With a population larger than Los Angeles and Chicago combined, New York City can sometimes feel like the center of the universe. Still, for all the attention the rapidly changing city gets, people often forget about its history.
For example, 1979 saw the subway system become home to 250 reported crimes—every week. In a photo series titled “Hell on Wheels,” Swiss photographer Willy Spiller documented scenes like these and New York’s underground life in the tumultuous late-1970s and early 1980s.
The images offer a stunning, and commonly forgotten, look into New York City as it once was.
Though New York is one of the largest—and most documented—cities in the world, there are still details about its history that many people have never witnessed before. Few glimpses into its past are as captivating than these…
These images are the work of Swiss photographer Willy Spiller, who was living in New York at the time, and most were taken between 1977 and 1984. They’re part of his series titled “Hell on Wheels.”
Many may remember those years as some of the most violent in the city’s long and storied history. The subways were especially home to countless crimes, many of which were never reported.
Still, the photos act as part of a captivating snapshot of the famous city at a specific and powerful time. Each of the images is as colorful and evocative as the next. Isn’t it incredible how the times have changed?
While New York City certainly has seen its fair share of changes—some for the better—since these tumultuous decades, these photographs have managed to stand the test of time. They’re in great condition, and the themes and images they depict are truly fascinating.
While many of the photos show a subway system that existed in a time that was far different from the one in which we live today, this picture could have been taken just the other day. Not everything underground has been given a facelift!
Still, there are notable differences. Most people will notice the graffitied subway cars before anything else, and even the vintage cars themselves are interesting. Many of the modern cars have electronic screens, and these could not look more outdated!
The numerous dangers of the subways weren’t exactly unknown to New York’s residents. This young boy almost seems to be looking out for any potential trouble as he stands between two cars.
These pictures really do capture a revealing look into what life was like for residents of New York 40 years ago. While the city wasn’t exactly pretty or pristine by any means, you can still see moments of beauty within the chaos.
The look and feel of New York at the time was definitely less cutting-edge, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its own sort of character. Some of the photos perfectly captured this, thanks to some very unique subjects.
Just like today, though, the hustle and bustle that characterizes so much of the New York subway system is obvious. There are quite a few more newspapers in this photograph than you’d see today, though!
Many don’t know this, but about 40% of the subway tracks in New York City are actually above the ground. These are largely located in the outer boroughs, where space isn’t as limited as it is in Manhattan.
No matter how many times you see these sorts of historical moments, it never stops being amazing how much has changed. The New York of today surely is different than the one seen in the 1970s and 1980s.
Though much of the focus of Willy’s photos are (understandably) from the subways, it can’t be overlooked how much the fashion has changed. This might seem obvious, but when framed in these photos, the differences are noticeable.
Regardless of that, the focus of the piece remains on the subway tracks, cars, and passengers. The unique positioning of this photo almost makes it appear as though it’s an actual slide from a projector.
Some may be hesitant to romanticize these violent decades, but others feel like the turbulent times were messy and loud, and worthy of remembering fondly. For example, a lot of great art came out of this era!
For context, it was around when these photos were taken that Saturday Night Live began its historic run. Not only that, but the rise of hip-hop music can be traced back to this period, too.
It would be interesting to know if any of these old subway cars were ever maintained in this condition. The graffiti is actually really well-done, and would look fantastic inside of a museum, no?
The smiles on this old couple’s faces sure are contagious, aren’t they? What a pair of happy folks! There really was a spirit to the old subways in New York during these decades, and Willy really captured it.
Maybe it’s just an illusion, but in this particular picture, the subway cars themselves look a lot wider than their modern counterparts. There really was some serious space between each side for the passengers! The ceilings seemed taller, too.
All told, Willy’s photo series is a beautiful, dizzying, must-see glimpse into one of the world’s greatest cities. Sure, things have changed, but that doesn’t mean the past is worth forgetting!
New York City is one of the biggest cities in the world, but these photos still offer an intimate look into its history. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
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