In his book Brooklyn Before, Larry Racioppo shares his views from the borough as he saw it from 1971 to 1983. Do you have an image in your mind already of what this may look like? Search for photos of NYC during this window of time and you'll come out with enough apocalyptic images to fill a burnt-out-car-lined East River. As Tom Robbins points out in his excellent introduction to the series of photographs, many of the images that now define this era were shot in the 24 hours after the 1977 blackout—storekeepers outside their shops holding guns, broken glass lining the streets, looting, and so on.
Somehow it has become accepted wisdom that before New York turned so grand and fabulously costly it was a desperately lousy place to live. This line of thinking holds that, beginning at some point in the mid-1970s, everyone who could got out of town. They didn’t come back until things got safe, supposedly some time around Rudy Giuliani’s second term in City Hall. Those who couldn’t flee the city’s terrors lived sullen, fearful lives trapped in darkened apartments in woebegone neighborhoods. The alleged documentary evidence for this claim is a handful of shopworn images: photos of blasted ruins of collapsed tenements, fearful passengers aboard litter-strewn, graffiti-covered subway cars, and of wild crowds storming past shattered shop windows, gleefully hoisting stolen trophies above their heads during the great blackout riot of 1977.
The parade of urban ruin usually culminates with shots of John Lindsay, who is presented as the hopelessly liberal mayor who created this debacle, looking stooped, worried, and apologetic. Any thinking person understands that, as a summary of life lived in this town in those years, this is complete nonsense.
This bogus portrait of a city begins with small, insecure people who insist that they have turned streets of dread into streets of gold.
Racioppo's photos portray a realistic view of what daily life was like for the New Yorkers who populated his life. There are abandoned dirt lots, sure, but there is also proof of life surrounding them.
Born in 1947, when his parents were renting an apartment on 6th Avenue between Prospect Avenue and 17th Street, Racioppo was soon swept into the cycle of moves every New Yorker goes through. In '54, their building was torn down "to make way for the Prospect Expressway," he told Gothamist, "So we moved to 40th Street in Sunset Park, where I lived until I went to college." When he returned to Brooklyn in 1970, he settled in to his own apartment on 15th and 6th, and started photographing with his $30 camera.
He told us he paid $125/month for a floor-through apartment at the time, "so I could drive a cab a few days a week and pursue my 'dream' of being a photographer." Indeed, the biggest negative change he's seen is this economic shift, also noting that before that, in the 1950s, "my Dad, without a high school education, could get a union job with decent pay and benefits. It’s much harder to do those things now."
To see more of Racioppo's work, pick up that book, and hit up the Brooklyn Public Library, which is currently hosting a retrospective exhibit of his photographs.