New York in 1980 was emerging from the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s and was ill-prepared for the just-beginning AIDS crisis and a crack epidemic that fueled a murder rate of just under 5 homicides a day. Racial tensions during this period found focus after high-profile acquittals of white suspects who were accused of killing African Americans. By 2000 the city had added nearly a million residents, deaths from AIDS had dropped sharply and on average there were fewer than 2 homicides a day.
A new exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!“: New York City, 1980-2000,” opening Jan. 14 and running through March 5, reveals the struggle and tensions on the streets during this period in New York.
The exhibit is co-curated by Meg Handler, editor-at-large for Reading The Pictures and former photo editor of the Village Voice, historian Tamar Carroll, author of “Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty and Feminist Activism,” and Mike Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center.
The Bronx Documentary Center, located in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx, was founded in 2011 by Mr. Kamber who lived in the area in the 19080s. The BDC is a nonprofit gallery and educational space.
The curators have agreed to discuss the exhibit:
Q: Clearly, New York underwent significant changes during the ’80s and ’90s. The city made changes in policing; cellphones took much of the drug trade off the streets; AIDS treatment greatly improved, etc. How do those changes manifest themselves now?
A: TAMAR: Probably one of the biggest differences has been the privatization of public space, such that private agencies control and regulate the city’s parks, making the kind of homeless encampment that dominated Tompkins Square Park in the late 1980s impossible today, even as homelessness in New York City in 2017 has now surpassed the record levels of the 1980s. While AIDS treatment has greatly improved, as you note, the closing of hospitals and clinics in low-income neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights has made it more difficult for individuals in those communities to receive treatment, and there are still hundreds of new HIV/AIDS infections every year in New York City; the epidemic is not over. Gentrification and income inequality have increased since the 1980s and 1990s, and a number of high-profile cases of police brutality in the past several years have contributed to tense relations between the NYPD and people of color in New York in particular.
Q: The photographs reveal a struggle for racial, gender and economic equality. Does a similar struggle play out on the streets of New York now?
A: TAMAR: Absolutely. In 2016 alone, New York City has seen major demonstrations in support of racial justice and against police brutality led by the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as large protests against President-elect Donald Trump, including specific protests of his antiimmigration and antiabortion stances.
Q: Was there a unifying theme you brought to the work initially or did one emerge as you went through the curatorial process?
A: MEG: The whole idea for the exhibit was inspired by my co-curator Tamar Carroll’s book, “Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism,” which was published in 2015. Tamar had contacted a number of photographers in the show to license their photographs for the book. Our discussions about the photographs she was looking for got me thinking about the whole group of photographers that I had known, either having photographed with them or assigned them during my time at the Village Voice. I felt this was a time period and collection of photographs that remained unseen by the larger public. Many of us were shooting independently, and not on assignment. We knew back then there would be some historical relevance to these images and that if they didn’t have an immediate purpose, they surely would in the future.
Q: What are you hoping people take away from this collection of photographs?
A: MEG: We hope that people will get a visual history lesson. That they will see that a diverse group of New Yorkers who voiced their dissatisfaction with various issues, who put their bodies on the line for the purpose of achieving civil rights and remedying social injustice.
TAMAR: We hope that viewers will be inspired by the creativity of activists in this time period, who used a variety of methods, including dramatic street theater and bold political art as well as nonviolent civil disobedience, to get their message out. It’s also important for our audience to see the counter-demonstrations, for example, the white residents who jeered at and threw watermelons at Rev. Al Sharpton-led civil rights marches, and to understand the depth of resistance to social change and the ongoing nature of struggles for social justice.
Q: Would you care to share a personal recollection from being in New York during this period of time?
A: MEG: I spent a good part of the early 1990s photographing the antiabortion movement. I was fascinated by the members of Operation Rescue who would travel to New York City every weekend, from various parts of the Tri-State area. While I disagreed with their politics, I was still intrigued by their commitment, and wanted to understand why they felt the way they did. By photographing them, I gained a strange sort of empathy. But that was temporary. When Operation Rescue came to New York City for the Democratic Convention in 1992, their leader, Randall Terry, presented an allegedly aborted fetus (in a plastic salad bar container) to Bill Clinton, as he left his hotel one morning. After that happened, I realized their presence and their activities depended on shocking people using vile imagery. These events absolutely changed the way I looked at their movement.