New York City in the 1970’s was a wild place and time, the site of my own roaring twenties. I was Long Island girl, who after college and “coming out” moved to The City and fell madly in love with it. While working as a freelance illustrator, I carried my medium format camera everywhere- photographing the streets by day and the volcanic club scenes at night.
When Studio 54 opened in April ‘77 there were always throngs waiting and wanting in. To stand out from the crowd, I’d help design flamboyant costumes for my friend Judi Jupiter – a different one every night. We’d sashay up and she’d call out to the doorman, Then, as if by magic, the red velvet rope would part the crowd, and in we’d go to dance and photograph the night away. Every week a new disco popped up, and we’d hit the hottest ones, especially on opening night.
July 13, 1977 was to be a momentous evening at Studio 54. One of the owners invited Judi, ostensibly to see our work, to be his personal guest. But if you invited Judi, Meryl came along. Oh yes, I was excited –we were gaining entrée to the legendary private rooms reserved for the stars!
But while getting ready at my place – BAM! The lights went out. Studio 54 and all of NYC was closed. In the following days, the city felt like a small town. I photographed people hanging out on the street as headlines and radio blasted news about a place I never heard of before – Bushwick. It was burning, with looting and rioting that went on and on. A few days later, we were back partying.
I began working as a C.E.T.A. photographer (the WPA of the 1970’s) documenting Jewish New York by day and continuing to hit the discos at night. Judi got a job bartending at Go-Go bars. I visited, the scene was fascinating, so I got a side job “hostessing” at Go-Go bars and made great tips. Sometimes, I drew and photographed the customers and dancers. In my makeshift darkroom/bathroom I would develop the film, cut the negatives, place them in sleeves, labeled them like a visual diary in binders and put them away- never showing the outrageous nightlife photos to anyone, for decades.
In 1979 I started teaching art in the New York City public school system; workdays began at 8am. Classroom management and planning on weekends put a hard brake on most of my nightlife activities. Finally, I was offered a full time teaching position with benefits, in of all places- Bushwick. On my first day, exiting from the subway, I actually wondered if the previous art teacher had been killed. The streets looked like a war zone. To me, the natural light of the area was so beautiful, the kids were kids, and the vacant buildings practically whispered stories. I taught in Bushwick for 14 years carrying a point & shoot camera loaded with color slide film and photographed what I saw. The slides were labeled in boxes and put away.
After retirement from teaching in 2010, I started revealing large bodies of unseen work in the form of books and exhibits. I’m still at it. There is so much to go through. In retrospective, I realize that to me, photography is a form of memoir. Each of us are witnesses to and participants in history in the making.
The whole disco scene emerged at the cusp of Woodstock, the Stonewall riot, the fight for civil rights and the struggle for women’s rights, just before the scourge of AIDS/HIV swept in. Bushwick slowly rose again to become a vibrant neighborhood struggling with gentrification. As a nation we have made some progress, but these social issues reverberate, pushed dangerously backwards by the current administration.
Today, we are in the midst of the CoVid-19 pandemic. As of July 04, 2020, NY State has 221K confirmed cases and 31,836 deaths. The USA has 2,919,710 confirmed cases and 132,217 deaths. Our country is in health, social and economic turmoil. Systemic racism spurs demonstrations for Black Lives Matters. The decisions we make day to day, from something as small as putting on a mask and social distancing, can literally have life or death consequences. We are facing a most important election in November. Please make sure to help get out the vote. How will history look upon us decades from now?
As a country and state, we have faced tough times before. With determination, wise government, science and people working together for the greater good- we can and must rise again.