We recently rediscovered Steven Siegel's amazing archive of photos from old New York, specifically from the 1980s, and decided to ask him for his thoughts and reflections about his work as well as the changes that have taken place in New York over the past thirty years. Below are his words, along with more of his photographs from the time. (Previously: 14 photos of an apocalyptic looking 1980s NYC, and Siegel's street portraits from that era. And you can click here for Siegel's archives on Flickr.)

Bliss Street station, circa 1980

New York in the 1980s differed in two fundamental ways from the New York of today.
First, 1980s-era New York was an edgier, riskier, dirtier, tenser, more dangerous and chaotic place. I think that fairly comes through in my images. Second, 1980s-era New York had a sense of wide-openess and freedom that was lost following 9/11 ... and likely never will be regained.

Coney Island, 1989

Notice how these two fundamental changes overlap in a number of important ways. A safer city, to some extent, comes at the price of a loss of freedom and openess. Conversely, the edginess and riskiness of the 1980s came at an appalling human and social cost. My photos of South Bronx and Bushwick are—if I might say so—a testament to that. Those who might be nostalgic for the edginess and riskiness of the 1980s were surely not the people who were growing up in the South Bronx and Bushwick in the era.

Bushwick, 1980

The trade-off between openess and security is reflected in a very literal way in some of my 1980s photos. Some of my photos from that era were taken from the tops of bridges and within city-owned properties that were nominally closed off to the public. In that era, many of these locations were open and accessible. It is perhaps unnecessary to state that—in this post-9/11 era—an itinerant photographer should not attempt to explore these same locations. The probable consequence, at the very least, will be the loss of the ability to smoothly pass though airport security checkpoints.


In any event, these are just a few broad-brush generalizations... useful but limited. The city is such an enormous and complex place that one should hesitate to resort to generalizations—let alone attempt to explain the complicated forces that have shaped the city over the past thirty years. My photos say this better than I can. What I mean is: If my photos show anything about New York, it is New York's astonishing diversity. New York is not one city. It is—and always has been—a collection of hundreds of neighborhoods. Each of these neighborhoods has its own delicate social fabric. One cannot know New York—or understand New York—without exploring all five boroughs. Although I have explored the city more than most, I can still find plenty of places that I've never encountered before... that are new to me, and surprising. One can never know it all! Even if one tried, a neighborhood would likely change by the time one got around to visiting it again!

South Bronx, 1982

That brings me to the subject of neighborhood change. To me, viewing a neighborhood undergoing change is quite fascinating—and a natural subject for photography. When a bodega is located next to a boutique, there are many chance interactions... and perhaps there is much more than that. Perhaps there is even real economic and racial integration. This is New York at its best and most vital. The suburbs will never contain this heterogeneity. But unfortunately, this situation is inherently unstable. If only one could "freeze" that change in place.... before the lease on the bodega runs out, and it is forced to leave. If only.

Old Times Square storefront, 1980s

Times Square is, in some ways, emblematic of the changes and trade-offs that have taken place in New York over the past thirty years. (In other ways, it is not, because Times Square is the city's central business district—not a mere neighborhood.) In any event, no one can mourn the loss of the sleaze and degradation of the old Times Square. But the new Times Square is often sterile and corporate... with all the character and authenticity of a shopping mall. I'm not at all sure that the best of the old could have been preserved while making way for tangible improvements.

Taken in the 1990s "in the brief transitional period between the old run-down Times Square and the new cleaned-up Disney version"

I do know that, as long as I'm around, I'll be there—with my camera—to witness and record the changes in this remarkable City. — Steven Siegel