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Unbelievable Photos of the NYC Subway in the 80’s

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When I first moved to NYC, my grandmother was terrified of the fact that I would be taking the subway every day. At first, I thought she was just being a “princess” and thought the trains were too unsanitary or for poor people. Sure, sometimes the subway can be pretty sketchy (have you ever taken the 7?) but, overall, it isn’t so bad. Little did I know that over 30 years ago, NYC’s subway system was the worst in the world and you would literally be risking your life to take it!

The underground system in 1980’s was a whole other world, one that you avoided at all costs! Check out these rare photos of the NYC subway in the 80’s and be grateful you don’t need to ride it today.

1. Typical day at the subway station

Back in the 1980’s, if you asked a common New Yorker about the subway, they would say something along the lines of “I haven’t been down there in years.” People literally avoided going underground at all costs because that is how dangerous, dingy and awful it was.

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Photo via NYC Subway

The public transportation system lost over 300 million riders over a decade because people would rather walk than take their trains. Now, most New Yorkers take the transit system while the tourists are still scared to ride the subways!

2. Violent times

While the author Paul Theroux explored the underground system, he commented “Is it dangerous? Ask anyone, and, without thinking, he will tell you there must be about two murders a day on the subway.” Unfortunately, that is true as every week there were more than 250 felonies committed.

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Bruce Davidson

The person in the photo with the gun, though, is actually an undercover cop trying to catch muggers. The photographer, Bruce Davidson, acted as bait to lure in a potential robber and it worked! The NYPD were able to catch a thief and Davidson captured the moment perfectly!

3. So much graffiti

Theroux described the cars as “The subway is frightful looking. It has paint and signatures all over its aged face. It has been vandalized from end to end. It smells so hideous you want to put a clothespin on your nose, and it is so noisy the sound actually hurts.”

nyc subway

Photo via NYC Subway

The subway system had so many problems at the time, it became necessary to completely redo the system to better it. It took them a while, but they always knew there was a problem so eventually they got it done.

4. They actually needed this sign…

Theroux said that “the subway looks like a deathtrap,” and this was not altogether wrong. As Theroux explains it, “No one speaks… Avoiding the stranger’s gaze is what the subway passenger does best. Most sit bolt upright, with fixed expressions, ready for anything,” because anything could really happen.

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Paul Wright

The poster above gives tips on how to avoid getting mugged because that was the sad reality of the situation. You always had to be wary, on your guard, ready for anything to happen.

5. Sleepy boy

Paul Theroux spent an entire week down below in the massive New York transportation system, giving him plenty of time to truly explore it and learn about the environment underneath the Big Apple streets. Needless to say he got plenty familiar with it, enough to illuminate the eyes of the city’s inhabitants.

nyc subway

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Ultimately, Theroux would come to describe the subway system as “an ‘alien land’ that is ‘beat up,’ with patches of beauty… futuristic in a ruined and uncompromising way.

6. Casually going to work

Back in the 1980’s, you didn’t need a metro card to get on the trains. There was no such thing as paying $2.75 for a swipe, or a larger set amount for a card that grants you access to unlimited rides. Instead, the subway system ran on a token system: “New York’s one-price token system is one of the fairest and most sensible in the world.

nyc subway

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Theroux even preferred the New York subway system to the London system, which he thought was clumsy, and the Tokyo system, which was all computerized long before the New York system.

7. So much litter

In Theroux’s writings, he perfectly described the subway system at the time, saying “It has the filthiest trains, the most bizarre graffiti, the noisiest wheels, the craziest passengers, the most macabre crimes.” Some of these things are still true, but not to the extent they were before.

nyc subway

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The trains nowadays are the most sanitary things and they do still sometimes have graffiti on them. But, as a whole, they are much more cleanly than they were just two or three decades ago.

8. Creepy subway people

The New York subway is a serious matter – the rackety train, the silent passengers, the occasional scream… You have to look as if you’re the one with the meat cleaver. You have to go in with your eyes flashing.” Getting in the subway system was a risk, and you absolutely had to be prepared to fight for your life if need be.

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I mean, what would you do if you encounter this creepy man on your morning communte!

9. Never cleaner than this

Theroux encountered something new every single day that he rode the subway. It was a strange place to be in at the time, leading him to say, “The subway is full of surprises. It has what are probably the longest rides of any subway in the world…” The subway system has sped up since then, but it can still catch you by surprise.

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Nowadays, you can be bombarded by musicians or other performers, meet new people, and witness the interactions of lots of different folk all on the same ride.

It did get a lot scarier, though.

10. An old lady playing an accordion

People are still playing instruments on the subways nowadays but it definitely isn’t as eery as this grandma doing it. I agree with Theroux when he says, “In every detail it is like a nightmare, complete with rats and a tunnel and a low ceiling. It is manifest suffocation straight out of Poe.”

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This woman would certainly be in one of Poe’s stories, playing some creepy music in the darkness of the subway ride.

11. These men have great poker faces

Even T.S. Eliot remarked on the subway system in his writings, particularly in “East Coker.” Eliot wrote about the endless stream of people riding the trains, saying, “You can wait a long time for some trains… you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen, leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.

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I think these 80’s hipsters show that “growing terror of nothing to think about” look very well!

12. Looking outside from within

Therox noticed that, “The subway is frightening — and what makes it even more frightening is the fact that it is so very easy for a passenger to get lost on it.” The NYC subway system has 842 miles of track. It’s the largest subway system in North America and one of the largest in the world.

nyc subway

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Dozens of tunnels and platforms line the underground, making it one scary and confusing place to be in, especially during the 1980’s when it was in such disrepair.

13. A man actually falls asleep on this subway

“The subway is like a complex — and diseased — circulatory system. Some people liken it to a sewer and others hunch up their shoulders and mutter about being in the bowels of the earth.” Theroux probably didn’t even think it would be this horrible until he rode it for the first time.

nyc subway

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At the beginning of the decade, the subway system was dirty and dangerous. But, by the end of the decade, it was cleaner and the ride was smoother.

14. “Riding” the subway

These two boys manage to avoid going inside the awful subway cars by riding on the outside! I guess they were following Theroux advice of “Rule One is: don’t ride the subway if you don’t have to.”

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I wonder what they did when the subway went underground…

The next image was a common sight in the 1980’s NY subway.

15. Sleeping homeless man

Actually this problem still persists today but at least the homeless have a better station to sleep in now. At least, in most. Back in the 1980’s, Robert Huber of the Transit Authority told a curious Theroux that “The smell of urine — it’s really horrible at some stations.”

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The problem was they were so focused vandalism and graffitti, that no one really knew who should be in charge of the stations…

The 1980s are often called the “Jekyll and Hyde” period of the New York Subway System. At the beginning of the decade, the subway system was dirty and dangerous. But, by the end of the decade, it was cleaner and the ride was smoother.

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So basically it was super awful in the first half of the decade (Jekyll) and then it improved (Hyde)!

17. When the subway is closed

Most of the problems occurring with the subway system in the 1980s were due to decades of deferred maintenance. “The New York subway system is wearing out, and certain sections are worn out; a large part of it looks hopeless.”

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The MTA first began in 1968. It had major political pressure to keep fares low, but also received so little government funding that it was unable to properly maintain the system.

18. Police dogs fighting underground crime

On December 15th, 1980, subway riders began to see police dogs roaming the station. It was actually the Philadelphia police that suggested to the NYPD that they use dogs to help deal with their crimes.

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The first patrol dogs were two German Shepherds named  Suzy and Red. They were used to stop graffitiers and muggers!

19. Casually waiting for the subway

Waiting for your train to come usually doesn’t take more than 15 minutes unless it is the weekends or late at night. Back then, though, you expected a long wait.

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By 1981, one fourth of the subway cars were out of service, rendering what should have been 30 minute commutes to over an hour.

The next image shows one of the subway’s most infamous common sights.

20. So much graffitti

You might occasionally see vandalism on subway cars here and there, but never as much as you did then. Most signage was rendered unreadable due to graffiti and a breakdown would occur every 6,200 miles.

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I wonder what the sales of spray paint were like in the 80’s…

21. Walking to the subway

Theroux points out a scary fact. “The most-mugged man in New York must be the white-haired creakylooking fellow in Bedford-Stuyvesant who has had as many as 30 mugging attempts made on him in a single year. And he still rides the subway trains.”

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I would never ride the subway again if I was mugged! Or, at least, not that same route!

22. The subway rail

Theroux had an unfortunate experience of seeing NYC’s creepy crawlers. “A powerful smell. A rat. Twice the size of rats I’ve seen elsewhere.” 

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New Yorkers now still see the occasionally rat but not as much as before!

23. Does this look like a security system to you?

“There is decay everywhere, but there is also a real determination to reverse that trend and get it going right.” The fact that Theroux could see that during those awful times shows that NYC really did want to change their ways.

nyc subway

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All of the nasty graffiti that had previously littered the walls of the subway system was taken care of. (In the 1990’s, it would come to be replaced with “scratchitti.”)

24. Even A-Listers had to take a trip underground

By the 2nd half of the decade, new stainless steel subway cars had replaced the dirty, old, and eternally malfunctioning cars that commuters had been forced to ride before. These new cars were much more reliable than the previous ones, as the technology and hardware had all been updated.

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Furthermore, many of the cars got an exciting new addition: air conditioning! This addition would not only make commutes much more rider-friendly and comfortable, they would make the cars safer for inhabitants and less smelly. I bet Meryl Streep liked that!

25. Michael Jackson looking all cool

The King of Pop found a good use for NYC’s gruesome subway systems! In 1986, he shot the music video for his song ‘Bad’ in Brooklyn’s Hoyt Schermerhorn station.

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Despite the bad times, Theroux was able to see predict the future of the city’s transportation. “The subway is New York City’s best hope. The streets are impossible; the highways are a failure; there is nowhere to park. The private automobile has no future in this city whatsoever.”

SHARE this article if you are glad the subway system isn’t like this anymore!

Source: Gothamist

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