“Decades are like people,” writes Frank Bruni in his opening essay for T’s Culture issue. “Some take up more oxygen than others. The 1980s were that way, most notably at the start and especially in New York City … People lived louder and larger than they had just years before.” In fact, the pitch of the city, which had emerged from near-bankruptcy and was teeming with possibility, has perhaps never been so high, or the pace so fast. Everything seemed to be happening at once, and from this blur emerged a culture forever changed — one whose clashes, laments and modes of being mirror today’s so closely and so eerily that they all but demand a second look. After all, ’81 kicked off with the inauguration of a conservative president who was no great friend to the arts, or to marginalized groups, including immigrants, the poor and those who fell outside of the conventional all-American family unit.
And so, like our own era, the period was defined by how people responded to their circumstances — how they lived, partied, railed against authority and, most importantly, what they made. Disco and punk gave way to hip-hop, which has reigned supreme ever since, with pioneers like Grandmaster Flash helping to usher in an entirely new vernacular. Art moved from the gallery to the streets and back again, as exhibition spaces in the alternative East Village scene, and then in the more established gallery district of SoHo, clamored to celebrate an up-and-coming crop of graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
It was also an important time for culinary arts — New Yorkers grew their taste for global ingredients, and perhaps at no other time has a restaurant reservation meant so much — and for fashion, in which models like Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn went from being faces to names. Meanwhile, Michael Kors and Carolina Herrera led an exciting new guard of New York City-based fashion designers. Together, these players, many of whom had arrived empty-handed, became the city’s greatest creative generation, and this issue, while shedding light on our current moment, is also a celebration of theirs.
There was a dark side to these years, of course, which didn’t stop the wave of output so much as shape it, especially in the case of gay literature: In 1981, The New York Times ran a story on a “rare cancer” seen in 41 gay men, and the shadow of what would soon be called AIDS — which disproportionately affected gay men — was cast. The disease went largely ignored by Reagan, and, as T’s Hanya Yanagihara writes in her editor’s letter, “to look back on the inhumanity and indifference with which this community was treated is to reveal a particularly shameful part of this country’s recent history.” At the same time, those years are remembered as particularly decadent. “Extravagance and AIDS: These were the yin and yang of New York,” Bruni writes — a reminder that, though the disease incited panic and much sadness, as in any time of crisis, people were forced to do what they could, and city life went on.
More so than now, the type of life one lived in the city was determined by just where on the island one was. “Uptown” and “Downtown” were still meaningful terms, with apartment decor signaling strict allegiance to either region. But that’s not to say people didn’t venture out. In the middle was Times Square, home to a thriving theater scene that also spread downtown, in which actors like Cynthia Nixon and LaTanya Richardson Jackson built their careers. And scattered from Harlem to Midtown down to then-emerging neighborhoods like Chelsea, TriBeCa and the East Village were several hundred clubs, from Danceteria to the Mudd Club, where different types of artists converged, closing out their disjointed days with rather wild nights. As Yanagihara writes, “If you want a compelling case that, yes, we arriviste New Yorkers may have indeed missed the party, one has only to look to the 36 months between the beginning of 1981 and the end of 1983.”