The summer of '78, in living color

| 16 May 2018 | 02:46


The parks were a sanctuary for his subjects. During the turbulent summer and fall of 1978, the city's open spaces would be a revelation for D. Gorton.

“The parks more than anything I went through illustrated how big Gotham was,” Gorton, a photojournalist with The New York Times from the early 1970s into the 1980s, said last week.

“They gave you an insight into the length and breadth of the city,” he said. “When I got into the parks, I got an expansion of the mind.”

Idled by a pressmen's strike in August of that year, Gorton and seven of his Times colleagues were hired, by an initially wary Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, to record life in the city's parks.

The eight photographers — Gorton, Neal Boenzi and the paper's first female shooter, Joyce Dopkeen, among them — together made 2,924 images on sharp, expansive Kodachrome and Ektachrome. “We're talking hardcore,” Gorton said of the film. “And we knew how to hold our hands still.”

For about 12 weeks, they trekked through the city's 25,000 acres of withered parkland, chronicling what they found there: a man roasting an entire pig in Prospect Park; another playing drums in a weed-strewn Randall's Island parking lot; a couple smoking a joint behind a Central Park concession stand; children flying a kite at Rockaway Beach, steps from a fire-scarred pier.

For 40 years, no one saw the results. The nearly 3,000 images were nestled in boxes in a Central Park Conservancy office, untouched by hands or light. None were printed until last year. The slides were pristine. And illuminating.

Sixty-five are on view at The Central Park Arsenal through June 14.

DISARRAYThe city that August was just two years removed from the brink of bankruptcy, and just a summer on from the last of the Son of Sam killings and a crippling, mayhem-filled 25-hour citywide blackout that spilled into riots, looting and arson.

Its roads and bridges were crumbling; its subway bedevilled by tinpot stock, crime and graffiti; its police officers and firefighters chastened by massive layoffs; its population near a post-Great Depression low; its homicide rate hovering at record highs.

“The city was hemorrhaging people, jobs and public confidence,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University and the editor of “The Encyclopedia of New York City.” The 1970s, he said, “were just about the nadir of the city's 400 years.”

Parks, along with pools and libraries, were budgetary casualties. Years of spending and staffing cuts had rendered the city's open spaces to little more than a collection of litter-strewn dirt lots with broken toilets and tumbledown amenities.

“By the time I got here, it was like a person that needed 12 bypasses,” Davis, who was appointed Parks commissioner in January 1978 by the newly elected mayor, Ed Koch, said of the city's parks system. “All the arteries were clogged.”

Nevertheless, people came, on their own or in groups, to Central Park, Riverside Park, Battery Park City, Washington Square Park.

LOOKING AHEADIf Gorton and his colleagues, hauling pricey equipment on the meaner streets, sensed they were particularly vulnerable, the city also held a singular allure, its flaws, eccentricities and vitality in full bloom. There were few, if any, more intriguing and challenging places on the planet to be doing photojournalism. Working for The Times was a prospect that allowed you to think, “I own this fucking town,” Gorton said.

Gorton was hired by The Times following stints shooting for Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “I was a bit more of an ideologically motivated photographer,” he said.

Those sentiments would influence and inspire his work that summer. “I was really taken with the poor, powerless, marginal people who at the time made up most of the people” in the parks, he said from his home in Carbondale, Illinois. “I was interested in the social dynamics of people — what are people doing, who are they, where are they from. I thought it was important.”

Gorton, then in his mid-30s, and his colleagues made pictures of cricketers in Van Cortlandt Park, plein air painters in Pelham Bay Park, sunbathers at Orchard Beach, people reading, couples kibbitzing, a woman sleeping.

Among the photographs at The Arsenal in Central Park is one of participants in that year's Puerto Rican Fiesta Folklorica, taken in all likelihood by Gorton from upper Bethesda Terrace. Hundreds are gathered around “Angels of the Waters,” the fountain below. To the left of the frame, in the middle distance, is a young man, one pant leg rolled up, atop one of one the west steps' pillars. He is staring at us, his look hard, challenging.

Davis, the parks commissioner, likened him to a centurion or a Greek statue. “You don't really know what's in his mind. But one of the things that's in his mind, is 'I'm here and you're there and I'm looking right at you. And this is my space. And that's why I'm standing here,'” Davis said at The Arsenal earlier this month. “It's almost as if he were looking at me.”

REGENERATIONJonathan Kuhn, the director of art and antiquities for the Parks Department who curated the exhibit, said he sought to convey in his choice of photographs the multiplicity of New Yorkers' experiences and attitudes during that epoch.

“I wanted to show this contrast and sometimes collision between the decayed nature of the parks at that time and the sheer joy of the people using them,” he said. “I was interested in this moment where we had sort of bottomed out. Either we were going to take back the parks or they were going to cease to be relevant.”

The parks would, in time, blossom again. Davis, speaking about the Fiesta Folklorica photo, had reason to recall the occasion: It was the first time in about five years that water was flowing in the fountain.

He again imagined the young man's thoughts: “OK, you got the water in the fountain. What else are you going to do to make things better?”

Davis, widely credited for sparking the city parks' renaissance, got to work. During his five-year tenure as commissioner, Bryant Park was rehabilitated, Central Park's Sheep Meadow and Great Lawn were rejuvenated, and that park's cast-iron bridges rebuilt.

He also commissioned a full-scale restoration of Central Park, much of which would be managed and funded by the private, nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, which he helped found in 1980.

Gradually, then in droves, runners, cyclists, birdwatchers, baseball players, hikers and walkers, including Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and her children, would flock to the park.

Four decades on from that hardscrabble summer, Central Park's Kentucky bluegrass and ryegrass are thriving, vibrant symbols, maybe, of so much regeneration.

“It's become very beautiful,” Rogers, who was appointed Central Park administrator by Koch in 1979 and was instrumental in the creation the Conservancy, said this week. “It's this great civic triumph.”

Kuhn, the curator, said that parks are the ultimate measure of a city's health.

“There are few places in life where we all come together. Cities at their essence are such places and parks within cities compound that collective experience,” he said. “That was conveyed so boldly in these slides.”

The Times photographers, he said, “had a knack for getting people in unguarded moments.”

They did so in bright vivid, tones. The Times, ever regal, would print its first color photo on the paper's front page only in 1997. Two decades before that, during an unsettled summer, Gorton and his colleagues took the temperature of a city buffeted from within and without. For at least one of them, the occasion would be rejuvenating, and inspiring.

“Being in the parks was such a lovely thing,” Gorton said. “If you're going to be living a pressure cooker, you get to relax a bit. It's a beautiful thing. And you learn.”