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When Ed Koch became the Mayor of New York in 1977, the city was a study in decadent chaos: it stood at the brink of bankruptcy and crime rates were soaring. There was an energy crisis; the metropolis crumbled under growing homelessness; subway trains were covered in graffiti; public monuments were regularly defaced; and everyone lived under the fear of being mugged on the street.
The public parks, like the city, were also in shambles when Gordon J. Davis stepped in as Park’s Commissioner: the fountains had run dry, pools were closed, and the parks were plagued by rampant crime. And yet, there was the exhilaration typical of people living in the rock bottom of their times — a strange sense of optimism emerged out of knowing things couldn’t get much worse.
This moment of complex duality was captured by eight New York Times photojournalists — Neal Boenzi, Joyce Dopkeen, D. Gorton, Eddie Hausner, Paul Hosefros, Bob Klein, Larry Morris, and Gary Settle — who were on strike, and hence out of work. They were commissioned by Davis to document the existing parks system in the summer of 1978, in all its honesty.
The 2,924 kodachrome and ektachrome photo slides that the photographers produced after travelling through all the five boroughs and photographing their parks, lay untouched in a box for 40 years before Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art and Antiquities for NYC Parks, and his colleague, Rebekah Burgess, Director of Document Services, came to know of them. Through a painstaking process of scanning, identifying, and labelling the almost 3,000 slides, Kuhn shortlisted 65 and curated 1978: The NYC Parks/New York Times Photo Project exhibition in New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation Arsenal Gallery.
The photographs capture unguarded moments and celebrate the beauty of serendipity in a city which didn’t have much to celebrate. The parks are alive with people in the summer of 1978; they are almost like a life-giving oasis where people soak up the sun after a swim, roast a whole pig, play the drums, dance and sing out loud. The people in the photos form a cross-section of the New York society: diverse and joyful, representative of a pre-gentrified, middle-class New York thriving in its social and geographic diversity. These are New Yorkers who took to the parks to find respite from the drudgery of the world outside. There are photos of the Fiesta Folklorica in Central Park that have crowds standing mesmerized around a gurgling Bethesda Fountain, (incidentally taken on the day the fount sprang to life after going dry for 5 years). The boardwalk on Coney Island lies splintered but that does nothing to hamper the gait of the three young women excited for a swim. A little boy plays with his cats and adults play double Dutch. People paint landscapes, or run with their dogs while a French dock worker plays his boules.
While being extremely diverse in what the photographs portray — a performer kissing his cockatoo in Washington Square Park, maintenance workers arriving at the Orchard Beach, a little girl licking her arm in Battery Park, a golfer wheeling his cart in a misty Forest Park, Queens — they are all connected in that they create a sub-narrative to New York in the late’70s. They impart an uncommon joie de vivre in a story that is commonly defined in terms of disintegration and sadness. They highlight the importance of public parks in their role as universal common denominators that serve every person who comes visiting — with a fishing rod, with a ball, a broken picnic table, or nothing at all.
1978: The NYC Parks/New York Times Photo Project exhibition runs in the Arsenal Gallery (64th Street and Fifth Avenue inside Central Park, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 14. The gallery will be open for special visitor hours on Saturday, June 9, 10 am–4 pm.