No, New York In the 1980s Was Not a Horror-Filled Haunted House

photo by Bruce Davidson from his book “Subway”

Nostalgia for old New York is a not uncommon thing these days. The astronomically high rents and ongoing mall-ification of the city can reduce even the most staunchly unsentimental New Yorker into blissful reveries of what it was like way back when men in Elmo suits didn’t stalk the sidewalks of Times Square and two-bedroom apartments in Park Slope sold for less than a million dollars. But if there’s one thing more predictable than native New Yorkers waxing poetic about the way things used to be, it’s that their reminiscences will be interrupted by someone pointing out that, sure, New York used to have far fewer Starbucks and Citibanks, but it also had more crime. New York, we’re reminded, used to be a place from which people escaped in fear of their very lives, not just so that they could write an essay about it for their blog. New York, we’re reminded, was once a veritable horror show of muggings and graffiti and murder and squeegee men. New York, we’re reminded, was unlivable.

In the last 15 years or so, the idea that New York used to be nothing more than a crime-ridden hellhole—albeit one with fewer chain stores and cheaper rent—has been so reinforced into our collective conscience that it is now accepted as undeniable fact for people who never even once visited the city during the 80s or early 90s, let alone lived in it. And now, it seems, this idea of the bad old days is only being further established with tomorrow’s opening of a downtown haunted house, “Nightmare: New York,” whose themes this year include “1980s Subway.” Apparently, the subway system in the 1980s was “a criminal’s paradise” and full of “street punks with mohawks robbing old ladies; pimps, prostitutes and hustlers.” While the haunted house’s website acknowledges that many of the “horrors” of New York in the 80s have been mythologized to the point of urban legend, and that parts of the exhibit are more myth than fact, its existence feels to us like a slap in the face—injury to the insult that is the rampant gentrification that continues here apace.

We grew up in the New York of the 1980s, and our childhood was in no way some kind of crime-addled haunted house. And this wasn’t because we led some particularly cosseted or rarified existence, rather it was because we—like millions of other New Yorkers—led perfectly normal lives for the times. We don’t want to minimize the fact that crimes like mugging and graffiti were much more common occurrences 25 years ago; we remember riding those grimy, tagged Redbird cars, and we remember our excitement at the introduction of the new cars—gleaming and silver and full of yellow and orange seats—that now seem old and somewhat grimy themselves. And we remember our father telling us stories of the times he’d been mugged and how our mother refused to let us walk to school by ourselves even though we were nine whole years old because of how she’d been attacked when she was a girl walking to the same school that we went to now. We remember the Riverside Park playgrounds with splintered equipment and being hustled through Times Square very quickly lest we see too much through the windows of the peep shows or adult video stores. We remember being afraid of the Zodiac Killer and frantically trying to figure out with our friends which sign we really were, because we were born on a cusp and were we safe or were we in imminent mortal danger? We remember bugging our parents to let us walk to the corner store on our own and hearing them talk amongst themselves about Etan Patz and how it wasn’t worth the risk. We remember all these things.

But we also remember how our neighborhood was full of stores owned by people who actually worked in them, and how the butcher would give us slices of bologna to munch on while our mother placed her order for that night’s dinner. We remember how hard it was to even walk a few blocks with our grandmother without running into a dozen people she knew, because she’d lived in that area for decades. We remember that magical feeling of not only being a part of an intimate community, but also something larger and grander than we could ever really know at that age but happily knew we’d spend a lifetime trying to figure out. We don’t remember feeling afraid. We don’t remember it as a horror show. We remember it simply as our childhood, one we shared with millions of other people, one which we could have despite being a part of a decidedly middle-class family—and not one in which our parents’ income needed to be in the mid-six-figures.

And so when we think of that time in our lives, yes, but also in the city’s history, being reduced to nothing more than a haunted house exhibit, we can’t help but feel the loss of that New York especially hard. It’s a time that feels hopelessly far away and impossible to ever recapture entirely, especially as the income gap between the ultra-rich and profoundly poor continues to widen, and long-established businesses close, while more Duane Reades and Whole Foods open up. We’re not sentimental for the worst parts of that time, but we can’t help but condemn the idea that New York in the 80s was nothing but those bad parts. And we can’t help but think of what a haunted house set in New York circa now would look like, namely, a vast landscape of chain stores and banks and huge glass condos populated solely by people who work in finance. Now that? That’s what gives us real nightmares. Give us the subway of the 80s instead of that. Give us pretty much anything instead of that.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


  1. I was in my thirties in the 1980s, and to me that was the time of Yuppies and conspicuous consumption and insider trading and Jack Russell terriers and Benetton and Trump Plaza and deely-boppers and Vanity Fair and Armani Exchange and Szechuan restaurants everywhere and the smell of Giorgio; it was then when everyone started talking about real estate nonstop.

    In 1980, the subways were at their worst, I’ll grant you that: in my diary, I record nearly every day having to get off one train due to a fire on the tracks. But by 1984, service was vastly improved, beautiful (we thought) new subway cars had come in, and things seemed magically efficient and pleasant compared with four to ten years earlier.

  2. Kristen, this WAS so nice to read. It was nice for me because I remember this NY, having been born in 1981, and it’s so cool to think about my childhood and so nice to remember what it was like to experience the magic of childhood.

    The problem here, obviously, is that every single generation has these memories. Our grandparents were writing about and talking about the same kind of thing, about how the 1980s in NYC were terrible and it was so much more magical and family oriented or something. This should have been a piece about how we idolize the memories of childhood as opposed to this ridiculous argument that NYC is all of a sudden a place where memories like that will never happen again!

    Ugh. In 30 years some other kid will be writing about how magical NYC was in 2015. 40 years later someone will be writing about how magical NYC was in 2045. This is the circle of life. This is why it is so silly to talk – as an adult – about how much better things were ‘in our day.’

    This is why every article titled ‘Brooklyn is at last over. The gentrifiers have ruined everything,’ makes me laugh and think about how silly we all are. We all just become our parents and tell everyone some version of how much better it was during our time.

    Kids today have their own magic, regardless of how many Starbucks plant their seeds. We can never take that away from them.

    And, subways in the 80’s? Yeah dude. They sucked. Our childhood magic was because life is wonderful and when we are kids we love everything. What has happened to the subways is great. Let’s not confuse progress and childhood happiness.

    Kristen, you seem so smart. I am eagerly awaiting an article about how wonderful NYC still is. And, to all readers who are NYC lifers: can someone find a deli where the workers still give kids bologna while their parents are finding dinner? Let’s talk about that person! I’m sure she/he is out there and not too hard to find.

  3. Thank you thank you thank you. New York in the 80s was shabby, but it was a shabby community, more filled with people who would help you find a dropped contact lens than with Scary Monsters like something out of The Equalizer.

    I was raised in New York. The guys at the Gristedes we shopped at knew my family well enough that when the manager happened to see my then-eight-year-old-self crossing 6th Avenue, he called my mother to make sure she knew I was Crossing The Big Street (she did).

    **mumble** years later, I raised my kids in NY. We made sure they knew the people at the pizza joint and the corner store, and the first time I sent my 9-year-old to the store for milk, I admit I shadowed her (more to make sure she was observing proper street-crossing protocol than to protect her from Scary Monsters), and did my best to let both of my kids know the city they lived in was =theirs=. They grew up with street smarts, and kept some of their less-clued-in friends from hazards, but they also take cities in their stride.

  4. Although I liked the article – let’s not get too carried away with nostalgia. My time frame is more late 70s and early 80s but there were some truly horrible things going on at that time that should not simply be glossed over. Forget about the subways- even places like Union Square were drug supermarkets where cops just looked the other way. People I knew had their throats slashed, shot dead or OD’d – that was quite typical. Ironically I remember gunshots on Bedford Ave in the 80s just a few doors down from where Maison Premiere now stands. Wide swaths of Bushwick were just smoking embers. Sure most people found a way to be happy despite the difficulties – but did they have a choice? I have two teenaged sons who pretty much have the run of the city now. If a few Duane Reeds and glass condos is the price I have to pay- its well worth it.

  5. thank you, thank you! i get so sick of this anti-nostalgia view of nyc of the past — i’ve lived here my whole life and its been a wonderful place to live and work — until recently; even the 90s were good — i’d wish the old new yor back with all its graffiti and porno shops over the tourist ridden, almost mall like atmosphere of times square and manhattan now!

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