Fueled by economic collapse and rampant crime, the 1970s and 1980s were some of the darkest, bleakest years in New York’s history. During those turbulent times, all types of crimes were at near-record highs. Communities in each of the city’s boroughs were in advanced states of decay, the crack epidemic was raging, and the raw fear and perception of vulnerability seeped into every interaction of daily life. However, the streets were always full of life and manic energy. They belonged to everyone. These streets were the home base of the photographer Edward Grazda for 40 years. One of the great documentarians of the city’s underbelly, Grazda captured this hardscrabble era in an iconic series that was recently compiled into the book Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985.

As a documentary photographer, Edward Grazda has always been drawn to worlds apart⎯places that have not wholly caught up with the times and where cultural traditions are preserved. He spent months shooting in Latin America, Pakistan, Afghanistan, creating a compelling historical document of lives and places one might otherwise never know about at the time. 

In the 1970s, amidst severe austerity programs and the failure of the city’s power institutions, streets were left to the hustlers, preachers and bums. The workers were struggling to get by, and the new generation of artists was trying to make careers for themselves. At the time, Grazda was renting a loft on Bleecker Street for $250, one that had no heat on winter weekends. “I felt like there were many possibilities to be creative,” the photographer recalled. Between his personal projects in distant parts of the world, he began shooting candid and random street scenes with a deliberate and elegant eye.

Taken from the insider’s perspective, Grazda’s images are real, direct and unapologetic. His camera captured the humanity and its circumstances⎯good, bad or ugly. We see cars as icons of the era, whether as makeshift homes, cruisers or deserted hunks of metal trash, the grime and squalor of the streets that gave refuge to everyone and anyone, prostitutes, preachers, bums, hustlers, porn store owners and other interesting drifting characters. However, despite the decay and disorder, it was a time when citizens occupied the streets and interacted with each other.

“People were using the streets and the sidewalk,” Grazda said. “In those days, the streets belonged to the people.” Ghosting through them, Grazda shows us the harsh reality, but also the beauty of the bad old days, providing an unposed slice of life in a time and place that no longer exist.

Edward Grazda’s Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985 can be purchased from powerHouse Books for $35.

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