chicago, he first made a living dancing the Charleston.

Henrilemothe1974nydn

“Then came the Depression, when jobs weren’t so easy to find,” LaMothe said in 1977, “and I started diving into the water for a living.”

LaMothe came up with a signature diving stunt he ended up doing thousands of times around the country: from a height of 40 feet, he’d do his “flying squirrel” dive into a pool filled with four feet of water.

HenrilemothedivemcnyIn 1952, he decided to celebrate his birthday by climbing 40 feet up the Flatiron Building and diving into a 4-foot pool on the sidewalk.

He repeated the birthday stunt for 20 years, decreasing the water in the pool every year. By 1974, at age 70, he was down to about a foot of water, states The New York Times.

How did he not crack open his skull?

“When I’m on the platform I go through yoga, stretching and limbering exercises,” he told a newspaper. “Then I wipe out all thoughts and concentrate on the circle and sense my aim, which is what zen is.”

LaMothe discontinued his yearly Flatiron birthday dive after 1974 but continued diving around the country until his death in 1987.

If a man like LaMothe tried that stunt in today’s New York, his arrest would be all over social media before he had time to dry himself off on 23rd Street!

[Top: New York Daily News; Bottom: Museum of the City of New York]

1970s city store signs that burst with color

March 24, 2014

Treat yourself to a Monday morning explosion of old-school color—courtesy of these New York store signs that give off a very 1970s vibe.

Acepumpsign

Ace Pump got its start in 1936, and still deals in engineering supplies on superluxe 21st Street in Chelsea.

20thcenturygaragesign

I’ve always loved the 20th Century Garage sign, as well as its name, which must have sounded very modern at one time. It’s near Tudor City on East 48th Street. It looks like it was made before the 1970s, no?

Jeromefloristsign

Jerome Florist, on 96th Street and Madison Avenue, has been selling arrangements to Upper East Siders (and the area’s abundance of hospitals) since 1929.

Capitalelectronicssign

Once known as Capital Audio & Electronics, this Duane Street shop took the electronics out of its name, perhaps to sound less 1970s-ish.

Vernonavepharmacysign

Pharmacy signs like this one in Queens—no-frills, no brand names, with a neighborhood vibe—have mostly disappeared from city streets.

One century and three views of East 23rd Street

January 13, 2014

The area surrounding Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was ultra-trendy in post–Civil War New York, first as a residential enclave and then an entertainment and shopping district.

Fifthave23rdstreet1911

By 1911, when this photo was taken (it comes from New York Then and Now, published in 1976), the area was less fashionable.

But it had its landmarks and haunts—Madison Square Park on the left, commercial loft and walkup buildings, and out of view on the right, the 1902 Flatiron Building. and look, no traffic lights!

Fifthave23rdstreet19741

“The eight-story Hotel Bartholdi, built in 1885 at the southeast corner of Broadway and East 23rd Street, was named after the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty,” states the caption. “It was home for many sportsmen attending events at nearby Madison Square Garden.”

By 1974, this corner was forlorn and dingy. The Bartholdi Hotel was torn down after a 1970 fire; buildings on its left that had housed art galleries were destroyed in a terrible 1966 blaze that killed 12 firefighters. “The demolition of the four buildings  created a large parking lot,” the book states.

East23rdstreet2014

In 2014, this corner—now part of the buzzy new NoMad neighborhood—is hot once again. Surrounding lovely Madison Square Park are apartment buildings and new and reconfigured co-ops.

There’s no room for a parking lot in this incarnation of Madison Square. Broadway south of 23rd Street has been pedestrian plaza-ized.

One small thing remains: a few old-school wood water towers.