Note From the Margins




The Nineties . . .


Boatmen exhibit in the NYC subway, late 90's.

It seemed like a blank decade at the time. We thought the turn of the millenium would bring new changes, a new sense of purpose. New York, by the end of the decade, was gentrifying, taken over by the bubble, the rise of the financial district. Guiliani. It didn’t feel the same anymoe.

Little did we know that the 00’s – the Naughts – would make the 90’s seem full.

A lot happened, when I look back on it. At the beginning of the decade, we still wrote letters, a long distance phone call was a big deal, you had to find a pay phone that worked if you wanted to make a call on the street and feed quarters into it every few minutes. I got a room at the Hotel 17, on 17th and 3rd, for $150 a week, and a room at the eurotourist hotel, like the Carlton Arms up the street, cost $30 a night. At the beginning of the decade, NY was my escape from a Montreal in deep and prolonged recession, a whirl of energy, people, contrasts. Fabulous architecture, bridges, industrial might. An art/ underground scene that even then was being pushed to the margins, as the underground was being pushed to the margins everywhere, yet vital, open in a way that the scene had never been in Montreal, or London where I’d spent a couple of years before coming back to North America.

The homeless were out in force, sleeping in Midtown doorways at night. On some streets almost every doorway was blocked by some huddled figure stretched out on cardboard, a shopping cart or bundle of rags loaded up close beside.

The crack epidemic was at its height. Many neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, where I live now, were no-go zone, torn apart by gang wars, drug wars, haunted by semi-comatose crackheads who were alternately pathetic and dangerous. Even in relatively ‘good’ neighborhoods, you’d find those little plastic vials with the coloured tops lying in the gutters and the pavement, on your steps.

The first full Gulf War came and went. Saddam’s million man army proved no match for the mass slaughter power of the US air force. A couple months after the war ended, Tompkins Square Riots Memorial Day 1991“>the city cleared the homeless out of Tompkin’s Square Park and closed the park for nearly two years. A few days after the clearance, the yuppies started coming out in force and you could see which way the neighborhood was going.

Thompkins Square Protests, Memorial Day, 1991 by Bob Arihood

photo by /Bob Arihood

Despite the deprivation, New York was exciting,  a place where you felt anything was possible. In many ways it was still a black city – black people dominated street life, culture, the whole tone of NY life, in a way that’s hard to imagine now.

New York was a refuge for people who couldn’t survive anywhere else, internal exiles congregating on the Lower East Side, compulsive narcissists going crazy in isolated apartments in semi-derelict areas of Brooklyn, the Village, the Upper West Side. NY’s colossal energy was a tide that washed over islands of equally colossal decay.

Brooklyn had a spectral air. Not so long before, much of central Brooklyn had been almost abandoned, the brownstones boarded up or left to the elements, wild dogs roaming in packs in areas like Fort Greene. You felt that if you stayed too long, you’d be drawn into that decay, that you had to escape into Manhattan’s energy to put it behind you.

This was the decade that saw the arrival of email, the World Wide Web, the rise of the electronic distraction machine and linking across cities, countries, worlds –  the bubble that, like every bubble before and after it, was never supposed to burst. Changes that we’re still trying to grapple with today.

Guiliani took the helm and cleaned up New York. Or so his supporters claim. Certainly, he changed New York. He got rid of the Fulton Fish Market, made Times Square safe for tourists, expanded the police force. By the end of the decade, he was mostly disliked until 9-11 brushed up his image. But it’s worth remembering that NY was a hard place in the early 90’s for a lot of people who lived here. The first time I DID live here (as opposed to visit) in ’91, most native NYers I met said they wanted to leave. They didn’t want to deal with crazy people, drug addicts, gun battles, broken down trains, insane street noise. And who can blame them? The New York of that era could beat the hell out of you, make you a nervous wreck. People did drugs for a reason.

Yet in 1989, as soon as I stepped of the train, still drunk after spending most of the 14 hour journey down from Montreal in the bar car, I felt at home here. New York felt like the frontier, and since I grew up on the frontier, one of the last ones, I felt at home in New York. To me New York was a miracle, a deliverance.

World Trade Center, circa 1991
And sometimes it still is.

  • Bucko

    Reminding me of the frontier: When I arrived in Williamsburg in the late nineties I looked at the blasted no-man’s land of burned-out cars and prostitutes and fly-bitten delis and thought, “What am I doing here?” I adapted but mainly because people began burning cars ten blocks away and the prostitutes one block away. When the first coffee shop, next to the L train, opened, I was filled with some satisfaction and a lot of sadness–I had a feeling the quiet outpost would change. And lo, the hipsters came, with their lattes and boutiques and overflowing trashcans every Sunday morning (that wouldn’t get picked up for two more days). Oh, wait. Maybe I was one of the first hipsters? Crap.

  • Jose Padua

    Nice piece! And yes, people used to write letters then–when I lived in NY, also in the 90s, I would even get letters from friends who lived just blocks away. We’d write each other even though we’d often just run into each other in the neighborhood. We were all writers, poets, etc, though, so I guess that was to be expected. But yeah, New York always seemed a place where anything was possible–and I don’t think that’s just some overly romantic vision of the place. Things really were always possible–though of course with the possibility of good things happening there’s always the possibility of something horrible happening as well. I’ve been away from New York for 15 years now, but I never stop writing about the place.

  • cityofstrangers

    Bucko – Yeah, there definitely was a frontier element in New York when I first moved – which is mostly gone. But it was more than the burnt-out neighborhoods – it was also the sense of movement, the people who came here because they couldn’t, or didn’t want to be, anywhere else. The clash of races, the freedom to be oneself – sometimes at the cost of one’s sanity. The darkness – drinking, etc, the burnt-out neighborhoods, the violent undercurrent. All that was very familiar on a subconcious level at least – I don’t think I made the connection to where I grew up until much later.

  • cityofstrangers

    Jose – Funny about writing letters a few blocks away. I knew people who did that in Canada – although it was usually to communicate something emotional that was hard to communicate in person. But funny to think of how ubiquitous letters were – and how much effort people put into writing them, drawing on the margins, sending newspaper clippings, pictures and so on.

    In a Toronto bookstore I found a collection of letters from some famous mid-century writers. I can’t remember who they were – American, English. There were five deliveries a day, and it was funny to read them – what they resembled most were emails, sometimes communicating the most banal things, or containing a single sentence.

    NY always that possibility – and it could dark fast. So could the North, and sometimes, in both places, the dark and the light exist at once. The curious thing is, even now, when NY is at it’s most dull and closed off, things still happen here that wouldn’t anywhere else. It’s like living in a constant rarified state.


  • co

    what a great post. at 1:30am after cleaning months of crud off my home it’s all I can say… except I remember the flea market that sprung up all up and down 2nd avenue and aster place. got great stuff from there.

    • cityofstrangers

      Thanks CO – months of cleaning crud? ‘Wow’ is all I can say . . .

      I remember the flea market as well, though the memory is dim . . . I wonder why that would be since I usually love flea markets.

      I do remember the junkies selling stuff by the 2nd Ave. subway. Once, a guy had an actual samurai sword. I thought about buying it then thought well, maybe not . . .

  • Goggla

    Very nice piece. What I miss most about the city is that air of opportunity – that no matter how gritty and scary it may seem, there is a chance for anyone and everyone to create their star. That’s been NYC’s reputation forever…until now. There used to be a mural on the side of Mars Bar that said, “If you can make it in NYC, you can make it anywhere.” I loved it because it was true.

    • cityofstrangers

      Hi Goggla,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the opportunity is there, to some degree – or still more than most places because what happened here has happened everywhere – or everywhere desirable. But you don’t have the frontier here anymore, or the mix of people. Not much room for poor people in today’s New York, and that is the greatest loss. But who knows what the next ten years will bring . . .


  • Caleo

    Beautifully written. I moved to NYC in 1988 at the age of 18. I was lucky enough to have grown into adulthood during what turned out to be the beginning of the end of a golden age in New York’s life. I can’t really add to your perfect description, but to add that if you had told me in the early 90’s that the city would become what it is now, I would never have believed it. It still seems almost impossible to believe how much of that gritty old behemoth has vanished. As difficult as life could be, I loved every minute of it. The city itself was my best friend. The streets at night were the love of my life. Every dark, dank corner. Every trash filled doorway. All the weirdos and zombies and lost souls and cranky curmudgeons. Truly the greatest city in the world, where you could reinvent yourself as many times as you wished.
    And now, almost all gone. I feel sorry for lost souls out there, because NYC just doesn’t have room for them anymore.
    In time, the hyper renovated suburbanized armor that has been constructed over the decaying body of the old beast will break down and fade away. But for now we have memories and old pictures and night time walks through the old streets, to remind us of how amazing that time was.

    • cityofstrangers

      Hi Caleo,

      Thanks for your comment. Sorry, meant to reply sooner. I was thinking as I read your comment if I could have pictured how New York turned out in those early years – and no, I couldn’t have. Mind you – who then could have predicted the tech boom? 9-11? NY still attracts the young and different, but I wonder how many can stay – or where someone like whoever I was then would go now. Detroit? It seems almost a miracle that we could live downtown in cities like New York (or anywhere) for almost nothing, since cities had become places to flee (who, I wonder, remembers ‘Escape from New York’)?
      NY”s definitely a more liveable place now. I’m older, a little more battered – I wonder how long I’d last now in the NY of the 90’s. But it sure was fun while it lasted.


  • Sara

    This was a beautifully written piece.

    • cityofstrangers


  • Mary Panjari

    I first visited New York (I am Australian) in 1991. I stayed for 2 months in the East Village, on Second St, with a friend who still lives in the same apartment today. I loved everything! The city was certainly gritty but so amazing, I didn’t want to leave! Being in NYC was like a dream. Since then I have been back twice for a month at a time and it is still, to me, the best place ever! Sure it has changed but nothing can kill the spirit of the place.
    I know it’s self-indulgent but here is a thing I wrote about the time I have spent in the most wonderful city in the world. You might like the pics….

  • J RIO

    Great site. I have a doc I know you people would love…..check it out. Post the links!

    Two links from my doc “The Urban Eye” a pop and trash culture tour of the disappearing landmarks. Shot in the early 90’s. Let me know if you want to put up or trade links. I also have a web site. Lots of Times Square footage. Watch all 3 parts on the Thyrdeye channel


  • Jared

    Good stuff! Lovely post. I moved to NY, 10th street at Avenue A in 1989. I was a “knucklehead” kid totally in love with the idea of the LES. I didn’t make the connection that the “Mug a Yuppie” graffiti was probably aimed at me. The most telling habit I had was whenever I had to walk anywhere more than 10 blocks I would buy a quart of beer, empty it and smash the glass bottle in the street when I got to my destination. I was a wise young man (that’s sarcasm). Many great and horrible memories. By 1990 I had learned to see all the hard drugs being sold EVERYWHERE around the neighborhood and it was downhill from there. I wasn’t a knucklehead when I left. I was beaten. Again nicely written post.

  • cascia


    carlton arms used to be a junkie hotel before the 90s.

    • COS