NYC in the 80s, yuppie person edition?
June 29, 2020 8:20 AM   Subscribe

If you were a fresh college (white) grad from the midwest working as an accountant at a magazine, or a kid from Yale working as an i-banker at JP Morgan, or working in a non profit as a program manager, what was life like? Where did you live and socialize? Anecdotes, movies, articles are great. The 'normal' yuppie version of Magazine piece of this would be great.

Did your friends and family think that you would be mugged and killed anytime you talked to them when you went home? How did you travel home? What was considered "no-go" areas? Did you take a car service to work? What time of night did you stop taking the subway? What neighborhoods did you go out drinking and eating? Did you bring cars to the city? Did you know anyone that lived in the outer boroughs, or even visited Brooklyn?

I have this conception from movies that the perception from a specific type of New Yorker (the white educated transplant) was that the Upper East Side was kind of the green zone and alot more people met their friends at diners o dive bars, rather than semi upscale spots. From anecdotes it also seemed like driving and finding parking in areas (now gentrified) was easy. I don't know if this is true, but my perception.

I understand perceptions of NYC differ greatly on who you are, what social-economic status you are, when you moved to NYC, etc. Someone who grew up in Bronx has a different idea of someone who grew up in Virginia, went to Cornell and works in private equity-- then and now. I also recognize that these perceptions are often times blatantly or subtly racist.
posted by sandmanwv to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read Bright Lights Big City?
posted by kevinbelt at 8:26 AM on June 29, 2020

Definitely recommend the Last Days of Disco.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:30 AM on June 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Yes, though writer seems not “normal” enough.
posted by sandmanwv at 8:31 AM on June 29, 2020

The archives of New York Magazine are online and they're all about that, though they're hard to search. A lot of good stuff here, though.

Also, it's satirical but I still think The Pheromone's YuppieDrone is a perfect encapsulation of the time (though not NYC focused)
posted by Mchelly at 8:40 AM on June 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you’d be interested in the following longform articles from NY Mag (I bet there’s tons more relevant to this question in their archive: on Robert Chambers (the “Preppy Killer”) and on the death of Robert Worth Bingham IV.
posted by sallybrown at 8:52 AM on June 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Spy Magazine is also completely online. For example, the April 1988 issue has a feature on "Is there life in other boroughs?" (Not related, but the guy on the cover of that issue looks familiar. On of those brash NYC real estate developers who became a minor 80's celebrity. Wonder what ever happened to him.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:01 AM on June 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

A couple notes from someone who was just starting college at NYU in 1988:

"Did your friends and family think that you would be mugged and killed anytime you talked to them when you went home?"

Ohhhh, yes. My father famously spent the entire four-hour drive from Eastern Connecticut to New York City, the day they brought me to college, trying to talk me out of it. (He thought he was being all subtle by pretending I'd somehow gotten cold feet myself and he was trying to tell me I didn't have to do it if I didn't want to.) Actually GETTING mugged in 1989 didn't help that much, but the fact that it was an extremely low-impact mugging softened the blow.

"What was considered "no-go" areas? Did you take a car service to work? What time of night did you stop taking the subway?"

Some geography first: in these days, NYU was basically confined to the periphery of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I lived in student housing on 5th Avenue and 10th Street, and most of my classes were either a couple blocks south just off the park, or at my acting studio at 15th and Union Square. So I walked everywhere, and tended to stick close to home. Other drama students went to other acting studios in the Times Square area and tended to take subways.

Even so, and even though it was so close, the unofficial word-of-mouth was that we should avoid Alphabet City - there was even a bit of folklore meant to talk about how Avenues A through D got more "dangerous" the further east you went ("A stands for Aware, B stands for Borderline, C stands for Careful, and D stands for Dead"). I arrived RIGHT after the riots in Tompkins Square Park though, so there was an aggressive police presence there - which ultimately lured some of the more adventurous students to the bars on Avenue A, which lead to that part of the city slowly gentrifying after that. The school office where I did my work-study moved from Broadway to 2nd Avenue in 1990, and I remember feeling daring that I was going so far east now.

I didn't really take the subways all that much unless I was going on an errand or to a museum, and that usually happened during the day.

"What neighborhoods did you go out drinking and eating? […]Did you know anyone that lived in the outer boroughs, or even visited Brooklyn?"

Living in the East Village/Greenwich Village area, which was pretty "vibey" anyway, meant I stuck close to home for entertainment. Also I was a broke college student so I didn't do much night life.

I may have ventured to Brooklyn once or twice, and had a college friend who at some point moved to Hoboken (and had a bit of an adventure trying to get home on the PATH that same night because someone had gone streaking in the PATH tunnel), but most of us were in the dorms, or in apartments in that area. Brooklyn wasn't "Brooklyn" then, though - as late as 1994, I remember joking with a roommate that there should be some kind of law that if any couple broke up, one half of the couple should agree to move to Brooklyn "so you don't run into each other all the time". We kept joking about how Brooklyn was "Ex-boyfriend storage" for a good while. (The fact that I now live in Brooklyn and LOVE it means I think life had the last laugh.)

...Again, this is from the perspective of someone who was in college in NYC during the late 80s, and there was a bit of "sheltered bubble" going on. However, NYU's "campus" is not a gated section of the city, so we were still kind of mixed-in with the city.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

I moved to Morningside Heights (immediate vicinity of Columbia Univ) in the late 70s. My parents' friends told me to live out in Rego Park or Forest Hills, a thousand miles away in Queens. Yeah, right.

There was a cat sitter I tried to hire who refused to work for me because she'd have to take the subway up through the 90s, which she called "an interesting area."
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:32 AM on June 29, 2020

I was in high school in the late eighties, but still going out and getting drunk and coming home on the subway, so some informative experience. There wasn't really a time of night that was too late to ride the subway -- it was more dangerous than it is now, but sort of 'risk of getting mugged every couple of years' rather than 'don't go there at all.' There were a lot more neighborhoods that were not so much dangerous as kind of dead -- very few restaurants or bars or retail, just warehouses or industrial uses. Like, the whole West Side north of the Village up to around Times Square was kind of dull in terms of going out. Although come to think, Limelight was on 20th and 6th, but that was kind of an outpost of the fun downtown area, which was generally 14th St and south.

The Upper West Side was recognizably kind of like it is now, but cheaper. More diners, fewer nice restaurants, fewer chains, more little service stores like shoe repair or hardware stores. And it didn't go all the way up to the Columbia neighborhood, there was an area south of Columbia and north of the UWS that was poorer and understood to be dangerous. I had a grad student friend who lived on West 94th in maybe 1989, and her block had abandoned houses with people selling drugs out of them.

Noplace in Brooklyn or Queens was fun/fashionable. There were nice safe neighborhoods with middle class people in them, and poorer more dangerous places, but no place really where you'd have young twenty-somethings going out.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:27 AM on June 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

On a pleasure trip to NYC early this century with a co-worker, we spent a lot of time remarking (or he did, and I listened) to how DRASTIC the changes had been even by that point in Manhattan. We went to bars in the Meatpacking district, e.g., and were safe as houses, which is NOT something he would've done as a baby lawyer there in 1986.

He had some pretty great stories of his summer associate schedule: to work at a normal time, do the 8 hours, home for a nap, then up and out by 10 or so for night life until 1 or 2. Then back home for 2nd Sleep, and up again the next day. Obviously, once he graduated it was much more regimented.

(Sounds like EmpressCallipygos was at NYU at the same time as my pal Jason, who went on to found 2 different Houston theater companies.)
posted by uberchet at 10:46 AM on June 29, 2020

Me: Graduated from college in CT and moved to NYC in 1986, and worked in the marketing dept at one of The Magazines trying to get my "foot in the door" to editorial. The first day of work, my boss literally gave me a copy of the The Yuppie Handbook and said "Read this, it is who we are and who we want to be!" Instead of dying inside I took notes.

1. I lived first in the Financial District, which was empty and weird after 5, using the subway stop in the Twin Towers; then in Washington Heights, then Morningside Heights; my best friends lived in Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Fort Greene and Astoria. All these people were new college grads from top universities, not all were White but most were, most were from the east coast, midwest or west coast. Back then, my boyfriend lived in a huge, I mean enormous light-filled loft in Carroll Gardens for under 600/month for the whole place, shared by 3 people. There was no doorknob on the outer building door, just a strange rope through a hole in the door, then a staircase to a few apartments. The whole block was considered "safe" because Italian grandmas sat in folding chairs outside all day and greeted us in a very conscious way, like "We know what's up around here." Park Slope was attracting young gentrifiers, Fort Greene was rapidly gentrifying but rents were cheap. My apt. share when I moved to W. 106th St on the UWS in 1988 was $180 for a maid's room in a 3 bedroom.
2. My family was worried about mugging etc but to be fair, I was indeed mugged 5 times in the 80s, once at gunpoint and once at knifepoint, once being kneeled on by 4 boys who had knocked me to the ground in Prospect Park. I brought a young homeless woman home once to give her something to eat, she lived on my block, and one of her former friends got jealous and punched me in the nose next time I went outside, giving me a black eye. So yeah, there was some pearl clutching by parents, but the city was also at a time when inequality had not been swept under the rug and encounters between people from different worlds of privilege was much more evident, in ways that simply made the insane inequity of NYC more explicit than it is now.
3. Having a car in NYC was not a normal thing for people like me. You would not want to have to deal with moving your car etc etc, and yes it was still hard to find a parking space. When I had a car in the city briefly, it was immediately broken into for the radio. If you did have a car, it was normal to take your radio out with you, and put a sign with "No radio" in the window. Once my car was totalled, & my friend took the car radio out and left it with a sign taped to it, "No Car."
4. We went to the clubs in Manhattan every weekend -- SOBs, Limelight, CBGB -- and to bars in Brooklyn. I barely remember where we ate out. I think it was mostly pizza walking down the street, sushi for a treat.
5. Once I stayed overnight in Astoria. On my way to the subway in the morning I stopped to buy a paper at a kiosk. The Greek man selling the papers took note of my 20-something 80s clothes and said "Are you from Manhattan?" Still, it was starting to gentrify.
6. I had an artist friend who found a space to paint and took me to her loft there in 1986. I was like "Where the hell is this neighborhood, where are we?" She said it was fantastic and cheap for painting spaces would soon be the place to be. I secretly thought she was completely wrong. It was Williamsburg.

ps My foot never got the rest of the way in the door to Editorial at The Magazine, after a while I quit and worked in a bookstore then went to grad school.)
posted by nantucket at 11:28 AM on June 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

pps Two more things to consider: I remember feeling there was a difference between people who graduated after the financial crash of 1987 and those who had come before, even a year before. The prospects were bleaker for new grads after Black Monday. AND...After grad school and a stint/first job elsewhere I moved back to Morningside Heights in the 1990s where I then lived for the next 15 years. During my time away in the 1990s, the city was insidiously scrubbed out. Giuliani had done his thing. It all seemed to happen very fast.
posted by nantucket at 12:10 PM on June 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I shared apartments with a high school friend first in the east 80s and then in Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill. For a couple of years we lived in a lovely two bedroom above a deli owned by a great young Peruvian family.

No Internet, so I usually looked at the Village Voice to find out what was going on over the weekend. And in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan you could tune in WFMU which was still at Upsala College in East Orange, NJ at the time.

For a brief shining moment you could get into The World for $5, where disco had a brief renaissance. CBGB was still around and the Tompkins Square uprising was just about to start.

And you could date via the Village Voice personals. Alt weekly personals were the precursor to Tindr, although a lot of people shunned them as sketch.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:26 PM on June 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Hm I am not 100% sure if my stuff will be helpful. It's a little later than you're looking for (early 90s) and I was not rich (baby journalist). But I was in my early twenties, just a few years post-college.

-- I lived at 54th and 1st and that was unusual for my friend group: pretty much everyone else lived in the East Village. I think I paid maybe $1300/mo. My friend paid $3500 in the East Village & I remember I found that shocking.

-- Yes, my parents worried about me, and when we talked on the phone they would say things about how they hoped I wasn't going out late at night by myself. When I first moved to the city walking crosstown late at night sometimes felt scary (because the streets are so much quieter than the avenues), and every now and then I'd be startled by someone sitting on their stoop in the dark. The subways were also occasionally scary, if it was late and you were by yourself. Like, if there was a group of drunk guys, or you + just one man, or a really aggressive panhandler. But in general the city felt safe.

-- I took the subway everywhere. I was constantly on the subway. I did not take a car service to work lol, nor did I know anyone who did. And nobody brought cars into the city. The only person I knew who owned a car was one friend who lived in Brooklyn, who had inherited it from her mom. She used it only once that I remember, to take a bunch of us to Jones Beach.

-- Everything EmpressCallipygos said about Alphabet City is dead on and made me laugh :)

-- I used to go to a lot of places that people like me otherwise wouldn't have gone to, because of my work. Like Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, the Bronx, East Harlem. I remember when I'd get off the subway in (parts of) Brooklyn, there were so many crack vials on the ground, they would crunch loudly under my feet. Like a half-inch-thick layer of crack vials all around the subway entrance, literally. And if you stopped to get a burger or a sandwich, there would be a thick bulletproof plexiglass shield separating you from the people behind the counter.

-- We ate & drank mostly around the East Village. There was a restaurant called El Sombrero that sold margaritas to go and we would drink them in the park. We ate at Two Boots and Three of Cups. My slightly snazzier (older, richer) friends used to eat at a bistro called Jules. I was obsessed with Decibel, a sort of punk sake bar in a basement that served instant ramen in a paper cup. And of course we went to endless shitty dive bars.

-- I knew one person in Brooklyn (Park Slope) and one in Astoria. But yes, in general the bridges/tunnels were a huge psychological barrier and most people I knew never ever left Manhattan.

Thank you for asking this question, it was fun to answer :)
posted by Susan PG at 7:23 PM on June 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh - if you can get your hands on it, the very very very last episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown was about the East Village, and was a sort of compare-and-contrast about the East Village of the 1980s and the East Village of today.

The 80s were when Tony was in a somewhat chaotic personal phase, so some of the places it goes discuss the seedier side of the East Village (there's one scene where Tony's on a streetcorner and pointing out the various other corners and stoops where he made various drug connections), but it also deals with the punks and the anarchists and the club and bar scene that was here at that time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on June 30, 2020

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