Over two seasons on HBO, The Deuce has explored how the intersection of the burgeoning pornography industry and the forces of capitalism combined to radically change the identity of Times Square from the inside out. Artist Jane Dickson saw that change happening all around her: she lived, worked and raised two children in an apartment on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue during the late '70s and early '80s, documenting the rapidly-changing landscape of the area with her drawings, paintings, and photography.
Dickson, who recently released the book Jane Dickson in Times Square compiling her work during that period, is scheduled to speak at The Museum Of The City Of New York tonight (you can get tickets here) with Scott Dougan, production designer for The Deuce, for a conversation about "what it means to capture the essence of a particularly infamous time and place in the city." (You can also see some of her related artwork up now until February 17th at the James Fuentes Gallery on the Lower East Side.)
In anticipation of that event, we spoke to her about how the city has changed since then; that time she spray painted a cop car; whether Times Square ever felt like a neighborhood; how accurate The Deuce is; and why New Yorkers need to have sharp elbows. (You can see some of her photos in the gallery up above, and some of her paintings down below.)
"Terminal Bar 2" (Jane Dickson)
We all know that today, Times Square and NYC in general are nothing like it was back in the '70s/'80s. What do you think people most misunderstand about life in NYC back then? What have we lost out on, or perhaps gained, by the Disneyfication of Times Square? We've lost a bunch and we've gained some. New York in the '80s was kind of no man's land, so it had all the free wheelingness of a frontier town that you would see in a western. Just because the powers that be, in the federal and the state and the city, had all sort of given up on New York. New York was bankrupt. People with power had left.
I've read that they thought it was going to just shrivel up and disappear and everyone would move to a nice leafy suburb and behave themselves. There was some thinking related to the bread scares that the cities were full of undesirables and communists, etc. The less cities were allowed to continue to be livable the better, because then those bad people wouldn't be gathering there.
But of course people can't just vanish, and my generation who were the tail end of the hippie generation, we'd seen people a few years older than us go off to the country and start communes and dirt farms. After a couple years, it didn't look that fun. I was going "oooh should I go be a homesteader in Maine or go to New York City? I think I'll go to New York City first. Maybe I'll do that homesteading thing when I'm ready to settle down," which never happened.
Once you get bit by the bug—sometimes literally bedbugs—you don't necessarily want to leave. So New York was really dangerous back in the day. Much more dangerous than it is now. Your chance of being mugged were greater. On the other hand, we could do crazy things and it seemed like no body cared.
What kind of crazy things? At one point Charlie [Ahearn, her husband and a film director who made Wild Style] made an early film called Twins and he had a scene where he wanted a kid to spray paint a cop car in front of 1 Police Plaza, and I as the dumb girlfriend was like, "Sure, I'll help you do that." So we asked some little boy, who's like six years old, a little kid of color, to spray paint the cop car in front of Police Plaza. And I said, "Don't worry, I'm going to put saran wrap on the bumper."
This is broad daylight and cops are walking past us and they're like, "What are you doing to Joe's car?" But then they just laughed and kept walking 'cause they couldn't imagine that somebody was just going to spray paint graffiti on a cop car in front of 1 Police Plaza in broad daylight.
Wow. And without permission, which we didn't have. So we shot him doing it and then quickly peeled off the saran wrap and went, "Oops," the spray of course goes beyond the edge of the saran wrap, so there's a little orange sprayed on the blue car bumper. We tastefully wandered away but we thought and probably rightly so, as white kids, that they wouldn't break our heads over this.
That is not a scene you're going to see today. I wouldn't try it today no. No, the police are not so much our friends anymore. And so your chances of getting mugged were much greater because the police weren't around...you say to people, "we left Times Square to move down to Tribeca where it was safe," and then we've lived through three terrorist attacks here. Way too close for comfort, so it's danger of a different completely unpredictable kind now.
"Big Peepland" (Dickson)
Times Square was always about transients. Literally, millions of transients. They were some people that lived there and you know, I knew the shoeshine guy on the corner of 42nd and 8th. He was named Benjamin, and he was very intelligent and had been a GI and I always imagined that he was an undercover cop. I would strongly bet he was an undercover cop. Because he was like, "what are you doing here" 'cause I'd pass him every day to go around the corner to my studio and he couldn't peg what I was doing in that neighborhood. And I knew my super, and we actually had a babysitter who was done in house kitchen. She lived a few blocks over and had lived there for 50 years and as very involved in the church.
And we got married at Our Lady of Port Authority which really is called Holy Cross I think, but it's the church across from the bus station. We had a nice array of homeless people in the back pews at our wedding.
So, there were people who really lived and worked there but it was not a community in any normal sense 'cause we were so outnumbered by the thousands passing through. Over by 9th Avenue, it was definitely a neighborhood, and even just a couple blocks...you had to get over between 8th and 9th it started to become a neighborhood.
I was looking through some of the photos in the book, and wondering who were the people that you were shooting then? Were these all random strangers or did you know some? I was shy and I did not introduce myself very often. There's some pictures that are people that are my friends though. They knew I was taking their picture—I don't know if it's in the book, but I have pictures of Benjamin at his shoeshine stand. But, most of them are just people I'm passing on the street.
And I did not very often go out specifically to take photos. I often, I always carried a camera and I took photos as I was going about my life. And then sometimes I'd be like, "oh this is really interesting. I want to do a whole bunch of photos of Port Authority," and then I went there and because most of the people in Port Authority were turning tricks, they were very aware and they were throwing garbage at me. "You are not going to take our pictures." People in Times Square really have their radar up because they were mostly doing [illegal] things.
On a related note, I remember once seeing somebody I knew from college coming out of the Carter Hotel at lunchtime. And he's in a business suit. I think he is a lawyer now. And I'm going, "Phil, hey. Hey Phil." And he saw me and he got this panicky look on his face and he disappeared into the crowd as quickly as possible, and I was like "oh, so weird." Phil is either in the Carter Hotel to score drugs, or to have sex on his lunch break. and he did not want to say hey to one of his friends. He did not want to say, "hey, they're one of my friends from college!" That was not a place to be seen on 23rd Street, because those hotels were really creepy.
Why do you think New Yorkers are so constantly, endlessly fascinated in looking back at old photos and accounts of the city then? Why do you think that time period has such a whiff of romanticism to people now? The world was smaller then. There were literally half as many people on the Earth as there are now.
The streets were less crowded. Also, because tourists didn't want to come. It was too dangerous. We kind of had the city to ourselves. The main thing that I keep being struck by is that things were not corporatized. People hadn't even figured out how to make a fortune out of real estate yet. Landlords were burning their buildings because they were run down and they couldn't rent them for much. If you rented a place, people would give you a reasonable rent. They hadn't the idea that you could become a millionaire, billionaire through real estate. Jacking up the prices had not crossed people's minds yet.
But then everything else was un-professionalized also, so my friends and I could go, "Oh, let's start a magazine. Let's make an art show. Let's start a movie theater. Oh, I feel like making movies. I'll just make one. Let's have a cable TV show. Let's open a bar. Let's start a restaurant." People would do these semi-amateur versions of things and it wasn't impossible. Some of those ventures still continue. ABC No Rio is a not-for-profit space in the Lower East Side that my friend began, Paper Magazine was started that way, so was the East Village Eye which is defunct, but Paper's thriving. Everything has been so corporatized today. I think that's what people are missing in the old Times Square.
I was just thinking the other night how there was a scuba gear store on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. Why would you have a scuba store there? Well, some guy was into scuba gear and that store was there for 30 years, until the redevelopment.
Around the corner, next to us, was Back Date Magazines. It was a little place where you could sell your old art magazines, and you could buy old comic books, old anything weird. But nobody has a magazine store anymore. There were lots of weird little places. Nowadays it's very hard to do anything on a small scale. If you're not Starbucks, sort of forget it, or Uniqlo, or Disney. It's like there's a corporate giant sitting on every field. It's really hard for all you younger people to start anything.
I just feel like we've moved into this new feudalism, which our current president is one of the greatest exemplars of, which is the big bosses get everything and screw the rest of you. If you're going to starve in the street and you can't buy medicine for your children, tough. We are in a much more heartless era. Part of that is that now we're in a globalist era. General salaries have gone down as there's more and more people doing stuff. Some of it is demographic and you can't do much about, and some of it's global, but it is kind of boring that Times Square, or the Ginza in Tokyo, or parts of Shanghai, or London, you could be anywhere and they all look the same.
There's a homogeneousness to it. Yes. Last time I was in Paris, I turned to somebody and said, "I want to buy my daughter a souvenir. Where's a good French store to go to?" They said, "Oh, H&M. You should go to H&M." I was like, "H&M is not French." I know that it's Scandinavian. A French person thought, "Oh, H&M is French." I was like, "And you can buy it in New York." It's not a souvenir to bring home.
It's not just New York's problem. I watched this happen in Paris before I moved to New York. It's like New York has become New York in quotation marks. It's become self-conscious. Part of that is good, because it means we're restoring or saving some bits of it; but it also is mostly making the fake, ersatz version of what was once real and grubby.
As far as the porn thing, I would say that I'm not particularly a supporter of it, but I felt like combining sex and commerce and advertising in a very overt way was in some ways refreshing, because it happens anyway. It's just now it more happens online. It's much more covert again, as it was in the '50s.
Jane Dickson (middle) with two of her paintings, "Hotel Girl" (l) and "Liquors" (r)
Drifting off of that, I wanted to ask what you think of The Deuce? Do you feel like it captures the look and feel of that area during the period accurately? I think they're doing a good job. I just met with the scriptwriters. They're going to put one of my paintings in a set for this coming season, because the place that it's based on actually did have one of my paintings up. Hopefully, you'll see my painting next to a jukebox.
I can look at it and quibble and go, "Oh, that person never wore their hair that way," or, "actually, the bar was shaped differently in that bar," but yeah, they're getting the general feeling. I know who they're basing on, but it's not a documentary. They're intentionally not making it exactly what it was.
Are there people in there that you can recognize from your life? Absolutely. I knew the guy who gave them the book that this show is based on.
Was that one of the bartenders who James Franco plays? Yeah. I knew the good one. I more knew his girlfriend, I never met the bad twin. But I was very close with his girlfriend. Many well-known artists today were bartenders and chefs at that bar. There were lots of really interesting performances there.
Did she really run that bar? Did she take it over at a certain point, as in the show? Yes, and that's what they're going to get into this season. She would have punks like The Butthole Surfers perform there. Sweet Honey in the Rock, I remember seeing. Nan Goldin did one of her first slideshows there. The Clash would hang out there when they were in town. It was social practice. She was intentionally trying to combine the street life of Times Square. The editors from the film center would hang out there. The animators union would meet there every week. Then there was a strong, what used to be called transvestites, who would come in with stuff they had quote "boosted" from Macy's, that they would sell there.
It was a very lively scene, and it was my local bar that I went to all the time. In the previous two seasons, it was a little before my time. But I actually did have a friend who was working as a fluffer for those porn movies.
Oh wow. Which was weird because she is a dyke, but she was okay doing it professionally I guess. But I wasn't really hanging out in the hardcore sex world. I don't know anybody who did who was not seriously scarred by it.
My understanding is that, with the exception of the bartender played by Franco and maybe his girlfriend, most of the characters we're watching, their real-life equivalents did not have very happy endings. Yeah. I think that's fair to say.
A few last things I want to ask: what was the weirdest or perhaps just a very memorable subway experience you had from back then? I was walking up the steps of the Times Square 1/2/3 behind somebody. We'd all just gotten off the train, I was probably in a hurry to get home, so maybe I was right close behind him, and he swiveled around and he had a knife in his hand which he brandished in my face. I had been busily going up the stairs, this guy turns around and I start to back down the stairs as calmly as I can to get far enough from his knife. I look at him and I realize he's a homeless crazy guy. But I think, "I should go alert a police officer that there's a guy waving a knife on the platform."
Because this is the '80s, it was hard to find a cop. I go, "There's a man over there who just threatened me with a knife. Perhaps you should go take that knife away from him." He reluctantly, very reluctantly, goes over with me to this guy. The guy pulls up his shirt and shows that he's got bruises on his side. He says, "She attacked me." I look at the cop and I go, "Do I look like I'm picking fights? I'm going home to my kids. I'm minding my own business." He goes, "He says you attacked him, so I don't know who did this. You don't really want to file charges, do you?" Which is what the cops always say when you try to get them to help you. He doesn't want to get involved. "Crazy guy, whose pants are falling down, the whole brandishing a knife, and working woman. I couldn't tell who's the problem here." I go, "I don't want to press charges. I don't want to go to court. I just want you to take the knife out of his hands because he's insane and delusional. He thinks everybody attacked him." Somebody did but not me. If I just walk away, he's going to stab the next person. But the cop was not having it. I've had many of those kinds of experiences with the police.
If you could make one utopian change to the city today, what would it be? It would be that rents would be feasible for people to take risks and do fun things for niche audiences.
That's what I think we're missing, and it's just getting harder and harder to do that. The city is partially to blame because it's expensive for people to have buildings, so they have to charge a lot. As we know, those at the very top don't pay any taxes for the billions they're making; but the rest of us, the people who would like to have a little chocolate company or a florist or a theater bookstore or experimental theater company, it's just very hard to do any of that anymore.
That's what people look back on nostalgically, even if they weren't there, that all the younger people are like, "Oh, that sounds so wonderful." It's true. In 1978, I could live on working as an animator two days a week because insurance wasn't very expensive, and my college loans weren't very much, and rent wasn't very expensive. You didn't have to kill yourself working to the point where you had no time to do the cool things that you came to New York for in the first place.
Are New Yorkers suckers for punishment? Do you have to be tough to make it here? Absolutely you have to be tough to make it here. I don't know if it means that we're suckers for it. I do think it's kind of inevitable. When I'm up in the country, I remember walking around and looking at other people and going, "You know, you could go for days here without having somebody cut in front of you in line, or elbow you, or in various ways get in your space and make your life harder."
Whereas, in the city it happens to one practically hourly. You have to be fending off for your own territory, and it's a losing battle. If you can't stand that, you can't live here. Anything awesome that you might want to do, whether it's being a journalist like you, or being a painter like I am, there a million other people that want to do it and they're working really hard to do it. If you don't want to work really hard, get your foot in the door, other people are going to elbow right past you. You have to have sharp elbows, I guess.