Home Health ‘Artists and weirdos’ are taking NYC back to a wilder, freer era

‘Artists and weirdos’ are taking NYC back to a wilder, freer era


New York in the 1970s and ‘80s: The Bronx was burning, gangs ran the streets, the subway was little more than a moving canvas for graffiti — the city was bankrupt of cash and God.

At the time those who lived through it insist it was a hopeless, fearful place. But in retrospect, it embodied a romanticized brand of American grit. The era’s legend has become a dreamy nightmare, with its promise of the insanity borne of cheap rent and cheap life.

In comparison, New York during the coronavirus pandemic feels tragically muted and isolating, yet many residents are starting to feel a tinge of nostalgia. Rent is down, crime is up, the rich have fled and graffiti again wraps boarded-up stores. The boroughs feel at once more empty and more full of possibility.

“The first thing that struck me about the boarded-up buildings was the opportunity, and I’m not talking financial, but rather creative,” said Jaclyn Atkinson, 31, a Bed-Stuy production designer and visual artist who this month has a show in a Manhattan townhouse — a contrast with the usual Brooklyn back-alleys and friends’ homes she was previously using as galleries.

The show, a COVID-safe immersive art experience, appeared in Nancy Manocherian’s the Cell Theatre in Chelsea. Her and co-creator Ereka Duncan’s tarot-themed exhibit, “Garden of Eden,” was in the works before the coronavirus sent the nation into lockdown, but both are hopeful a silver lining of the pandemic will be that Manhattan’s previously austere vibe becomes more welcoming to indie shows like it.

The virus has wreaked havoc on the city’s creative class, quarantine putting a full stop to most large gatherings and live shows, forcing performers and creators into a group mourning and, simultaneously, a reckoning of how to rebuild their community and careers post-pandemic, the pair said.

“It’s the dream of a New York I can play in, of the one I came to with anticipation only to find it had long since disappeared — the artists and weirdos I had been promised through reading and romanticizing,” she told The Post. “And now . . . we can bring it there. This is a sort of reset.”

The pandemic is now creating holes in NYC’s real estate and its populace. But it remains to be seen if this will make the city more accessible than the rich peoples’ playground it had been accused of becoming. Artists who knew NYC back in the day said the idea that the city will reincarnate as something more affordable, alluring and bohemian is a decent bet.

“If the exodus continues, it could happen,” said artist Jane Dickson, 68, who moved to New York City in 1977, acknowledging that life and rent have already become cheaper since the virus took hold. “I’d like to think that this is true. I like the optimistic spin that we might return to [a freer era].”

Dickson sees the pandemic speeding up the retirement of older residents and stakeholders, pushing them out of jobs and to greener pastures beyond city limits earlier than planned.

“It’s definitely forcing a perhaps-overdue changing of the guard,” she told The Post. “I think people over 65, they’re not coming back,” leaving more space and work for fresher residents and ideas.

Many young people have excitedly drawn for her the parallel between pandemic-era New York and its hallowed, late 20th century decades, said Dickson. But those who didn’t live through that time often overlook not only how lawless and chaotic it was, but how much devastation built up to it.

“The late ‘70s was coming off of the ‘60s and the early ‘70s, when the city basically crashed and burned and was bankrupt. All the stakeholders had moved to the suburbs,” said Dickson. Her first six years in the city, she recalled, she watched buildings burn every night. New York City was so worthless, their owners had set them on fire to get the insurance, which was worth more than the buildings themselves.

“I feel like there will have to be a lot of pain to get back to the catastrophe and economic collapse that led to the creative boost of the ‘80s,” she said, estimating it would take over a decade of extreme financial fallout and, “people giving up on the city before we start on the upswing.”

There can be no doubt the city is currently suffering. But there is also a beauty in being present here at the city’s crossroads, Atkinson said.

“I don’t think anything will be the same as we all have altered our collective truth,” said Atkinson, but “we get the opportunity to build what we want from this awakening”.

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