By 1979, New York was every bit the city you see in German photographer-artist Thomas Struth’s 1970s photographs of lower Manhattan. Empty streets — or rather, emptied streets — decorated with those rats’ dreamed-of garbage. The best known of Struth’s pictures is of Crosby Street. In time, this small thoroughfare one block east of Broadway in Lower Manhattan would become a sought-after address for artists, bankers and crackheads — though not in that alphabetical order. But in 1978, the year the picture was taken, the street’s tall industrial buildings — with their brick, pale stone banding and webbings of wrought-iron fire-escapery — had become lost versions of their own early 20th century selves. In Struth’s photograph, they have been corroded by a kind of architectural Alzheimers: forgetting not just their past but their memory of that past.
There is a single car in the picture, a Dodge sedan perhaps, lonely. The roadway is carpeted with slush. The paving looks like an esplanade after a storm’s giant waves have covered it with seaweed then retreated to their Neptunian home. Even the street signs are crooked. They gave up long ago. A theatre of lost dreams — maybe self-consciously, too, in the photographer’s viewfinder. There is lyricism in Struth’s vision.
Yet there was reality behind his poetic projections. There are, as an old TV crime show had it, eight million stories in the naked city. I’ll pick just one of those stories because, well, because it happened in 1979, just around the corner from Struth’s picture, on Prince Street — which crosses Crosby Street — and just a few months before Sinatra recorded New York, New York.
On May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz, who lived with his parents in comfortable bohemia, went missing. All too soon, he became a symbol for metropolitan decline and anomie. If a child can just disappear like that, in the daylight hours, well . . . His face appeared on missing-child milk cartons and Times Square billboards. May 25 became National Missing Children Day. As, for example, the Dreyfus affair was a touchstone for turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, so — if in a very different way — Etan’s story was for late 1970s New York. An army officer destroyed by anti-semitism; a young boy abducted and, possibly, murdered. Pre-WW1 Paris and 1970s New York. What the two stories have in common is this: each city looked itself in the face and found it didn’t much like what it saw.
© Peter Silverton 2022
*This is an extract from the book London Calling, New York, New York by Peter Silverton to be published in 2023.