Back From The Brink: 1990s New York In 51 Intense Photos

Published October 19, 2016
Updated September 20, 2018

The 1990s in New York started as the city's worst decade yet ended far better than expected. These surprising photos reveal how.

Crown Heights Riots Cops
The tone of crime and unrest that marked the early 1990s was defined by the Crown Heights riots of 1991.

The trouble started on August 19, 1991, when a car driven by a Jewish man named Yosef Lifsh and part of a police-escorted motorcade for noted Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson struck two black children, killing one (Gavin Cato) in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
John Roca/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Pay Phone
Accounts vary as to exactly what happened at the scene of the crash, but it ultimately didn't matter. The event sparked a devastating three-day riot that pitted the neighborhood's Jewish population, its black population, and the NYPD all against each other.Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Crown Heights Riots Cop
Immediately following the crash, the neighborhood's black residents became enraged that police had Lifsh removed from the scene before Cato had even been loaded into the ambulance. Many black residents believed this was indicative of the preferential place that Jews were taking in the neighborhood and the treatment that black residents received from the city.NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Street Cross Debris
Enraged by this police response, just three hours after the crash, a group of black men walked several streets over and found a Jewish man named Yankel Rosenbaum, who they stabbed and beat, injuries which he would die from later that night.Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Cops Running
With two deaths in the span of a few hours, the riot quickly hit full swing and continued on for the next two days. Ultimately, there were nearly 200 injuries, well over 100 arrests, 27 vehicles destroyed, seven stores looted, 225 cases of robbery and burglary committed, and $1 million worth of property damage.Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Arm In Arm
But beyond the numbers, the riot became a symbol of the crime, racial strife and questionable police tactics that marked much of the early 1990s in New York.Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

David Dinkins
In fact, many credit the Crown Heights riot with costing Mayor David Dinkins (right) a second term in 1993.

At the beginning of the decade, Dinkins made history as he was sworn in as New York City's first black mayor. However -- in a turn emblematic of the early 1990s in New York -- the hope of Dinkins took a significant hit after the riot, when many accused him of contributing to what they perceived to be the poor police response.

Mandela Visit
The summer before the riot, Dinkins (second from left) and New York's black community were in high spirits upon the historic first-ever visit of Nelson Mandela (center) to the United States. Mandela's first destinations in the country, in fact, were the predominantly black neighborhoods of Brooklyn, much like Crown Heights.

"Tens of thousands of people in the black Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and Fort Greene lined the sidewalks, wildly cheering the honored guest's motorcade and brandishing clenched fists," wrote The New York Times. "For the city's blacks it was a particularly compelling moment."

Rodney King Protesters Street
The summer after Mandela's visit, the riot changed the city's racial politics in ways that would reverberate throughout the rest of the decade.

And in 1992, just one year after the riot, demonstrators in New York once again rose up (pictured here near Penn Station) in response to police handling of a violent incident with an African-American citizen.

In this case, it was after police officers in Los Angeles were acquitted on all charges of beating Rodney King.
Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos

Cops Grabbing Man
Police arrest a man protesting the Rodney King verdict on 7th Avenue in Manhattan.Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos

Brooklyn Bridge Protest
Several years later, on August 9, 1997, a black man named Abner Louima intervened in a fight between two women at a Brooklyn bar. When police reached the scene, one officer claimed that Louima hit him. The police then beat Louima on the way to the station and again at the station, where they also sexually assaulted him with a broomstick.

The incident quickly sparked outrage city- and nationwide, and on August 29, approximately 7,000 demonstrators marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to both city hall and the precinct where the assault took place.

Ultimately, Louima won an $8.75 million settlement from the city and his primary attacker, Justin Volpe, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Amadou Diallo Protest
Less than two years after the assault of Abner Louima, the city once again faced an incident of racially motivated police brutality.

On February 4, 1999, four NYPD officers in the Bronx opened fire on an unarmed black man named Amadou Diallo discharging 41 bullets and striking him 19 times. He was killed instantly and accounts of the shooting vary, with some saying that the officers first took notice of Diallo because he matched the description of a serial rapist in the area.

In a tragic echo of the Louima incident two years before, thousands of protestors marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 15.

In the end, Diallo's family won a $3 million settlement from the city, but all four officers were acquitted of their second-degree murder charges.

Million Youth March
Racial tensions reached another boiling point near decade's end with the Million Youth March on September 5, 1998.

Held by organizers as an expression of black unity and protest against systemic racism, the city publicly dismissed it as a hate march and aired concerns that it would turn violent.

Sadly, that's exactly what almost happened. When the 6,000 marchers who'd gathered in Harlem didn't disperse at 4 PM, police in riot gear threatened to move in. Marchers held their ground, with some throwing chairs, trash cans, and bottles at the police.

Ultimately, however, tensions were quickly defused and the incident resulted in "just" 17 injuries.

Gun Killing Clock
The other major problem that plagued New York City for much of the 1990s was crime.

While many instinctively think of either the 1970s or 1980s as the city's most violent years, the four deadliest years in the city's modern history were in fact the four that kicked off the 1990s.

Of course, New York wasn't alone in recording record high murder rates during that era, but it was nevertheless the principal American symbol of murder at the time. Thus, on December 29, 1993, an anti-gun activist group unveiled an enormous "Death Clock" in Times Square. As it continuously displayed the ever-growing number of murders by guns in the U.S., it became a grim fixture in the city.
HAI DO/AFP/Getty Images

Graffiti Brick Street
One of the prevailing explanations for New York's record-setting crime was the simple notion that many neighborhoods had, by the early 1990s, fallen into varying states of disrepair.

The city government began acting on a theory that argued that the way to address the serious crimes like murder and rape was to first address these small crimes of disrepair, like vandalism and theft...
Laser Burners/Flickr

Alley Empty Street
This idea was called the broken windows theory. Developed by criminologists/social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, the theory argued that the authorities' tolerance of small crimes of public disrepair like vandalism signaled to people that this was an area without consequences and left the door open for more serious crimes to be committed.Bill Barvin/New York Public Library

Train Graffiti
As Wilson and Kelling wrote in their landmark 1982 article on the matter in The Atlantic: "Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside."Laser Burners/Flickr

Hit Squad Graffiti
What some city authorities took from this controversial theory is that by treating small problems like the graffiti that had taken over much of the city, they could ultimately help mitigate far more serious issues like the record-setting murder rate. Laser Burners/Flickr

Shuttered Stores
In 1990, the city made William J. Bratton, a self-professed disciple of broken windows author George Kelling, the head of its Transit Police. Bratton quickly began putting the broken windows theory to the test, going to work on crimes like vandalism that had often previously gone ignored.Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

An even bigger shift came in 1994 when brand new mayor Rudolph Giuliani (pictured holding the newspaper proclaiming his election victory on November 3, 1993) made Bratton his police commissioner for the expressed purpose of implementing broken windows policing.

Many believe that the city elected Giuliani, a former United States Attorney, because he was perceived to be tough on crime, while his opponent David Dinkins was often blamed for his response to the Crown Heights riot.

Immediately after the election, Giuliani put his tough-on-crime policies into action and had his police force significantly increase their "quality of life" arrests for petty crimes. New York's crime rate then shrunk to nearly a third of its early 1990s highs by the end of the decade.
HAI DO/AFP/Getty Images

Kids Hydrant Water
Many have criticized the broken windows theory and the kind of policing it encourages, specifically in New York in the 1990s.

For one, some critics argue that ramping up "quality of life arrests" can give police officers implicit license to abuse their power (Bratton, for example, is widely credited with pioneering the now controversial stop-and-frisk policing ) and that using police resources for crimes like, say, popping a fire hydrant (pictured, in the beleaguered South Bronx, 1995), is wasteful and irresponsible.
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Graffiti Sunlight
Regardless, the Giuliani administration put broken windows policing into action and set about cleaning up the embattled, decaying, semi-vacated areas of the city...Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

Baseball Bat
...Including many in Brooklyn (pictured, 1992)...Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

Bronx Corner
...As well as the Bronx (pictured, 1992)...Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress

Coney Island
...And even formerly beloved tourist and recreation areas like Coney Island (pictured) that had fallen into neglect.Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/Flickr

Garbage Barge
The borough of Staten Island, on the other hand, remained neglected enough to vote for an actual secession from New York City in late 1993.

Ultimately, the state government blocked the referendum, but the move was enough to ensure that at least the borough's two biggest demands -- free service for the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan and closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill (pictured) -- were met.

Private Viewing Window
Times Square received the decades biggest face lift.

The very symbol of New York's decay in the 1970s and 1980s, Times Square, like the city itself, experienced a phenomenal rebirth in the 1990s. Nevertheless, as late as 1997 (pictured), you could still find erotic dancers performing in private viewing booths.

Times Square
By the late 1990s (pictured), following rezoning and policing initiatives, Times Square was once again a thriving tourist destination for people of all ages -- and the quintessence of the city's 1990s revival.Leo-setä/Wikimedia Commons

As the 1990s drew to a close, other locales began experiencing an extraordinary revitalization.

Chief among those neighborhoods is Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the first steps of the area's gentrification began in the mid-1990s.

Today, the Williamsburg of 1991 (pictured, foreground) -- a neighborhood of old factories, few people, and no waterfront high-rises -- is all but unrecognizable.
Jet Lowe/Library of Congress

Laundromat Tobacco
Similar gentrification began occurring in other neighborhoods like Manhattan's East Village (pictured, in the early 1990s).Bill Barvin/New York Public Library

East Village Nightclub
But at the dawn of the 1990s, the East Village still retained the seediness of a now bygone era.

Pictured: The early 1990s interior of the East Village's infamous The World nightclub, a haven for the area's transgressive arts scene. However, the club closed in 1991 after its owner was found dead on the premises. It has since been demolished and replaced by a luxury apartment building.
Kcboling/Wikimedia Commons

Desolate Street
Like the East Village and Williamsburg, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, now a thriving community with skyrocketing real estate costs, was a very different place in the early and mid-1990s.

Pictured: The largely empty streets and partially shuttered buildings at the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Melrose Street in 1995.
Bill Barvin/New York Public Library

Empty Lot Street
About ten blocks away, the empty environs of Bushwick's Dekalb Avenue and Broadway, circa the mid-1990s.

It's precisely areas like this -- once beset by poverty, vacancy, and crime -- that were entirely different after the 1990s.
Bill Barvin/New York Public Library

Colin Ferguson
In one of the decade's deadliest incidents, Colin Ferguson (pictured, arriving in court) killed six and wounded 19 after opening fire inside a train car on December 7, 1993.

The shooting quickly sparked a nationwide discussion on gun control, the death penalty, and racial unrest. On the one hand, predominantly white leaders like Mayor Giuliani took this opportunity to make the case for capital punishment in New York.

On the other hand, Ferguson's lawyers offered the defense that their client -- whose actions suggested that his crimes were motivated by his anger at perceived white oppression -- suffered from "black rage" and thus could not be held criminally liable for his actions.

Ultimately, Ferguson actually dismissed his lawyers, finished the trial by representing himself, and was sentenced to 315 years in prison.
POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Cop Empire State Building
Thankfully less deadly than the Ferguson attack was the February 23, 1997 shooting at the Empire State Building. Palestinian gunman Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, outraged at the continued U.S. support for Israel, killed one and wounded six on the 86th floor observation deck before shooting himself in the head.

Pictured: A police officer stands guard at the door of the Empire State Building just after the incident.
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Baby Hope
While it involved just one victim, perhaps the most devastating of all violent crimes in 1990s New York was the murder of "Baby Hope."

After she was found decomposing in a cooler alongside a highway in Manhattan on July 23, 1991, her case quickly attracted widespread attention. Starved, raped, killed, and unable to even be identified, four-year-old "Baby Hope" became a symbol of the depths to which New York had fallen.

The girl went unidentified and the crime went unsolved all the way until 2013, when detectives were able to identify her as Anjelica Castillo and arrest her uncle, Conrado Juarez, for the crime.

Notorious Big Funeral
Yet another high-profile murder that grabbed the attention of the country was that of famous Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) on March 9, 1997.

Nine days later, scores of fans took to the streets of the rapper's old neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to pay their respects as the funeral procession passed by.
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Wtc Bombing 1993
Perhaps the single incident that stands above all others from the New York of the 1990s is the bombing of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.

That afternoon, Al Qaeda terrorists detonated a truck bomb in the underground parking structure (pictured, two days after the attack) of the North Tower, hoping to cause that tower to collapse onto the South Tower, bringing down both and killing thousands.

However, that didn't occur and the casualties ended up being far less than the perpetrators had hoped...

Wtc Soot On Face
In the end, the bombing killed six and injured a little more than 1,000, with many suffering from severe smoke inhalation (pictured).TIM CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Twin Towers
Within a few years, most of the perpetrators were caught. However, the same senior al Qaeda operative who planned the bombing, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would go on to execute the September 11th attacks.Karl Döringer/Wikimedia Commons

Circle Line
Nevertheless, with the Twin Towers restored shortly after the bombing and intact throughout the rest of the 1990s, New York drew in an increasing number of tourists, far more than those wary of visiting during the decade's crime-plagued early years.

Pictured: Tourists on the Circle Line boat tour gaze out at Lower Manhattan.
Alessio Nastro Siniscalchi/Wikimedia Commons

Wtc Skier
Indeed, throughout the late 1990s, New York increasingly played host to more high-profile tourist events and attractions, including British skier Eddie Edwards' 1996 ski jump near the foot of the World Trade Center.

Overall, annual tourism increased by 7 million people and $5 billion over the course of the 1990s.

Yankees Celebration
Riding high in the 1990s' latter half, New York also enjoyed four championships in five years for its favorite sons, the Yankees, beginning in 1996.Al Bello/Allsport

Stonewall Parade
As the city's fortunes looked up and the crime numbers trended down, New York began to grapple with other societal issues.

Among these was gay rights. In 1997, Mayor Giuliani signed a law recognizing municipal domestic partnerships for homosexuals.

Pictured: Members of the Stonewall Veterans Association participate in the 30th Annual Lesbian and Gay Pride March on June 27, 1999 that commerated the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot.

Homeless Person
Yet another pivotal social issue for New York in the 1990s was homelessness. Because the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s had pushed more into homelessness, the issue became a hotly debated one at the dawn of the 1990s.

During the mayoral race of late 1989, David Dinkins attacked incumbent Ed Koch for not providing adequate housing for the homeless, vowing to take up the cause himself.

While Dinkins, after his election, quickly shelved some of his more ambitious plans to deal with homelessness, he did allow for more housing, a move that some critics said overburdened the system with the "Dinkins Deluge."
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Trump Beggar
In fact, some critics claimed that Dinkins' homelessness policy kept more homeless on the streets. This attitude helped paved the way for the tougher policies of the Giuliani administration, which saw homeless people arrested for sleeping in public.

Pictured: Donald Trump (right) walks past a beggar on Fifth Avenue following a press conference on November 16, 1990.

Homeless Vigil
Regardless of the approach, the homelessness issue captured the attention of the city.

Pictured: Two children from the Covenant House homeless shelter listen to speeches during the fourth annual Nationwide Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Kids in Times Square on December 6, 1994. Some 500 children and supporters rallied to bring attention to the problem of homeless children across America.
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Smoke Amid Buildings
Beyond systemic social issues like homelessness, New York faced its share of acts of god during the 1990s as well.

Pictured: Smoke engulfs buildings in Midtown Manhattan as a six-alarm fire rages out of control on March 1, 1996. More than 200 fighters were ultimately needed to extinguish the massive blaze.
JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images

Brooklyn Sinkhole
Some of New York's 1990s calamities were underpinned by the decay into which much of the city had fallen in the first half of the decade.

Pictured: A bystander looks into a hole formed in the collapse of a Brooklyn street after a water main broke, sending water cascading into homes and streets on January 21, 1994. The break forced the evacuation of about 200 residents and the closing of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, a main connection to Manhattan.

Blizzard Pizza Box
And perhaps one of the most hyped acts of god for New York in the 1990s was the "1993 Storm of the Century."

While its 318 fatalities nationwide made it one of the deadliest weather events of the 20th century, New York got off relatively light with "only" a foot.
TIM CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

New Years Eve
Throughout the 1990s, New York City weathered nearly all the storms it faced and ended the decade (and the millennium) in Times Square on December 31, 1999 with a luminous New Year's Eve celebration befitting a city now back on top of the world.MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images

At the dawn of the 1990s, New York City was in an unremittingly bleak state.

Following two decades of continuous decay, 1990 brought yet another all-time record high in violent crime and to this day, 1990 and the three years that followed remain the most homicide-plagued stretch in the city's last five decades. The 1990s had quickly positioned itself to become the city's worst decade yet.

Yet something unprecedented occurred in the latter half of the decade: The crime rate fell by half and the murder rate by a third, with each year better than the last. By the time the decade was over, New York was a safer place than it had been at any point since the 1960s.

And it showed. By the time the 1990s ended, the city was pulling in 7 million more tourists a year while the city's population began to grow for the first time in decades.

The 1990s in New York City was an improbable success story on a level seldom seen before. What at first looked like a new nadir for America's biggest city instead became one of the greatest urban revitalizations in American history.

In fact, we're still witnessing today the forces set in motion during the 1990s. As we enjoy these current halcyon days in New York City, we look back at the not-so-distant yet oh-so-different miracle decade when everything looked like it was about to fall apart forever — and then didn't.

Next, travel back in time to 1970s and 1980s Brooklyn, before it was invaded by hipsters and when the New York subway was the most dangerous place on Earth.

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 of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.