When Crack Was King: 1980s New York In Photos

Television shows like Girls and Sex and the City present a New York City where the “worst” that can happen on a wild night out is accidentally losing your debit card or your integrity. But until recently, the city could be a pretty terrifying place. In the 1980s, crime was at an all-time high, and use of the new and cheap drug of choice, crack cocaine, grew incredibly quickly.

1980s new york money

Signage touting the importance of what not many had – money, 1986. Source: Horvatland

As some among the city’s homeless populations would nod off in subway stations, rich lawyers and execs were increasingly reliant on cocaine–and yet suffered far less severe sentences, should they even be charged for illicit drug use.

The police force had dwindled down significantly in response to the city’s dire economic recession and budget cuts, which meant that New York was ill-equipped to handle the subsequent barrage of criminal activity that plagued the streets. By 1990, annual homicides in New York peaked at 2,245.

Said former NYC DEA agent Robert Stutman, “Crack literally changed the entire face of the city. Street violence had grown. Child abuse had grown hugely. Spousal abuse. I had a special crack violence file that I kept to convince the geniuses in Washington who kept telling me it wasn’t a problem.”

The 1980s greatly tested the city’s strength, but photographers on the ground found a way to capture moments of normalcy amid the chaos, and eternalized them through film. This gallery evokes a macabre post-Vietnam nostalgia; when drugs smashed poverty, violence and excess together and the Big Apple saw just how rotten it could become:

1980s new york sleeping
1980s new york father and son
1980s new york balloons
1980s new york coney island aquarium
When Crack Was King: 1980s New York In Photos
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Want more historical New York? Check out this sequence of terrifying local NYC news teasers from the 1980s:

And then this documentary short, A Most Violent Year, which explores the multifaceted problems New York City faced in 1981:

And before you go, be sure to see what Harlem looked like in the 70s, 1980s New York subways and New York City in the summer of 1969!

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.
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