New York was a Scary Wonderland in the 70s & 80s
Guest post by John Law (Founder of the Cacophony Society and Burning Man)
When I recall what New York City was like when I visited and stayed there in the late 70s and early 80s sometimes I feel as though I’m imagining it.
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My first trip there in ’78 was for three and a half months. I couch surfed mostly in Brooklyn around Prospect Park. I ended up staying at the Red Balloon Collective on Prospect Park for a while. It was in a humungous fourth floor walk apartment up on the corner of the building facing out over the park. The Red Balloon was a communist group run by a fellow named Mitchell Cohen who’d been a friend of my buddy Jayson’s from their Stony Brook College days. I had a tiny closet that they let me stay in for free. I cleaned up around the place a little bit to help out. People of all odd types came and went at all times. European anarchists, local gangsters, black revolutionaries, teenage pot dealers…. god knows who all.
The Red Ballooners were quite proud of a recent action where they had confronted Jimmy Carter’s wife at some function or other. Maybe that really put them on the map with THE MAN!! We were all sitting around one lazy Sunday morning in the big common room drinking coffee and reading Communist workers rags, technical manuals(?) and Playboys. All of a sudden there was a booming voice clearly amplified from the street outside! “all right you commies!! This this is Detective Flynn from the blah blah precinct. COME ON OUT with your hands up!!!” We all hit the floor immediately, expecting teargas canisters to come crashing through the windows at any moment. Nothing happened. We eventually crept up to the windows and, peeking out, saw Jayson in a borrowed VW on the street below with a bullhorn. Looking up the street there were dozens of heads popping out of windows all the way up the block….
There were fires in the park, cop cars driving thru at all times, gang kids everywhere – walking through Brooklyn, or for that matter anywhere else in the boroughs and much of Manhattan, there were buildings collapsed, leaving piles of rubble pushed off the curb and into the street like beachfronts of rubble. Everywhere I ever went, including the Upper East Side you’d see piles of window glass on the curb and in the street where the cars had been broken into the night before or the day of; cars would have cardboard signs in the windows that said “car unlocked please don’t break window.”
I was chased by scary, dangerous people several times while on the streets and in the subways. Once around three in the morning, I was taking the L train back in from Brooklyn and changing over to the IRT. There’s a long long long tunnel that goes from the L platform to the 1 & 2 trains. There was no one in the subway at all except a big scary looking dude a hundred feet or so past the turn off for the tunnel. I started walking up the tunnel and he saw me and immediately started running towards me. I start running away down the entire length of the quarter-mile or longer tunnel. The guy was flat out sprinting, screaming at me “you honky motherfucker I’m going to cut you up”. I got away.
Another time my buddy Jayson and I had just climbed the Williamsburg Bridge. It was early in the morning, maybe 3AM, and we were walking back on the promenade towards Manhattan where we were staying. On the ornate cable housing off to the side of the promenade about 30 feet, there was a gang of kids, maybe 10 or so, throwing bottles on the street far below. We conferred for a bit deciding whether not we wanted to try to sneak past them to get into Manhattan, rather than having to go back to Brooklyn and taking a couple of hours before being able to find another way into the city. We decided to go for it. We were maybe 100 feet past them when they saw us and immediately started running after us fulltilt. We frantically decided to jump off of the sidewalk onto a beam over traffic and crossover away from them. We were both very good climbers and had enough of the lead on them that we were able to get far enough away that they eventually stopped chasing us.
Another time Jayson and I, after a night of climbing bridges, were taking a subway from Brooklyn back to where we were staying. Jayson had grown up in Brooklyn and always had a fantasy of riding on the back of one of the subway cars going over the Manhattan Bridge where the tracks come out of the ground and go over the bridge deck. We went down off street onto the middle of a subway platform in Brooklyn, and had to walk to the very end of the platform to be able to get onto the back of the last train car. There was no one in the station at all, except for two pretty sketchy looking guys down towards the end of the platform. Street etiquette at that time would preclude walking past a couple of guys like that on a subway platform when there was absolutely no reason not to stay where we were, 100 feet away from them near the entry tunnel. We looked at each other and decided to do it. They gave us really bad stink eye as we walked past them, probably contemplating how much work it would be to take out two spry looking guys. Fortunately for us, the train came right about then. We jumped on the very back of the car on the outside. The two thugs went inside the car. As the train took off the exhilaration of the ride was matched by my curiosity about what these two guys were up to. I remember leaning over and peeking inside the back window, and one of them was right there, very dead eyes about 3 inches away from my face looking right at me with no movement whatsoever. There were a couple people in the last car. One of them was a burly construction dude with his lunch pail, looking mean and cultivating an unpalatable demeanor as potential prey. The two guys passed on him. We watched them walk down the tilting, rattling cars, fucking with people along the way. They rolled a drunk who was unconscious and took his wallet. We eventually lost track of them as the train barreled into Manhattan.
One night, Jayson and I were assaulted by two prostitutes on Allen near Houston when we declined their services – another crazy scene. We ran away.
There was graffiti on every thing. I was standing on the platform with a dude that was a friend of Jack Coughlin, the guy I was staying with in Brooklyn that week. The dude was a graf writer and a gang member. A train car went by us – it was entirely covered in black. Black curtains, black writing, black images, inside and out. The dude got all misty and told me that that car was a memorial car for a good friend of his, and that he and his crew had painted the entire thing one night while in the trainyard in the Bronx.
On a later trip with several members of the Suicide Club, we ended up in the train tunnels on the west side where there was a massive encampment of homeless, living in cardboard and scrap wood shack’s that they had built alongside the railroad tracks deep underground.
One night we climbed 3 bridges and ended up at dawn climbing the abandon parachute jump at Coney Island. It seemed to me that no one cared at all what you were doing, no matter how destructive or weird, as long as it wasn’t going to interfere with their progress. I had a feeling that if a cop saw us climbing a bridge, his main thought would be “…don’t fall on my patrol car you fuckheads”.
Food was super cheap – all kinds of really inexpensive ethnic restaurants and diners all over the place. You could eat almost anything 24/7. It seemed to me that people could live there for very low rent. You just had to deal with the realities of life on the street. My guess was that like the movie Death Wish, pretty much everyone got mugged if they had to be on the streets, including middle and upper middle-class people. The only ones who could avoid that inevitable fate were people rich enough to drive out of a gated basement with a professional driver.
I was walking up Avenue A northbound once in the mid 80’s when I was assaulted by an incredibly horrible smell wafting through the air. Human smell. Poop, rotten food, unwashed bodies. 3 or 4 blocks up, I realized what it was. A light wind was blowing in my direction from Tompkins Square Park where what must’ve been 100 people or more were living in the bushes in cardboard boxes. The next time that I was in Tomokins Square Park had to be 15 years later, and I remember being in shock to see nicely dressed yuppies pushing baby strollers around and drinking cappuccino’s in open fronted cafés.
Time Square was like the bar scene in Star Wars. An incredible zoo filled with the most astonishing people. The 42nd St. theaters were mostly running porno, but I vividly remember one theater had on the marquee: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre second year running”. Word.
Jayson got us jobs doing telephone surveys for a joint NYT/CBS infrastructure study. We were going to the Times building every week night around 6PM through the entrance on 43rd St. We were lumped in with a bunch of other phone workers at a bank of phones in some back room. For the next four hours or so we would call New Yorkers as they were sitting down to dinner or watching their TV’s, and ask them a meticulously and exactingly crafted series of questions regarding the Westside Highway and what they thought should be done with it. A truck had fallen through the Westside not that long before and onto the street below; the miles long major traffic route was in pretty miserable condition. Some of the suggestions that the New Yorkers made after being taken from their plate of hot food or reruns of Star Trek, are such that I wouldn’t want to repeat them here in polite company. Ahhhh New York.
I took the ferry to Liberty Island one time. It was in the early afternoon. There were, as I’m sure there always are, quite a few tourists. Inside the statue, there is what I could best described as a double helix stairway. The whole thing was counterintuitive to me even after looking at it and thinking about it very carefully. People would be walking up the spiral staircase while below them strapped on the bottom side of the steps was another spiral. So one lane was going up to the top of the structure while the other lane was going down on the same spiral structure. Visitors to Lady Liberty were not all terribly fit. Since it was a one-lane so to speak, it could take people a long time to get up and then back down. There was a fairly constant flow of people in both directions. Somewhere just below the massive copper breasts, there was a curved bench for the slower people to take a break while the others passed them on their way. The entire spiral was encased in heavy mash screening to keep people from climbing out and onto (or falling thru) the seemingly randomly placed angle iron beams that went out from the central structure to the inside curves of the figure. Right at the bench there was a little slit in the mesh just wide enough for me to squeeze through. I waited and waited and waited until there was a break in traffic in both directions. I took that opportunity to pop through the slit and onto the angle iron beams right below her lower breast and quickly scrambled up to her armpit where there was a small platform just outside the locked gate on the mesh.
Shooting up and out from the platform at odd angles, up into her right arm, was a ladder. I shot up it as quickly as I could. I came out where her hand met the torch and then up into little tiny space inside the torch.
I stayed there for some time peeking out of the multi-orange/yellow plexiglass pieces that made up the torch flame. Later, while looking down, I noticed a bunch of people getting onto the ferry. I looked at my watch and realized – shit!! – it was probably the last ferry leaving the island since it was rather late in the day.
I raced down the spiral staircase as fast as humanly possible, sprinting out of the doors and down the walkway, literally jumping onto the ferry as it was taking off, avoiding a long cold night hiding from the guard on the island.
One day I decided to go to the World Trade Center. I was pretty broke and didn’t really have enough money to buy any lunch so I’d taken a bag lunch with a sandwich and an apple and what not, when I had left the Red Balloon earlier for the days adventures. To go up onto the observation deck at the Windows on the World cost, I think a couple dollars at the time. I didn’t have it. So I took the elevator up as high as I could go and then started going down floor by floor stopping at each one. Several stops below 106, the doors opened up onto an unfinished floor. There was no one on the floor and only a few piles of building materials. The entire floor was empty and largely unencumbered by walls or enclosures of any type. I was able to walk 360° all the way around while taking in the view. I ate my sandwich and apple and then was on my way.
Another time, Jason and I stepped off a platform in Grand Central Station and walked up the rail track a ways, then dropped down a spiral staircase to explore the tunnels below. We had been underground for quite some time walking what seemed a great distance. We didn’t really want to walk all the way back to Grand Central and were looking for some way to go up and onto the streets above. We spotted a movable staircase retracted up into the ceiling above, balance by a big concrete counterweight. We jumped up grabbing the staircase and pulled it down. Atop the staircase were two diamond plate leaves that opened up as the counterweight rose and the staircase descended. We cautiously climbed the stairs, peeking out into the light above. Our eyes, after being in the dark so long propped open, widely taking in the street scene all about us. We were on a traffic island in the middle of Park Avenue. I looked across to one side of Park and the first thing I saw was a massive old homeless dude wearing what looked like multiple layers of burlap bags, eating out of the garbage can. I looked to the other side of the street and I saw an elderly woman in a floor length chinchilla coat that probably cost what I would make in five years. She was attended by a fellow in a sharp uniform and cap who was holding a leash with a tiny dog wearing it’s own chinchilla coat and prancing ahead of them.
Looking back on it, it was like a movie or video game or something. It’s only when I see articles like this one or watch a movie shot during that time, like The Seven Ups, or maybe Shaft, that I remember what that place was like.
I know that for many people NYC was a living hell during those times. And I’m certainly sympathetic. But all things considered, my NYC trips were an astonishing, incredible adventure in a crazed wonderland.