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What was New York City like in 1984?

Well in 1984 I was in elementary school and lived in the close-in suburbs but went into the city frequently with my family. By the late 80s-early 90s, I got to know the city much better when I became old enough to go in by myself and eventually move into.

In 1984 and thereabouts, it was much dirtier, much less safe, and less populated and less visited and therefore less crowded. That doesn’t mean it was empty – NYC has always been crowded and busy. But just since 2010 alone (according to stats from NYC & Co. the city’s tourism division) tourism to the city climbed from 48.8 million to 60.5 million in 2016. I don’t know what the numbers were for 1984 but you can see the pattern has been going up markedly over the years. In fact, the state’s famous “I love NY” campaign was initiated in 1977 and though it was a sate-wide campaign, it focused heavily on NYC and particularly Broadway theater and was probably the beginning of the surge in tourism. Population wise, I think the city was just over 7 million. Today it is around 8.5 million. So it wasn’t exactly a small town in those days either. There were also very few national chain stores. Even chains that we had all over the rest of the Metropolitan Area were not available in NYC. There were some local chains within the city (Automat, Chock Full of Nuts, and Barnes & Noble which was a local NYC bookstore that started in Manhattan).

But here are some very vivid memories :

  • Times Square was famously dirty, seedy, scary. Prostitutes walked the streets of 42nd Street in the middle of day and 42nd Street was lined with .25 peep show theaters, sex shops, abandoned boarded up theaters that once were grand Broadway theaters and eventually movie theaters, then sat empty. (Today Times Square is an over-the-top outdoor family themed mall filled with America’s best and blandest chain stores, costumed characters and sidewalks so crammed you can’t see the pavement. But the good news: all those glorious theaters on 42nd Street have been renovated, redesigned and are functioning, gorgeous Broadway Theaters again.)
  • Most of the area west of 8th Avenue felt unsafe to me. (Today, 9th, 10th Ave and beyond are fantastic blocks filled with great local restaurants. No place in Manhattan or really in any of the 5 boroughs even feels remotely unsafe to me today.)
  • There were phone booths all over the city because obviously cell phones and smart phones weren’t even around yet. The pay phones were dirty and always broken. A local call was a quarter. (People older than me remember it being a dime, but that’s before my time.) I was broke too, so if I lost a quarter, I didn’t necessarily have another one to make a call with, and sometimes a longer distance call cost much more than a quarter. I would have to call the operator and report the lost money and beg her to connect my call which they usually did. (Today – who needs pay phones!)
  • The subways were covered entirely in graffiti and sometimes the interior was too. But that actually started changing just around the early to mid 80s and by the 90s, there were no more graffiti covered cars. The city had clean, rehabilitated and bought many new cars that were graffiti resistant. (Today no graffiti but the subways remain a total mess due to entirely other reasons. But they are very safe.)
  • The extremely wealthy lived on the Upper East Side, Central Park West and pockets of midtown neighborhoods like Murray Hill or perhaps in the charming rows of brownstones in Greenwich Village. (Today there are dozens of neighborhoods for the super wealthy, especially downtown, and “luxury housing” has been pumped into almost every corner of the borough. Indeed these days Manhattan is practically associated with being the playground of the rich.)
  • The young and ambitious and artistic and creative lived in Manhattan – no where else. The outer boroughs were nowheresville. If you grew up there you wanted to leave to live in Manhattan. (Today it’s all about BROOKLYN and a gentle reminder that NYC has “five boroughs” to live in and explore.)
  • The East Village (then called Alphabet City because the avenues down there are named A, B, C, D) was very seedy and dangerous. (Today it’s one of the trendiest and most expensive places to live. The only danger you’re likely to encounter is someone spilling their Starbucks coffee on you in a rush.)
  • City Parks were dirtier, more dangerous and less safe, Bryant Park, Tompkins Square Park, Central Park to name a few. The residents living around Central Park were tired of the city not providing proper upkeep to Central Park so they founded a private/public partnership funded by donations called the Central Park Conservancy which was charged with cleaning and rehabilitating the park back to its former glory. They replanted, re-designed, everything. (Today Central Park is as it was intended to be, the nation’s premier city park and garden and others followed suit like Fort Tryon Park, Madison Park, etc. All are exceptionally safe and beautiful places to visit.)
  • Bryant Park also underwent extensive restoration in the mid 90s. Located right in the heart of midtown, restoring this boarded-up, decrepit, urine and drug filled eye-sore smack in the middle of the city brought back the neighborhood. The real estate around it boomed, companies moved back in and it shot off a city-wide effort to do the same all over. (Today Bryant Park is home to the Shops at Bryant Park at the holidays, outdoor movie screenings, festivals, events, fashion shows, etc.)

The mid 90s marked the beginning of drastic change that would come to NYC over the next two decades such as rezoning (which brought in big box stores and chains), establishing business improvement districts (BIDS), park conservancies, and other changes, both local and global that marked the beginning of the city’s hyper-gentrification that continues to alter the face and spirit of this ever-changing city. City residents are fighting to keep neighborhoods from being bulldozed and turned into luxury residential and commercial development, preserve affordable and low-income housing and preserve the characters of our neighborhoods.

EDIT to add: Nobody walked around with earbuds stuck in their ears and faces down in their phones. (Today, everybody does!)