Say what you like about the “good old days,” but those days weren’t all that good. New Yorkers will remember that the 1980s were a decade of Reganonomics and increased prosperity in the Big Apple, but it was also a bad time to catch the subway across town.
In the 1980s, there were more than 250 felony crimes committed on the New York Subway System each week. That made the New York Subway the most dangerous subway in the world at that time. There might have been communists looming in Russia, but here in the U.S., you could get messed up just catching a commute to work.
Here are a handful of photos from the decade showing the New York Subway System in all its seedy, 80s glory.
12. Nap Time
This striking image taken on a subway heading to Lexington Avenue is of a young boy sleeping with his head on his mother’s lap. The male relative nearby has protectively placed his hand in front of the child as though to ward off the evil influences found on the subway.
11. New York Graffiti
It’s fair to say that railway and substations around the world have always been a magnet for “street art,” but it’s unusual for the graffiti to end up on the outside of the box cars, too. These commuters are packed in tight to the backdrop of New York’s subway graffiti.
10. Caught in the Act
Here our intrepid photographer gets a little closer to the subliminal dangers of New York’s 1980s subway system. This young gentleman is happy to pose while he vandalizes the inside of a train’s boxcar. This is a fair testament to his expectations that nothing will be done to stop him.
9. A Little Night Music?
It wasn’t all doom and gloom down in the subway, there were moments of levity and happiness. One of those moments would often come from crossing the path of a busker plying their musical trade. Here you can see an older lady blasting out a tune on her accordion.
8. Keep Out
Controlling access and entry to the subway system can help make a subway safer. Sadly, these blocked access ways make the whole thing feel more intimidating rather than a nicer place to be, don’t they? The child in shot offers a feeling of very real vulnerability in the face of the bars.
7. Homeless and Alone
Rail stations and subway stations around the world act as a magnet for homeless people. It’s warmer underground when the streets are cold, people with jobs pass by and might leave a little charity. So it’s no surprise that people like this guy risked their safety to brave the subway in New York in the 1980s too.
6. A World Apart
See the smashed window glass on the compartment door? You can see why our lady traveler might already be feeling uncomfortable. The look on her face tells us that she’s certainly not feeling confident about things at all. It must have been nerve-wracking for a single woman to make a subway journey back then.
5. The Only One
This gentleman had the “pleasure” of a subway car all to himself (and we assume the photographer who is not in shot). It’s not the nicest looking place, is it? The car is covered in graffiti and looks menacing without another soul inside it. Imagine how it would have felt when there were more people in there?
If your morning commute is likely to see you mugged, eventually you’re going to get angry about that and that’s exactly what happened. New Yorkers formed a vigilante group “The Guardian Angels” and began to ride the subway to protect other people from harm. This was a pretty controversial thing to do at the time.
3. Really No, That’s Just… No.
Imagine if you stepped into a subway car and you’re expecting a nice quiet trip home and then this lunatic joins you. He’s sporting a strange haircut and ill-fitting street threads and oh, he’s wielding a baseball bat too. That’s not something we’d be too pleased about, how about you?
2. The Morning Mess
If you can’t police the subway to keep it safe, what chance have you got of keeping it clean and tidy? Not very much. This shot of newspapers strewn all over the inside of a train box tells you that domestic pride was in short supply on the subway of the time, too.
1. Commuter Time
Like it or not, Americans in New York City had to get to work in the 1980s and the subway, for all its faults, was the most convenient way for folks to commute even then. Here we can see the commuters of the day heading to work and the looks of concern at interacting with strangers too.
When people tell you that yesterday was a brighter time than today, you might want to show them these photos from New York’s dangerous subway system in the 1980s.
Nostalgia can all too often be a mask for untruths. For New Yorkers taking a ride downtown, it’s far safer today than it was back when 250 people a week learned a hard lesson about life’s unfairness on the subway.
What, do you think we’re too nostalgic about today? What was really better back then and what is better now? Tell us in the comments, we’d love to know what you think.