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Destruction and Depression: These Photos Show the Everyday Life in 1970s New York City

These disturbing 1970s New York City photos reveal the dark side of a city on the brink of economic and societal collapse.

During this decade, the city gained notoriety for high rates of crime and social disorders; the city’s subway system was regarded as unsafe and dangerous, and people were warned not to walk the streets after 6 PM.

Prostitutes and pimps frequented Times Square, while Central Park became feared as the site of muggings and harassment.

After peaking in population in 1950, the city began to feel the effects of suburbanization brought about by new housing communities such as Levittown, a downturn in industry and commerce as businesses left for places where it was cheaper and easier to operate, an increase in crime, and an upturn in its welfare burden.

All these reached a nadir in the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s when it barely avoided defaulting on its obligations and declaring bankruptcy.

Second Avenue at East Seventh Street facing Southwest, late 1970s. Photo by Laura Knight.

Without having tenants who could pay the bills, landlords increasingly had trouble affording to maintain and pay taxes on their own buildings. As a result, many landlords actually burned down their own real estate in order to collect insurance money.

In order to stop the city from going completely bankrupt, Mayor Beame had to implement rolling blackouts to save money and energy. The rolling blackouts ended up encouraging looting and vandalism.

It also didn’t help that cuts to firefighters and police meant that New York City was unable to combat the crime. A majority of the crime and arson that happened in the late 1970s happened during these rolling blackouts.

It didn’t matter who you were or where you were going, taking the subway was a risk every time. In the 1970s, the New York City subway lines jokingly began to be referred to as “the muggers express.”

By the end of the decade, police calculated that more than 250 felonies on the New York City subways were reported every week. Compared to other underground transportation systems, New York was the most dangerous in the world.

The old New Yorker Theater. West side of Broadway 88th to 89th Streets, c.1977. Photo by Nicholas West.

Hell’s Kitchen, 1973. Photo by Paul Mones.

Jackson Avenue at Eleventh Street, 1980.

Fulton Avenue and Crotona Park South, facing Northwest. Photo by Robert Ronan.

Northeast Corner of 14th Street at 7th Avenue, 1972. Photo by Lionel Martinez.

Lower Manhattan, 1972. Photo by Lionel Martinez.

Spring Street at Mulberry, facing West, 1976.

Third Avenue at 66th Street, facing Southwest, 1979. Photo by Alan Benjamin.

Amsterdam Avenue, between 144th Street and 145th Streets, 1971.

Harlem, 1971. Photo by Camilo José Vergara.

Facing Southwest to Fourteenth Street from Third Avenue. Photo by Bill Ricco.

Seventh Avenue South at Perry Street, facing South, 1973. Photo by Dan McCoy.

Charlotte Street, circa 1980. Photo by Steven Siegel.

Orchard Street between Stanton and Rivington, facing South, mid ’70s. Photo by Susan Saunders.

131 Essex Street (at Rivington), 1971. Photo by Helen Levitt.

Fourteenth Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, facing East, 1976. Photo by Eugene Gannon.

Second Avenue at 26th Street, facing Northwest, c.1972. Photo by Lew Kampel.

Lenox Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets, facing West.

Mulberry Street at Hester, facing North, 1975. Photo by Nick DeWolf.

172 Delancey Street, 1970. Photo by Camilo José Vergara.

Park Avenue at 110th Street – Spanish Harlem circa 1974. Photo by Susan Saunders.

Lower East Side, early ’70s. Photo by Susan Saunders.

Madison Avenue at 64th Street, facing South, 1979. Photo by Alan Benjamin.

Lafayette Street at Bleecker, facing North, 1976. Screencap from Marathon Man.

130th and 7th Avenue (A.C. Powell Boulevard), facing Northeast, 1978. Photo by Manel Armengol.

Orchard Street at Delancey, facing North, 1978.

Rivington Street at The Bowery, facing East – August, 1973. Photo by Armando Moreschi.

Harlem, late 1970s. Photo by Manel Armengol.

A child passes a blazing can in Harlem.

In the summer of 1975, tourists were greeted with this ominous brochure at the airport. It featured nine survival tips for navigating the city, including not taking the subway and not walking in any part of the city after 6 PM.

Prostitution became a city-wide problem in the 1970s, with over 2,400 arrests for the offense in 1976 alone. In this photograph, negotiations take place on the Bowery.

An elderly woman plays the accordion for change on the subway. Photo by Leland Bobbé.

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