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Our Odd, Revealing Obsession With "Gritty" Photos of the 1970s NYC Subway

New-York Historical Society / Bill Cunningham

Is there any happier New Yorker, anyone less discouraged at the continuing transformation of our city into an oligarch’s playground, than Bill Cunningham? The longtime photographer for the New York Times, who turns 85 this week, is still out and about on his trusty bicycle, shooting both the Botoxed matrons at a dozen weekly charity balls and the hipper boulevardiers he passes on the street. “We all get dressed for Bill,” said Anna Wintour in a recent documentary about Cunningham’s life, and it’s true; instantly recognizable in his blue French workman’s jacket, he draws chic and less chic New Yorkers toward him like a magnet, desperate despite all the social media alternatives for their one Cunningham shot. (I have shoved myself in front of his lens more than once, to no avail. I am not ashamed.) When New Yorkers half a century younger spend most evenings watching Netflix in bed, when even the Hermès-toting doyennes of 57th Street complain of being gentrified out of the neighborhood, Cunningham is still out there—always smiling, always shooting, never in doubt that New York remains the place to be.

New-York Historical Society / Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham's "Editta Sherman on the Subway."

Cunningham is the subject of a new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, and if you only know him as a street photographer it may take you by surprise. Bill Cunningham: Facades presents 80 posed images, shot from 1968 to 1976, that place models dressed in period costumes, from corseted gowns to Enlightenment-era coats and breeches, against the backdrop of the contemporary city. Many feature his muse Editta Sherman—the so-called “Duchess of Carnegie Hall,” who died last year at 101 and who, like Cunningham, had lived in an apartment above the hall before being forced out due to redevelopment—and one in particular endures. Sherman, wearing a huge Edwardian hat and carrying a parasol in her gloved hand, sits alone in a subway car, the walls festooned with graffiti. Someone called Cay 161 (one of the “161 Boys,” a crew from the South Bronx) has tagged the car four times; other, smaller tags garland the carriage, and the floor is filthy. Also dating the image: a cigarette advertisement, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority banned in 1992.

That photo, shot circa 1972, has some of Cunningham’s trademark optimism. At a moment when Times Square was for hookers and Central Park for thieves, in an era when New York came within days of a Detroit-style bankruptcy (occasioning one of the great Big Apple tabloid headlines: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”), the subway had become an icon of the city’s decline. The MTA spent millions every year to sand and repaint the trains, and in 1974 even trained attack dogs to sic graffitists, all to no avail.1 Ridership in the 1970s fell to its lowest level since World War I. Police logged 250 felonies a week on the subway by 1979; worst of all was the 4 train, which runs along Lexington Avenue on the east side and was known to all as the “Muggers’ Express.” None of this bothers Cunningham’s model, of course, sternly commuting to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens unmolested. How else would a New York broad like her get around?

Graffiti began to disappear from the subways in the mid-1980s when the MTA, advised by criminologists of the “broken windows” strain, led a pitiless crackdown to rid the system of tags. (There was a successor style, known as scratchitti, in which artists would incise the windows of the carriages with keys or blades, but that soon faded; the rare scratched names you see today are from petty vandals rather than committed taggers.) Yet for many New Yorkers, especially ones who weren’t alive in the 1970s, the subway of that era has an enduring fascination. A fair preponderance of the low-margin click-hunting news sites and aggregators that now constitute the American media has indulged the hunger for 1970s subway photography, often with the numerological, hyperbolic headlines so popular nowadays. They promise 32 raw pictures, 20 gritty photos, or 7 incredible images of the stricken subway—all of them nearly identical aggregations of the work of a handful of photographers, including John F. Conn and Bruce Davidson.

For trainspotters, these photos have some obvious appeal. You get to see the old carriages and the old advertisements, the vanished fast-food stands underneath Times Square, the shuttles with their old, discomfortingly Aryan “SS” call sign. But they do bumper traffic, these disco-era mass transit slideshows; their power must extend far beyond the five boroughs and its minority of rail obsessives. Do they appeal as a reminder of the bad old days? Yes, but strangely. While crime was certainly higher in the 1970s, the economic opportunities for the middle class were far better then than they are in today’s second Gilded Age. As a symbol of lawlessness, of the Wild West transposed to the big city? Perhaps. The images do recall those shots of city slickers in backcountry saloons, where the rules of society have been suspended, or else were never realized in the first place.

Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
This 1980 photo by Bruce Davidson is a fixture in photo galleries of New York's "gritty" subway in the 1970s.

And just like Wild West photography, with its distant warning of white occupation, the subway photos too are sites of racial tension, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. The archetypical examples (Cunningham’s, though contemporaneous, now reads like a parodic version of one) feature white commuters, often dressed in suit and tie but sometimes in a fur coat, against a backdrop of graffiti understood to signal blacks and Latinos. Indeed, that is the hidden supplement to these 1970s subway photographs, and to the pacification and gentrification of New York more generally. If the trains are now so safe and so clean that you feel comfortable renting a $3,000-a-month apartment nine stops into Brooklyn on the L train, that’s in large part thanks to the massive overincarceration of New Yorkers, mostly black men, since Rudy Giuliani came to power in 1993—the prison population increased by 4 percent a year during his time in office.2 The iPad-toting white college graduates of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, some of whom enjoy consuming the same drugs that got so many of their black predecessors in the neighborhood sent upstate, no doubt contributed to the massive virality of those subway photo galleries. New York was so real then, dude.

Maybe that bicycle is the secret to Cunningham’s continued sunniness; it keeps him off the trains, which are no longer abandoned but packed to Tokyo-level capacity. Today subway ridership is at a 62-year high, thanks to New Yorkers riding carefree all night as well as tourists from Denmark and, even stranger, Dubuque. Subway tokens, which the skankiest of criminals used to suck out of the turnstile slots with their mouths, have given way to MetroCards, which elicit an infernal high-pitched beep with every use. The cars, graffiti-free, carry advertisements for for-profit colleges or the B-list dermatologist Dr. Zizmor, or else have been wrapped in 360-degree campaigns for television shows about vampires in love. Passengers still don’t look one another in the eye, but that’s because they’re too busy matching jelly beans and lemon drops on smartphones they're flashing about without any fear of theft.

You can understand, sitting or more likely standing on a NYC subway train today, why many of us born after 1980 and now stuck in this unaffordable city might mythologize the 1970s, which for all its danger at least felt alive. Cunningham’s many photographs of that period, of pockmarked storefronts or a Plaza Hotel not yet converted into plutocrat crashpads, are hardly the only images from that time to make a contemporary New Yorker jealous. There are the sunbathers in unfinished Battery Park lying in the shadow of the Twin Towers, or the mustachioed boys on the Christopher Street piers before the advent of AIDS. There are Woody and Diane at the MoMA garden party, or Jane Fonda as the hooker with a heart of gold ascending from the Bleecker Street station. It’s a testament to how constrained and inert the city has become that the 1970s, the most unloved decade of the recent past, now seems to so many young New Yorkers like a golden age. When it comes to these strangely beloved subway photographs, though, it’s worth recalling that the pacification of New York didn’t happen by magic, and the disappearance of graffiti has to be read hand-in-hand with another, crueler erasure. 

  1. The graffiti epidemic eventually got so severe that the MTA introduced its “Redbirds,” the scarlet rolling stock that was once as iconic as the yellow cab, in an effort to discourage tagging. The Redbirds, phased out in 2003, went to a watery grave off the coast of Delaware, where schools of fish make their home in more than 600 used subway cars.

  2. In fairness, the New York prison population fell under Michael Bloomberg, even as it rose by double-digit percentages nationwide. But Bloomberg’s other policing strategies—notably the “stop-and-frisk” program, which unconstitutionally targeted black and Latino men and which Bill de Blasio, the new mayor, is aiming to eliminate—should also be understood in the context of gentrification. The black population in New York dropped by 5 percent last decade, while Asian and Hispanic populations rose substantially.