These eerily empty street photos show how different New York City was in the crime-ridden 1970s

Dec.December 11, 2016 09:58 AM

Riddled with crime, and on the brink of bankruptcy, New York City was a very different place 40 years ago. Unlike most New Yorkers, photographer Langdon Clay spent much of the 1970s walking around Manhattan alone in the middle of the night.

It certainly wasn’t the safest way to spend his time, but “being young and foolish can have its advantages,” Clay told Business Insider.

While roaming the streets, Clay documented the city’s cars, peacefully parked and left for the night, reflecting the neon signs and street lights. Though the photographic focus is on the cars, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there are very rarely any other people in the shot. Clay’s new book, “Cars — New York City 1974-1976,” is a collection of photos of a New York City that will probably never be that eerily quiet again.

Clay moved to New York City in 1971. 1,691 murders were reported in the city the following year.

By 1975, the city had to agree to deep budget cuts to avoid bankruptcy.

In those days, the city was “mostly broke,” Clay said. He referenced a New York Daily News headline that read “(President) Ford to City: Drop Dead!” after city officials had gone to Washington “hat in hand.” “But I didn’t notice much of that,” Clay said.

At only 25, Clay was obsessed with documenting the city’s eerily empty streets at night.

“I had recently switched from black and white [film] to color, and this became the project that really hooked me,” he said.

Clay wasn’t afraid to roam the deserted streets. “I took mostly familiar routes,” he said.

Luc Sante, who wrote the foreword to Clay’s book, remembers 1970s New York in a similar way. “I walked around at night in Manhattan a lot in those years, and hardly ever saw anyone else. Was it fear or insularity or television or drugs that shut people in? I couldn’t tell you,” he wrote.

Clay was careful about which cars he chose to photograph. “There was no perfect car without the perfect background,” he said.

“As you can see the cars are not at all perfect. When recording for posterity I think it’s important to focus on what’s there, not what it is others think is ideal,” Clay said. “In time even the most sad-sack subjects can reveal some inner glow.”

Sante reflects on how Clay’s work stands apart from other photographs of New York City taken in the 1970s: “Other collections of photographs documenting those years tend to focus on extremes of misery, on infrastructure breakdown, on evanescent outbreaks of colorful behavior that will disproportionately resonate in later decades. Here you see the city as it actually was.”

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