Death, Destruction, And Debt: 41 Photos Of Life In 1970s New York

Published April 16, 2016
Updated November 23, 2021

These startling 1970s New York photos reveal a city undergoing an unparalleled transformation fueled by economic collapse and rampant crime.

Reeling from a decade of social turmoil, New York in the 1970s fell into a deep tailspin provoked by the flight of the middle class to the suburbs and a nationwide economic recession that hit New York’s industrial sector especially hard.

Combined with substantial cuts in law enforcement and citywide unemployment topping ten percent, crime and financial crisis became the dominant themes of the decade.

In just five years from 1969 to 1974, the city lost over 500,000 manufacturing jobs, which resulted in over one million households being dependent on welfare by 1975. In almost the same span, rapes and burglaries tripled, car thefts and felony assaults doubled, and murders went from 681 to 1690 a year.

Depopulation and arson also had pronounced effects on the city: abandoned blocks dotted the landscape, creating vast areas absent of urban cohesion and life itself. Today, we look at 41 poignant photos that capture a New York City on the brink of implosion:

Fire In Harlem

Ford To City
Throughout the 1970s, the city teetered on bankruptcy, which was avoided primarily by deep reductions in police, firemen, and teachers. In the above photograph, then Mayor Abe Beame holds a newspaper with the headline 'Ford To City: Drop Dead,' following President Ford's refusal to use federal funds to bail out the city.National Archives and Records Administration

Oil Slick Statue Liberty 1973
An oil slick surrounds the Statue of Liberty in May 1973.Wikimedia Commons

World Trade Center
The grand feat of the decade was the completion of the World Trade Center complex. At the time of its 1973 completion, the Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in the world.National Archives and Records Administration

Rubble East Harlem
While the towers grew, much of the city burned. Landlords who could no longer afford to maintain their buildings would occasionally burn them down to collect insurance money.

Here, children in East Harlem returning from school traverse rubble to reach their homes.
Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Arson In New York
Arson became a major problem in the 1970s in New York, rising from just 1 percent of fires in the 1960s to over 7 percent of fires in the 1970s.The New York Times

New York On Fire
To prevent the city government from going into default, significant city-wide cuts were put into place -- one-fifth of all public workers were laid off in 1975 alone. With substantially fewer firefighters and police, many crimes and fires were simply not responded to.National Archives and Records Administration

Playing Cards
A group plays cards in a burnt out cafe in the Bronx.National Archives and Records Administration

Trash Can Fire Harlem
A child passes a blazing can in Harlem.National Archives and Records Administration

Welcome To Fear City
In the summer of 1975, tourists were greeted with this ominous brochure at the airport. It featured nine survival tips for navigating the city, including not taking the subway and not walking in any part of the city after 6 PM.The Guardian

Street Walkers
Prostitution became a city-wide problem in the 1970s, with over 2,400 arrests for the offense in 1976 alone. In the above photograph, negotiations take place on the Bowery.Leland Bobbé / Photographer

The Bowery
Before becoming famous for its bars and clubs, the Bowery was known for abandoned buildings and a substantial homeless population.Leland Bobbé / Photographer

Adult Store
New York City became the capital of adult stores with Times Square as its epicenter. As the Guardian wrote, "Times Square’s venerable old theatres and spectacular movie palaces were torn down for office buildings or allowed to slowly rot away, showing scratchy prints of cheesy second-run films or pornography, which any casual visitor might have thought was the city’s leading industry."National Archives and Records Administration

Dilapidated side streets like these were common in 1970s New York.National Archives and Records Administration

House Of Paradise
People converse in front of the "House of Paradise" in Times Square.Leland Bobbé / Photographer

The Bronx
Once the borough of choice for the middle class, the Bronx bore the full brunt of 1970s white flight. Over the course of the decade, the Bronx lost over 30 percent of its population.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Bronx River 1970
The Bronx River became an open sewer for industry and humans alike. In fact, it wasn't until 2007 that towns in Westchester and the Bronx both agreed to stop dumping raw sewage into the waterway.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Passersby look on at a gentleman passed out on the corner of 172nd Street in the Bronx.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Muggers Express
Transportation didn't fare much better than waterways. In the 1970s, the New York subway became jokingly referred to as "the muggers express." By 1979, over 250 felonies were committed every week on the transportation system, making it the most dangerous in the world.Business Insider

An elderly woman plays the accordion for change on the subway.Leland Bobbé / Photographer

Subway Car 1973
A man sits among graffiti in a subway car.The Atlantic

Waiting For The Subway
A woman waits for her train.The Atlantic

Subway Cars
The exteriors of the subway system were covered in as much grime as the interiors.National Archives and Records Administration

Avenue C
That's not to say that the entirety of 1970s New York is a portrait of misery. Above, boys enjoy the city's water from a fire hydrant on Avenue C in the Lower East Side.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Watching The Show
A group of school boys catches the late afternoon show in the Bronx.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Playing On A Car
A group of boys play on the hood of the car in the Bronx in the early 1970s.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Quilting Bee Central Park
A group participates in a Central Park quilting bee during the summer of 1973.The Atlantic

Signs In East Harlem
People observe a number of signs in East Harlem.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

A group of girls share their Barbie collections on the stoop of a brownstone townhouse in Harlem.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Two young women pose in Harlem.National Archives and Records Administration

Hanging In Lynch Park
Two teenage girls pose for a photograph in Lynch Park, South Williamsburg.National Archives and Records Administration

Lynch Park
Elsewhere, a group of teenagers hang out in the South Williamsburg park in 1974.The Atlantic

July 4th Bed Stuy 1974
People celebrate July 4th in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, 1974.The Atlantic

Puerto Rican Wedding
A Puerto Rican wedding takes place.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Wedding Day
In Harlem, a couple gets married.National Archives and Records Administration

Big Joe
A Bed Stuy resident simply known as "Big Joe" poses for photographer Camilo José Vergara.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

East Harlem
A woman takes a breather in East Harlem.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Lower East Side
Lower East Side residents interact near their stoops.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Viva La Revolution Bushwick
An apartment above a pharmacist in Bushwick, Brooklyn, has a revolutionary theme.Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Looters 1977 Blackout
In 1977, New York experienced a 25-hour citywide blackout that led to looting and arson. When all available police were ordered to duty, 40% of the off-duty force refused to show as a result of the escalating animosity between the police union and the city.National Archives and Records Administration

Dumbo 1974
Now home to luxury loft apartments and media agencies, the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO was largely uninhabited for most of the 1970s.The Atlantic

In totality, the decade was a transformative one for New York, as it reconfigured the economic and social realities of America's most prominent city. By the conclusion of the 1970s, over a million people had left the city.

Enjoy this look at New York City in the 1970s? Then check out our galleries on New York in the summer of 1969 and staggering photos of the New York subways in the 1980s.

Alexander is a cofounder of All That's Interesting with an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in History and Economics and an MSc from the School of Oriental and African Studies in Economics. He specializes in American history, the Cold War, and true crime.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Baldwin, Alexander. "Death, Destruction, And Debt: 41 Photos Of Life In 1970s New York.", April 16, 2016, Accessed June 24, 2024.