New York City Back in the 1980s

A Visual Storytelling by Lucas Compan

New York in the 1980s was an altogether different city from the safe, clean (for the most part), cosmopolitan urban playground it is today.  Homicides were at near-record highs, the crack epidemic was raging, and NYC had not yet experienced the wave of gentrification that has marked it in modern times. The following pictures tell a fascinating story of a gritty, graffiti-strewn city that just 20 years later would be in the thrall of gentrification.

New York Public Library’s map of images of New York City, as well as Richard Sandler's photographs, are both a treasure, indeed. Enjoy these photos of NYC from the 1980s, images that depict what New York City was like decades ago.

[ 1 ] "Needle Park"

Crack cocaine and heroin infested NYC during the 1980s, effectively increasing street crime, child abuse, and spousal abuse. It’s even rumored that the term crack comes from the fact that the drug looks like small pieces of plaster that fall out of cracks in Harlem tenement houses. Outside of Harlem, Bryant Park – and Times Square – got the nickname “Needle Park” because of the widespread heroine abuse.

{ 2 } The Electric Mix

Before it became a tourist mecca, Times Square was an eclectic mix with its legendary grand (though slightly tarnished) theaters, ever-shifting morals fueling an increasingly bolder adult entertainment industry, and the "anything goes" decade itself. It was an intoxicating combination. Dangerous but always entertaining, Times Square was like no other place in the world. Click here to see the world's most visited destination and why people love it.

[ 3 ] Sex Machine

Times Square, a modern-day tourist mecca, was full of peep shows and adult video stores, effectively becoming the epicenter of the sex industry by 1981.

4. Addicted City

With the rise of crack addiction, prostitution spread throughout the city. Men and women addicted to the drug would sell themselves for as little as 50 cents.

[ 5 ] Cops and Boobs

The police did little to curb this disturbing trend, as prostitutes worked openly across the city. 

 6 / Darth Vader 

“Star Wars” fan Danny Fitzgerald of Staten Island, in Darth Vader costume, poses in front of Loews Astor Plaza movie theater in Times Square in New York, May 25, 1983, where fans are lined up for the premiere of “The Return of the Jedi,” the third in a series of the “Star Wars” saga. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

{ 7 } everybody Jumping

Although it is considered a crime, subway riders used to find their own way to jumping over the turnstile at the subway stations.

[ 8 ] Graffiti all over

Meryl Streep in New York subway, pictured by Ted Thai (The LIFE Picture Collection). This picture carries an intriguing story:  That was the moment right after when Meryl had auditioned for the lead in a reboot of King Kong, produced by famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis. When De Laurentiis brought her to his son, he replied, in Italian, “Why do you bring me this ugly thing?” To which Streep replied, also in Italian, “I’m sorry I’m not beautiful enough to be in King Kong.” Well, history proved the Italian producer was wrong. Meryl Streep has been nominated for the Academy Award an astonishing 19 times and has won it three times.

 9. Street (and Subway) Art

Golden age: The late 1970s and 80s signaled the beginnings of street art as we know it, with subways like this one in 1986 covered in tags by illicit painters.

[ 10 ] Twins

The Twin Towers and Brooklyn Bridge in 1982

{ 11 } Short Shorts

Short shorts: Two women walk together on 34th Street in 1980, one clad in extremely brief pants and a sweatband (Photo: Richard Sandler)

 12 \ The Rat(e) Race

The rate race: 'Men and Briefcases' shows rush hour at 57th Street as suited men head to work in 1980. (Photo: Richard Sandler)

{ 13 } East Garbage Village

During the '80s, it was possible to captured stunning images of New York streets and an East Village made of "abandoned tenements, drug raids and overdoses, the homeless on the Bowery, social change without social media."

{ 14 } Surrounded by Graffiti

A woman stands in the graffiti-covered carriage of the C train in 1985 as other commuters look on. (Photo: Richard Sandler)

{ 15 } The Basketball Power

Basketball in The Bronx in 1984

[ 16 ] Fear YORK City

The 1980s in New York City were turbulent and crime-ridden . Gotham earned a nasty reputation for violence, filth and fear during that decade.

 { 17 } "Freeze!"

New York City experienced a shocking spike in homicides in the early 1980s, with a peak of 1,814 in the first year of the decade.

18. Girls On Fire

Girls were on fire, indeed. The FDNY was checking it out in 1985 in Times Square

( 19 ) Lunch Time

Women stalk Manhattan's Fifth Avenue clad in expensive fur coats in 1987. (Photo: Richard Sandler)

{ 20 } From Trash to Luxury

The Meatpacking District was a dangerous area back in the 1980s. Hector's Cafe/Restaurant was there at that time, actually for 45 years. Dionisios Manesis, the owner, tells that the rents in the area just keep getting higher. "Maybe 10, 15 years ago, the landlords were giving it away, rent was almost free. $300 or $400 a month. Now there’s nothing less than $25,000 a month. There's a store across the street paying $105,000 a month"

[ 21 ] The Meatpacking

In the 1980s, as the industrial activities in the area continued their downturn, it became known as a center for drug dealing and prostitution, particularly involving transsexuals. (Photo: Jeff Cowen)

{ 22 } Meatpacking Transformation

The Meatpacking District back in the 1980s, and in 2016

23. CBGB

CBGB was a New York City music club opened in 1973 by Hilly Kristal in Manhattan's East Village. The club was previously a biker bar and before that was a dive bar. The letters CBGB were for country, bluegrass, and blues, Kristal's original vision, yet CBGB soon became a famed venue of punk rock and new wave bands. From the early 1980s onward, CBGB was known for hardcore punk. Some of the bands performed at CBGB: the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, Talking Heads, and B-52s. Click here to see the same exact location of former CBGB, now a high-end fashion store that kept the CBGB's soul and atmosphere intact.

[ 24 ] New York State of Mind

New York state of mind: Two children stare curiously at a homeless man as they walk with their parents on 32nd Street in 1981. (Photo: Richard Sandler)

( 25 ) Christmas Trash Strike

New York City in the Christmas season is known for festive avenues, holiday window displays and ice skating by the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.  For the 1981 holiday season, more pungent decorations were added to the mix – heaps of garbage, thousands of tons clogging the sidewalks of every street in New York.

{ 26 } Sex Before Burgers

The Playpen sex shop near Times Square shuttered in 2007. A Shake Shack has since opened in its location – 8th Avenue and 42nd Street.

[ 27 ] Life on Fifth Ave

Life on the streets: A homeless woman stands bear overflowing trash on Fifth Ave in 1980. (Photo: Richard Sandler)


Which songs were the classics in New York back in the 1980s? Listen to this great compilation