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Nostalgia Factory

Remembering New York before the advance of high street uniformity

Just about anything, suitably gilded by time, can be turned to nostalgia. "There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and magnify the evils, of the present times," says Gibbon. New York is now a cleaner, safer, more prosperous city than it was 30 or 40 years ago. But when you talk to people who remember the days of subway muggings, Central Park stabbings, and beggars and junkies camping in Washington Square, you often hear a ring of nostalgia.

A friend tells me that in those days you could not afford the luxury of daydreaming in the street. You had to be forever alert, your radar on the lookout for signs of danger, and this kept you closer to reality, more awake than today, when the sidewalks are filled with sleepwalkers fiddling with iPhones. "You had to walk in certain way, so they would know you weren't a tourist, that you weren't easy prey. Looking forward and walking briskly, taking care not to make eye contact with someone you shouldn't."

Ah, the good old days of subway entrances blocked with rubble like Egyptian tombs, of trains completely covered in graffiti. Almost everyone no longer young remembers the adventure of travelling in the subway. Seats torn out, windows smashed, pools of doubtful liquids, residues of food, faces with crazed, challenging eyes. In summer there was no air conditioning, and the heat underground was sticky. For many, the subway was all about graffiti, the proliferation, the claustrophobia of every square inch, inside and outside, occupied and saturated by scrawl. The only upside was that, seen from afar, a train emerging from a tunnel or crossing a bridge was sometimes a baroque burst of complicated color.

Here is Dustin Hoffman, with a look of not having been sleeping; Bob Dylan sitting on a bench in the sun

Nobody I know actually prefers the subway of those days, but nostalgia is a plant that can take root in the most hostile soil. The Museum of the City has just inaugurated an exhibition on what now is described as the Golden Age of Graffiti. It does not feature real polychrome subway cars, unfortunately; but there are framed landscape photos of trains passing as flashes of color through neighborhoods resembling bombed-out cities. A gallery in Chelsea, Steven Kasher, has similar photos of trains, taken in the 70s and 80s by Henry Chalfant. Here the subways cars form friezes that run around the whole space. In the graffiti painter's art, haste and danger are transmuted into the esthetic virtues of signatures such as Daze, Dondi, Futura, Quiñones, Lady Pink. Here you get a better feel for the imagery of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat -- especially Basquiat.

The gallery's main room is now occupied by a selection of the photos that Fred McDarrah took in the 60s and 70s for the Village Voice, where the nostalgia is in black and white. McDarrah haunted the Village, making portraits of old and young, those who were just rising to fame and those who were losing their luster. Here is Dustin Hoffman at 20, with a look of not having been eating, or sleeping, any too well; Bob Dylan sitting on a bench in the sun, with an air of having spent the night there; Norman Mailer like a lion in a cage full of newspapers, with the cigarette and the typewriter that then seemed to be the novelist's natural tools; Jack Kerouac reciting poems in the living room of a deplorable apartment; Robert Mapplethorpe with skinny face and lightning gaze, somehow reminiscent of Camarón de la Isla; Mark Rothko as a sagging fat old man, alone among the up-and-coming youth at a party. There would seem to have been no demonstrations for progressive causes – Vietnam, women, homosexuals – were Fred McDarrah and his camera were not present.

Nowadays when there are banks and Starbucks on every corner of the yuppied-up Village, and glass towers full of the predatory oligarchs of Russia and China, even nostalgia has a flavor of political protest.

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