Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
"A New York Project" invites participants to step into New York City's past—starting with a pop-up subway party with the original Guardian Angels.
The graffiti was scrawled on plastic sheeting that covered the walls and windows of the subway car rather than on the walls and windows themselves. The atmosphere was festive, not grim. The air conditioning was working. People riding the train—and dancing to Prince and other vintage tracks—thought nothing of waving around pocket computers (a.k.a. cellphones) that cost a few hundred bucks and would be easy targets for an enterprising thief.
In other words, it was nothing like the 1980s.
But it was the ’80s that were being celebrated on one car of the G train in Brooklyn last Friday night. This 15-stop ride back in time was the launch party, in effect, of something called A New York Project, the brainchild of 25-year-old Shaina Stigler. Over the course of a year, Stigler, an improv comedian with a theatrical background, plans to stage numerous events that will invite New Yorkers to step back into decades past—up to a century back.
Stigler says she picked the grimy, traumatic, and glorious ’80s as a starting point somewhat randomly. “I thought it would be amazing to do something on the train,” she says. “It’s mobile and it encourages participation.” That led her to think about the most vivid images of New York subway culture: the dark, graffiti-splashed cars that ran the rails in the ’80s. And so she started planning a takeover with some of her many friends from the world of performing and visual arts.
Stigler is aware that someone like me—who lived through the ’80s in New York for real, dealing with the fallout from AIDS and crime and Reaganism and racial violence —could take all this nostalgia the wrong way, as an overly naïve trip down a memory lane where there’s no danger of getting mugged.
“I definitely agree with that idea,” she says. “It’s easy for us to say—we live in a safe city, it’s beautiful now. The ’80s were really fucking scary and hard.” Stigler says that even with that awareness, a lot of people in her generation feel that they’ve missed out on something vital, a New York of possibility, resiliency, and creativity that came out of necessity. The old New York.
Her desire to try to regain some of that energy is what A New York Project is all about. And the brief, illicit Friday night run showed that she might be on to something. "Granted, it was a little risky,” she says. “I probably wasn’t as worried as I should have been.”
Stigler and a team of accomplices decked out the car with the graffitied plastic, decorated by artist and tagger Sin 2, during its five-minute layover at Greenpoint’s Nassau Street station, currently the northern end of the line. Meanwhile, a crowd of attendees decked out in ’80s-style outfits, most of whom had heard about the project through friends and Facebook, waited one station down at Metropolitan Avenue.
When the train pulled in, everyone piled on and the party got started immediately, with a friend of Stigler’s named Oscar Montoya MCing an impromptu “ball” recalling the gay drag balls made famous in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. Members of the friendly, raucous crowd—many of whom had yet to be born when the decade being celebrated ended—strutted their stuff down the packed car to hoots and cheers, sashaying around the poles and sometimes getting thrown to the floor by a sudden stop.
“I think the ball is a metaphor for life in New York in general,” says Stigler, who moved to the city seven years ago. “It's a place for people who don’t have a voice to go, this magical place to be who they actually are. To me, that’s why people move to New York. It's to be who you actually are.”
About half an hour after they boarded and a few miles down the tracks, the crowd piled out again to head to a local bar for an afterparty, while Stigler and her core crew scrambled to clean up the evidence before they reached the other end of the line. Some of the plastic film proved harder to remove than she had anticipated, but her fellow New Yorkers stepped up. “Regular commuters started helping us,” she says.
That wasn’t the only surprise assistance Stigler got that night. Among those showing up unexpectedly for the ride were a couple of original members of the Guardian Angels, the still-extant grassroots group that formed in the city’s crime-ridden darkest days to patrol the streets and subways (not without controversy).
They had been called into action by the group’s founder, Curtis Sliwa, who read about Stigler’s time-travel experiment, and her plans to include performers in Guardian Angel costumes, in the Daily News.
One real Angel who heeded Sliwa’s call was a middle-aged Coney Island native who goes by the Angel name of Crazy J. He still proudly wears the red beret and jacket of the group and he thought Stigler’s train trip to the past was inspired. “I think it’s great,” he told me at Metropolitan Avenue before we rolled out. “This is my era.” He and his partner kept people safely away from the edge of the platform before they got on board, and once the party was underway he stuck his head out at each station to look for any trouble. There was a faint hint of the ’80s in the air, exactly as Stigler had hoped.
“My generation romanticizes that time,” Stigler says. “I think as artists in particular, we are definitely feeling a lack of authenticity in the city. As it gets cleaned up and made more beautiful, it’s lost a lot of what made it great to begin with. Back then it was more of a life or death thing. It was, How much are you willing to risk to be an artist or whatever you want to be? Through that adversity and through that struggle, amazing, beautiful things can happen.”