One of the things that used to make America so distinctive was its cars. If you lived there, you would really have to go abroad for a while and then come back to appreciate the difference. In most countries of the world, cars were modest things, little bean-shaped units designed to take two or three people from here to there. In America, cars were real estate. They were enormous boats in which you could eat, sleep, make love, change clothes, throw parties, maintain an office, practice unlicensed dentistry—or take your six best friends out for a spin. They were a testament to America’s unlimited natural resources: oil, steel, rubber, naugahyde, and, above all, space. American cars could be so huge because the nation’s highways were endless, its city streets were wide, and there was abundant free parking everywhere you went. And that included New York City then, since most of its population took the subway.
I can’t stop looking at Langdon Clay’s parade of parked cars in New York in the magic years 1974-1976, arrayed like mugshots but lit like Hollywood stars. They rule the night, those Pintos and Chargers and Gremlins and Checkers and Galaxie 500s and Fairlanes and Sables and Rivieras and LeSabres and Eldorados. They unashamedly flaunt their dents, their rust spots, their mismatched doors, their liberal applications of Bondo, their repairs effected with masking tape—but then some of them revel in Butch Wax jobs like you don’t see anymore, gleaming like the twilight’s last sigh. They are parked close to the curb because they don’t want to lose their wing mirrors (although at least one of them already has), but they flout no-parking signs, fireplugs, church and school and hospital entrance regulations, because this is a city where nobody sweats the details. A couple of them have their hoods up, which tells you that they have already been stripped, so you needn’t bother to try.
The automobiles are the stars here, but the backdrops are equally striking. They immerse the viewer in the unreconstructed New York of the era between the Fun City nineteen-sixties and the land-grab madness of the eighties. Other collections of photographs documenting those years tend to focus on extremes of misery, on infrastructure breakdown, on evanescent outbreaks of colorful behavior that will disproportionately resonate in later decades. Here you see the city as it actually was. I’ve sometimes wondered where I got the idea that New York once seemed unknowable, a forest of mysteries. These pictures provide an answer. You get the titanic limestone façades of the early twentieth century and the vast impenetrable steel-curtain façades of the mid-century, all of them uncertainly tenanted. You get a hundred variations on the concept of “apartment building,” from random stabs at Miami Beach luxury to amorphous heaps that look as though they are slowly being improvised from dust and putty. You get Pat’s Hot and Cold Heroes, representative of all the holes-in-the-wall and plywood shacks that attached themselves like barnacles to the sides of any standing structure.
You get the antic Carz-a-Poppin, late of Broadway and Houston, and the century-old Everard Baths, shuttered by the city during the AIDS crisis. You get the porthole windows of the quondam Seamen’s Union building and a tiny storefront that grandly introduces itself as the National School of Dancing. You get the great cafeterias of yesteryear (that place that seems to advertise “Eggs Veal Parmigiana”), where no one troubled your reverie as long as it happened behind a cup of coffee, and any number of shops with specialties catering to a narrow demographic slice and signs dating back to some unspecified more optimistic time. You get the crisply lettered show windows and glass doors of the garment district and the fur district and the wholesale-jewelry district. You get wildcat wheat-paste postering, the pioneer days of modern graffiti, and perfectly good discarded mattresses. You get bars and lounges that would never have suffered being called “dives,” even though today they would be.
And you get the era’s sense of space. Hardly any of these cars are hemmed in by others. They are tethered to the curb like horses at the hitching post. And it is night and there are no people on the streets. I can testify to that detail: I walked around at night in Manhattan a lot in those years, and hardly ever saw anyone else. Was it fear or insularity or television or drugs that shut people in? I couldn’t tell you. But it meant that those of us who walked around felt like we owned the city, like the place was a giant stage set prepared for our solo act. Each of these cars radiates that same sense of possession, of intimacy with the night and the cyclopean metropolis. Langdon Clay photographed them with due respect, according even the most beaten of them their moment in the spotlight. He appreciates how some of them dominate their surroundings—unsurprisingly, since some are the size of three Smart cars laid end to end—and how others chameleonically blend in, like the battered white Rambler caught trying to fade into the marbled money of a Sixth Avenue bank lobby. He notes how raindrops or a light coating of snow can make a car look heroic, how an urban-grit backdrop of garbage cans and trash bags can enhance a car’s swagger, how a well-placed dent can look like a duelling scar. The cars are very likely all gone now, maybe melted down and recycled as beams in a box store on another continent, but they all, in their time, led lives of passion and intrigue, and they are here preserved in their glory.
This text was drawn from the foreword to “Langdon Clay: Cars: New York City, 1974-1976,” which is out in December from Steidl.