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New York City in the 90s was a world unto itself. It kicked off the new decade by reaching its highest murder rate to date, while the twin crises of crack and AIDS had plunged the city into a desperate state. Yet, despite the darkness that loomed right before the dawn, New York was also a place of unbridled creativity that expressed itself all day and all night long. Graff had left the trains and was taking to the street. Nickel bags could be had in candy shops. Trains were $1, $1.15, $1.25. David Dinkins was Mayor, and Law & Order had just begun to air on TV.

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New York in the 90s was a turning point in our changing world, a time and a place where the last hurrahs of the 70s and 80s gave way to the new, millennial Quality of Life. As Guiliani took power, things began to change, slowly but surely the heart of the City was bled away. But, before it was all but finally erased, Grégoire Alessandrini was on the scene with his camera, snapping away. I had the great pleasure of discovering his blog a couple of weeks back, and dropping him a line to reminisce in words and photographs. I am pleased to share Alessandrini’s work here, along with a link at the end for your viewing pleasure. It’s a treasure chest of memories…

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Miss Rosen: Please talk about New York City in the 90s. What do you see as the ethos of the city at this time, perhaps as it was when you began this series in 1991, and how it transformed over the course of the decade. What marks this period as distinct in the City’s history for you, and what lessons did you learn, observing life through the camera lens?

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Grégoire Alessandrini: I arrived in New York in the early 90s to become a film student. What I immediately loved in the city was this feeling of being in an American movie or a movie set. The city was just liked I had imagined it and somehow still very much like I had seen it in films. I’m thinking of Taxi driver, Marathon Man, Shaft, or even old Hollywood classics where you could see NY in the 40s or 50s.

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You could tell that the city had probably changed a lot since the 60s and 70s but there was this kind of classic American dimension. I loved the old signs, the restaurants that looked like they didn’t change for decades, old dive bars, the old Mom & Pop stores on the Lower East Side and in Harlem, as well as neighborhoods with their own great identities like Times Square, the Meat Packing District, or the East Village—which was were you wanted to be at the time.

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You also felt that the arty NY of the 60s and 70s was not that far back, not completely dead yet… It felt like the city I was discovering was still very much similar to the way it was when Warhol, Keith Haring, or Basquiat were walking in the Soho streets.

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Soho was already cleaned up, trendy and expensive but you just had to walk a few blocks over and you were in Alphabet City or in the Lower East Side where most uptown residents were scared to go. Iggy Pop was still living in Alphabet City and many artists were still renting storefronts in the Lower East Side to use as studios and homes.

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To me this is very typical of 90s New York. The “safe” neighborhoods could be next to the “bad” ones and it seemed perfectly normal. New Yorkers knew perfectly the invisible frontiers between these different worlds, they knew where they could go and when.

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It is definitely true that the city was somehow decrepit, a bit dark and dangerous, but this was fascinating and you felt so much part of the city itself that danger was not really an issue. You would hear horrible stories all of the time but yet, you felt like exploring even more. Mayor Dinkins was in office at the time and the arrival of Giuliani was definitely a sign that change was coming…

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Your work feels primarily like a series of cityscapes, of the city streets and buildings as the subject of your work, of New York as a kind of persona whose personality is known by those who pound her pavement and breathe her filthy air. Even your photographs of people feel very integrated into their context, as part of a greater energy that is New York itself.

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What did you come to discover about the reality of our shared daily life, and how New York imparts this feeling in us? How do you think that the architecture and the city planning make transform our experience in public space.

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What was most exciting in the 1990s was this feeling of adventure you had when hanging out in the city, day or night. When I starting taking photos, it was the graphic quality of the city that interested me. Walking in the Meat Packing District or Alphabet City was a great experience. And it felt the same in most neighborhoods.

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Yes, it was dirty, smelly and scary at times but it was part of the city’s soul and you never thought that it needed to be cleaned up. It was the ideal setting for whatever you wanted your life or your New York experience to be. The state and look of the city also gave you an incredible feeling of freedom. You really felt that the city was yours and that you just needed to be here to be part of it and a real New Yorker.

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At first, I was particularly interested in locations and what made them special more than people and you are right, at the beginning people were just part of the places I was photographing. Maybe because of how fascinating New York’s neighborhoods were to me and because of the incredible cinematic quality of some of these areas. Every area had its own mood, personality, its own vibe, and very specific residents.

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New Yorkers are great in their eccentricity, originality, and energy… so of course I had to document this as well. My images of the Wigstock events in Tompkins Park show how crazy people could be… But being a movie freak and having studied film, I guess that my photos were primarily an attempt to capture these moods, these ambiances more than a sociological or classic instant photography approach.

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What are the most notable changes to public life that you witnessed over the decade ? I realize this is a vast, sweeping question, given how much change came down under the Giulian regime. But if there was something that you noticed as that which was consistent, that which began to disappear, so to speak, as the City cleaned up and improved its “Quality of Life”, what might be those things that were lost in the name of progress ?

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One of the landmarks of Giuliani’s era for me was the transformation of 42nd Street and the Times Square area. The zoning laws that made it impossible for sex related businesses to remain in the area.

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It was actually very amusing to see porn shops presenting old Disney VHS tapes in their front window in order to stay in business…But the message was clear:  “The party is over and all the sleaze has to go to make room for a family friendly environment.”

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Giuliani’s time was also the time were drugs and drug dealers were heavily targeted. I really believe that it is also at the origins of the city’s big change. Crack was a very important factor of the city’s safety problems and bad reputation. It was really everywhere… in any neighborhood, in the streets, even sold in some stores, at any moment of day or night.

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After the dealers of 7th Street between B and C or on 10th Street were chased out, Tompkins Park started to change (since it had also been raided by police during the 1980s to kick out the homeless camp that was installed in it), as well as Avenue A and then the whole Lower East Side…

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The East Village population also started changing in the 90s… Hipsters were already moving in and I remember how in the late 90s. The area was becoming the new hangout of people obviously coming from uptown or the other boroughs to party and drink on Saturday night. Rents were already going up and it was becoming difficult to afford living in the neighborhood.

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All the pioneers who had opened stores and friends who were living in Alphabet City, on Ludlow, or around Delancey had already started leaving the area in the late 90s. The transformation had already started and a new population was starting to move in.

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What seems very sad to me with the recent evolution and transformation of the city is the fact that it is obviously irreversible. Everyone loves NY because it is constantly evolving. Every time you come back, there’s something new. A record shop can become a bagel place, an old Lower East Side Mom & Pop store, an art gallery, etc.

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But what can an HSBC bank or a 7-Eleven become? And with the arrival of the real estate giants, all this big groups and corporations, the city seems to start looking the same everywhere. What will make the Lower East Side different from Midtown when Bowery will only be made of 50-stories glass buildings? New York is not just getting cleaned up… It is literally being rebuilt (or destroyed?). And it is known that you definitely can’t artificially create a city’s soul.

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My heart was broken when the Palladium was destroyed to make room for NYU dorms with a very dull architecture. Nowadays, this kind of destruction seems to be a daily occurrence in Bloomberg’s Manhattan…

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See More !

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All photographs by
Grégoire Alessandrini

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