Detroit’s story of bankruptcy and rust is a quintessential Great Recession tragedy, but it is not the first major American city to grapple with bankruptcy amid structural economic change, class tensions, and pervasive urban desolation. At the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, the country’s biggest city was also instructed by the federal government to fix its own financial problems.
Tourists absorbed in the neon hive of Times Square and young professionals who have fled the heartland for $2,200 per month studio apartments on the Lower East Side would hardly recognize the city that elected Ed Koch as mayor in 1977. New York City had spent the preceding few years flirting with insolvency, leaking white middle-class taxpayers, and inspiring apocalyptic media catchphrases, such as “Ford to City: Drop Dead” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” During Koch’s first term, felonies rose and austerity measures crippled city services. The decline of the subway system became a particular obsession for the New York Times, which chronicled the system’s failures and the daily fears of its riders throughout 1981. Constant malfunctions led to delays traveling to work in the morning and home in the evening; sometimes the trains derailed and crashed.
The restructuring of New York’s economy wiped out new manufacturing jobs for working-class teens, who were dubbed the “Lost Generation” by labor officials and the “chronic teen-age jobless” by the Staten Island Advance. This joblessness particularly applied to black teens, whose unemployment ratio—less than one person employed for every ten unemployed—was double the average ratio for teens. The rising retail sector, with its low pay and scant career motivation, was the main source of jobs for those who lacked the access to join the burgeoning white-collar sectors of finance, insurance, and real estate.
The particular way that the city was rebuilt in the following years determined much of its current personality. The New York City of commercial developers, Michael Bloomberg, and Rudy Giuliani was not inevitable, but was rather the result of power struggles fought along class and racial lines. These battles played out in the city’s most public spaces and were often symbolized by a spray paint can.
The Times first explored graffiti in 1971, after a seventeen-year-old boy from Washington Heights scrawled his tag “Taki 183” in marker all over the city. In the Times article, “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) patrolman explained that tagging had become a fad among “teenagers from all parts of the city, all races and religions and all economic classes.” It could be any daring kid with a marker in his or her pocket and the desire to send his or her nickname and street name hurtling through the city on a subway car.
Haphazard enforcement in a city preoccupied with battling bankruptcy allowed the graffiti fad to grow in popularity throughout the 1970s. It also matured into a culture. “Master writers” replaced markers with spray cans and simple tags with “pieces” incorporating intricate lettering, images, and color schemes. Local social hubs developed around master writers, who hailed from working-class and minority neighborhoods: from Queens came Lady Pink, from Brooklyn the writing gang recognizable by their jackets as the Ex-Vandals; Coco 144 lived in Harlem, and Lee hailed from Morningside Heights. While the Bronx had generated few writers at the beginning of the fad, it grew into a “directional mecca of concepts” according to master writer P.H.A.S.E. 2, who emerged from the borough alongside writers Bama/Amrl, Dead Leg 167, Cliff 159, Super Kool 223, Seen, Mare 139, and Case 2—just to name a handful. Each local group had a designated meeting place. Bronx writers met at a coffee shop across the street from their local high school, where they talked over the latest techniques, rivalries, subway service changes, and law enforcement pitfalls. They then visited a nearby station where several subway lines converged to watch the latest pieces roll by.
These communities gave an insider feel to graffiti culture. Writers often executed massive pieces on the outside of subway cars for the benefit of their peers. One young writer told his mother that he did not care if the general public deciphered his work, or even saw it. “All these other people who don’t write,” he said, “they’re excluded. . . . they don’t matter to me. It’s for us.” In New York’s most burned-out and bankrupt boroughs, working-class teens created their own networks. According to the writer Crachee, graffiti allowed writers to show that they were “special” in an inner-city environment where they “weren’t supposed to be anything or anybody.” Writers Coco 144 and Wicked Gary stressed graffiti’s connection to a process of identity awareness and assertion. For Coco, this assertion was a direct response to both the crumbling city around them and the civil rights movements, which motivated writers to “leave our mark on society by writing our names.” The ambition of graffiti culture was also reflected in the term getting up, which meant successfully saturating the subway with your tags. For writers such as Coco, getting up was political. “It was an act of defiance,” he said. “I think a lot of us that came of age during that time feel that way.”
Graffiti networks could have emulated youth gangs, which raised their leg on each block and rooted themselves within their neighborhood’s confines. Instead, graffiti writers jumped on the deteriorating subway. While the changing economy rendered many writers jobless, graffiti was an opportunity to display skill and ambition on a citywide canvas. Amid two decades of fierce desegregation struggles, tags and pieces represented a new visibility and mobility that was self-affirming for writers and their peers.
For middle-class subway riders, however, graffiti represented what terrified them about the declining city. They had watched the fad proliferate while New York faltered. It demanded attention from riders in every corner of the city by boldly yelling out from the walls in vivid colors and confusing tongues. Graffiti’s foreign language was different from the usual barker cries of city signs, from “STOP” to “Have a Pepsi Day!” which aimed for clarity and appeal. “The graffiti are now completely incomprehensible,” the Times complained in 1982, noting that in one RR train piece “the only single word that could be made out was ‘Murder.’”
Graffiti networks could have emulated youth gangs, which raised their leg on each block and rooted themselves within their neighborhood’s confines. Instead, graffiti writers jumped on the deteriorating subway.
The uneasiness that white middle-class journalists and subway riders felt when they stared at graffiti accelerated their anxiety over urban decay and desegregation. These anxieties frequently surfaced in suggestive Times articles that focused on the new demographics of subways and parks. A 1980 article that described parks as a “tattered remnant” of their past contrasted a traditional, wholesome, middle- and upper-class demographic with the invading poor, who used the parks as their “backyards.” The article quoted one New Yorker, Miss Patterson, who described an increased minority presence in the park, particularly by nightfall. “There are people who talk about the park being taken over by people outside the community,” Patterson noted, “which is a code word for their disapproval of that change.” The Times was frequently quick to link stories about urban decay and race to crime. While journalists admitted that subways and parks were not in reality more dangerous than city streets, and that they even benefited from a stronger police presence, the articles emphasized a heightened perception of danger in these spaces. The Midtown South Precinct police commander summed up this viewpoint succinctly: “it’s the visual pollution that’s the problem.”
This fear of visual pollution was most easily tied to public spaces where New Yorkers from all over the city brushed shoulders. The subway forged demographic diversity alongside physical containment even more than schools, churches, streets, and parks. Transit Police Chief James Meehan described the subway system as “nobody’s neighborhood and everybody’s neighborhood.” It collapsed and reorganized space, access, and proximity. Meehan pointed out that people might “shrug off” street crime in the Bronx, but that “if it occurs in a Bronx subway, people are frightened.” The Bronx subways headed downtown covered in graffiti.
By Koch’s first term, the authorities’ concept of graffiti was synonymous with inner-city neighborhoods like the South Bronx. Although a diverse crowd of teens participated in the graffiti fad, media and law enforcement focused on working-class writing culture, and particularly on black and Hispanic writers. A police note circulated around 1978 identified the “common graffiti offender” as “Black, Puerto Rican, Other” and of a “lower social economic background.” A neighborhood civic association in Whitestone, Queens gave a face to this stereotypical offender in a publicity photo. Its landscape of deteriorating wharves is punctuated by a busted children’s bike and crude graffiti, which is indecipherable aside from one tag: “Hector.” A stout, white cop stands in the foreground and shoves a “Reward!” poster at the camera lens that depicts “Hector” as a “Destroyer of a Beautiful Neighborhood.” Bent over secretively and sinisterly, he sprays graffiti with a sneering stare back at the viewer. This male, ethnic graffiti offender became the symbol of New York’s urban decay.
Like most cities on a financial tilt, New York was full of fear and cultural rebirth. The media helped make fear more visible than emerging culture. Fear was also more politically useful. The ideological and media groundwork for casting graffiti as a serious crime had already been laid when Koch campaigned for mayor on a law-and-order platform. In November of 1977, as Koch prepared to take office, Transit Police Chief Sanford Garelik connected graffiti writers with other crimes through misleading statistics, reprinted by the New York Daily News. Garelik claimed that the statistics destroyed “the romantic myth that graffiti writing is a harmless act” and pushed the idea that graffiti was a gateway crime. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling took the same approach in their broken-window theory, first published in 1982 and still the ideological basis for many law enforcement agencies today. This theory emphasized misdemeanor crimes and visual signifiers of urban decay as social and psychological invitations to lawlessness. Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer also argued for a link between graffiti and hard crime in the emotional perceptions of the general public. He claimed an “inescapable” sense that “criminals who occasionally rob, rape, and assault passengers” were united with graffiti writers in “one world of uncontrollable predators.” As a result, battling graffiti was a key part of “reducing the ever-present sense of fear” that plagued subway riders like him.
As a first-term mayor, Koch needed all the symbolic help he could get. While grappling with structural demons, Koch was desperate to demonstrate immediate progress to state and federal lawmakers in order to secure financial assistance. He also needed to convince New Yorkers, particularly a middle class weary of the condition of the city, to re-elect him in 1981. In an onslaught of press releases throughout that year, he cast graffiti as a “symbol of a breakdown of law and order” and proclaimed a public mandate against it. His statements were amplified by the Times, which generated multiple articles, from the metropolitan desk to the editorial page, from a single set of his comments. By conquering graffiti, Koch could claim success in guiding New York toward rejuvenation and order, despite a rising felony rate and dismal finances. With a crusading spirit, Koch’s administration sought to eradicate graffiti through surges in enforcement and drastic new security measures. The New York Police Department created a “graffiti squad” to analyze networks and stalk notorious writers. They surrounded train yards with fences topped with razor wire and guarded them with attack dogs. Nothing worked.
Campaigning for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously strode into a vacant lot on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx and cast his cowboy shadow in front of a crumbling wall on which conceptual artist John Fekner had illegally sprayed “Decay.” Across the street, Fekner’s stenciled spray paint spelled out “Broken Promises.” It was the perfect photo op: incumbent Jimmy Carter had stood on the same street in 1976 and promised rehabilitation aid for the area that never came. The Times reported on Reagan’s strategy to remove this urban blight “through tax incentives and the involvement of private industry.” By 1997 President Bill Clinton was able to tour Charlotte Street and hail the South Bronx as a model for inner-city renewal—“a once-unthinkable statement,” according to the Times. In the time between Reagan’s visit and the Clinton era, the South Bronx had been transformed from politicians’ worst nightmare into a notch on their belts.
Two years after Reagan campaigned against “Broken Promises,” Koch turned up the heat on graffiti during the final weeks of his doomed quest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. His anti-graffiti publicity, disseminated in the Times, was riddled with Reaganite language. In tandem with his usual psychological statements about graffiti as “an assault” on the “nerves” and “sensibilities” of New Yorkers, Koch now also addressed their “pocketbooks . . . businesses, and our millions of visitors.” The strategy scored him new allies.
Koch’s anti-graffiti collaboration with the business world reached its apex with the formation of an Anti-Graffiti Task Force. The Times touted it as a group of “business and civic leaders,” including the heads of Macy’s, New York Telephone, Con Edison, and McDonald’s, and top lawyers and advertising executives. The task force’s chair was the president of Chase Bank, William C. Butcher. Like Koch, Butcher claimed to represent a public mandate: “New York has had it with graffiti,” he said. The task force cast itself as experts on the economy and pursued a strategy to pit New Yorker’s personal finances against graffiti. They generated pamphlets that blamed graffiti for scaring away industry and tourists, amounting to “thousands of lost jobs and millions in lost taxes” and a reputation as a “blighted town.” The solution, they argued, lay in courting “corporate investment” by putting the city’s public space in the service of economic growth. Echoing Reagan’s trickle-down economics, they asserted that the resulting prosperity would filter down to every New Yorker, whether through the possibilities of a job, business profits, or simply better funded subways.
In reality, the cause and effect of this trickle-down equation were reversed. The city began its financial recovery, and then the MTA was empowered with billions of dollars. The sheer spending power that the MTA allocated to enforcement and constant subway car cleaning finally quashed widespread subway graffiti by the late 1980s. New York cleaned up. Manhattan’s public space was restored to the visual order of its middle and upper classes, and masterpieces largely retreated to the neighborhoods where graffiti culture was born, to grace an occasional park wall.
New York is no longer a Detroit. It is no longer a blank canvas for the machinations of teens from the Bronx. Stripped of its graffiti, the city entered a new era of gentrification. Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg rebuilt it within the molds of law-and-order, tourism, and commercial development. During daily commutes to increasingly gentrified boroughs, current New Yorkers don’t stare at graffiti pieces but at pristine advertisements and MTA slogans that caution, “If you see something, say something.”
Like most cities on a financial tilt, New York was full of fear and cultural rebirth.
Art on the street has not vanished, but it has changed. Street art—a cousin of graffiti that maintains its attitude but speaks in more mainstream art language—has gained the twenty-first-century throne of visibility and notoriety. By 2010, when I met street artist Thierry Guetta—aka Mr. Brainwash—just prior to his star turn in the Academy Award–nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, street artists’ relationship to law-and-order had relaxed from the antagonism of the graffiti squad era. With paint-spattered hands, Guetta proudly showed me an NYPD officer’s card, explaining that he had just been caught by the officer during the creation of a piece on a downtown building. He gave the officer one of his works on canvas, and in return the officer told him to call if ever he ran into trouble.
This past October, infamous street artist and Exit Through the Gift Shop filmmaker Banksy declared a month-long residency on the streets of New York. Media and residents rushed to take snapshots of his valuable works sprayed on buildings around the city before greedy fingers fleeced them. The law-and-order reaction was tepid. Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota predictably categorized it as property defacement; the New York Post called Banksy a “street artist/vandal” and played up his cat-and-mouse game with the NYPD. Bloomberg perfunctorily denounced the art’s illegality and referred the problem to the feared Department of Cultural Affairs.
In a city where real estate values continue to rise and New Yorkers are no longer terrified of crime, street art doesn’t symbolize urban decay; if anything, it symbolizes gentrification. Former Giuliani deputy mayor Lhota, in his failed campaign for mayor this past fall, was ridiculed for a television advertisement that intoned, “Bill de Blasio’s reckless agenda on crime will take us back to this,” and then flashed vintage images of rioting and graffiti. By contrast, Mayor de Blasio has thundered against economic inequality and reformed Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, which targeted African-American and Hispanic males. While his rhetoric indicates a departure from trickle-down economics and law-and-order power, de Blasio will have to decide how much voice to give the boroughs whose vote ushered him into office and how much discretion to give his police commissioner, former Giuliani appointee and staunch broken-window-theory advocate William J. Bratton. He will have to decide whether he wants Bronx teens to be visible as criminals or as culture makers. The personality of New York lies in the balance.
Lauren Lewis Neal is an urban historian and former film distribution executive who worked on the theatrical release of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.