Looking Back at the South Bronx

City Of Strangers

South Bronx in the early 80's
Photo by straatis

I’ve been to the South Bronx, exactly once, in 1991. In those days I used to walk all over the city, into areas that I wouldn’t go now. I was young, possibly a little naive (or possibly not) and figured that so long as I didn’t show fear, I’d be okay. I had this trick I borrowed from William Burroughs, of watching every person on the street at once out of the corner of my eyes. It worked because for three years I toured all over Brooklyn, up to Harlem, out to Newark and Jersey, walking through the worst hell holes in the city and nothing ever happened to me.

Until, of course it did. Just a few blocks from where I live now in fact. But that’s another story.

When I went there, the South Bronx was still pretty rough. Though nowhere near as empty as this video, I remember being amazed at the piles of rubble everywhere, the vacant lots. And the people. No white faces of course, except mine. Some of the toughest looking people I’ve ever seen in my life were in South Bronx, that sunny spring afternoon. I still remember two black kids who walked past me on the street. They glanced at me ever so slightly, probably wondering what the fuck I was doing there. They had these weird mask-like faces like their flesh was made of leather, and the cold, cold eyes. Not dead exactly, but void of empathy or warmth of any kind. The eyes of killers. I saw the same faces in Newark, and from time to time on the G train in Brooklyn.

Woman and Child in the South Bronx, early 1980's
Photo by straatis

But no one bothered me. A couple of years later, when I was thinking of coming back to the city, a friend almost got me into a squat in the South Bronx. I'd lived in squats in London for a couple of years and knew the deal. Except in this case, the''d taken over a whole project building, and siphoned electricity off a street power line. They had a whole community of artists and like people living in the building and my friend said it was a pretty interesting scene. I can't remember why it didn't happen. A road not taken . . .

For years, the south Bronx was synonymous with New York's decline. A friend told me about driving along the Bonx expressway in the 70's, looking out and seeing only darkness. No streetlights even, just a mass of deserted streets and buildings. You don't hear much about the South Bronx now. I'll have to go back. That too is another post . . .

This footage appears to be composed of different clips from different films thrown together. But the desolation is amazing. It truly looks like a cursed land, forsaken by humanity. Little wonder, people thought that New York itself might collapse.

(you might have to click through to Youtube to see this video)

And in living color. Desolation, beauty, violence, vitality. That amazing graffiti. South Bronx of the 1980s:


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