Thursday, June 2, 2016

When Hidden City Philadelphia posted a collection of photographs from 1981, they blew up the internet. News of the story spread so fast that their servers literally crashed, and were down for an entire day.

Hidden City contributor Rachel Hildebrandt stumbled upon a collection of 193 photographs on eBay taken by an unknown artist. Evident in the internet's reaction, these images reflect an era for which we have a profound fascination. And it's not just in Philadelphia. From New York to Los Angeles, collections have been curated across the internet showcasing what are arguably the bleakest moments in America's urban history. 

Baz Lurhmann's upcoming Netflix Original, The Get Down, is even set in a grimy New York when CBGB and 54 were household names. The Get Down's trailer is full of the same yellows and oranges we've come to associate with those decades, images we attempt to recreate with Instagram filters. 

So why are we so fascinated, almost obsessed with this dark era? Why, when we have endless collections sourced from city archives showcasing feats of engineering and lifestyles long since laid to rest, are we so intrigued by a collection of snapshots featuring the mundane lives of everyday Philadelphians, New Yorkers, and Los Angeleans during an era many of us remember, and even more would like to forget?

In some ways it's to be expected. Those in the '70s and '80s delved heavily into the nostalgia of the '50s and '60s with shows like Happy Days, musicals like Grease, and a resurgence of midcentury themed diners. People are interested in their history, seemingly more so when we're not so far removed from it. But those in the '70s and '80s were also living in an era of long gas lines, economic uncertainty, and the very lives we see in the photographs discovered by Hildebrandt. For those people, looking to the past was an escape. The '50s and '60s were fraught with flaws and fights, but many today still look at Levittown images of the happy homemaker, martini in hand, awaiting her husband as the ideal of a simpler place and time.

Hidden City Philadelphia

What is it about the discourse and poverty of an era so many desperately wanted to escape that intrigues us so much today? And why, if we are so enamored by these nostalgic yellow and orange images, are we still trying to eradicate every lingering shred left through gentrification, popup beer gardens, and sidewalk brunch? Do we have it so good today that we are beginning to long for the muck?

Probably. The fallacy of a utopia is that humans thrive when forced to struggle. But today's cushy Center City lives are plagued by urban guilt. These photographs stand out because those in them are much better people than we've become. We want to be like them, but only if we can keep our stuff. 

It's a common trope of the Millennial hipster to seek out neighborhoods and cities that beg to be called "real." Today, that realism is indicated by tokens of urban grit: bodegas with rusted signage, graffiti, Pabst Blue Ribbon, often in neighborhoods associated with poverty or crime. But today's nostalgic urbanites look for gestures the way we look at these photographs, at arm's length. It would be easy to have moved to Philadelphia in the late '90s or early 2000s and simply become part of its culture, and most did before 2004. But that would have meant sacrificing a consulting position at 50 on Red for a retail job at Sun Ray Drugs, and not being judged by our King of Prussia counterparts. 

If you look closely at these photographs, you see the deeper reason many are so fascinated. You see a humble sense of happiness in the collection's subjects. We see a smiling man sitting on his stoop reading the newspaper. We see women getting on a bus, talking to each other instead of staring at iPhones. We see abandoned buildings and retail signage probably painted by the business owner paired with passersby who aren't looking back in disgust. 

We see contentment. And we haven't been content in a very long time. 

Still, what we see in these photographs is no more real than the world we live in, and that's exactly why we continue to embrace the technologies that both compliment and consume our lives. It's just different, and unlike photographs from the 1890s or the Gilded Age, the people in these photographs are just different enough for us to relate to.

Even in today's world of limitless photography, snapshots fail to tell the entire story. What we see, and what we're so fascinated with, is a distortion of an era's reality. We project our own sense of the world on our past when we see a man patiently waiting in a traffic jam. Without a caption, we'll never know the stories behind these people. But there is still a sense of longing that forces us to make those projections.

Like our parents' affinity for the happy days amid office pools of humming fax machines and dot matrix printers, our fascination with these photographs speak to modernity's own conflicting disconnect between our quest for progress and convenience, and a longing for the past. We'll never have 1981's gritty reality paired with Starbucks and a 24 hour newsfeed in our pocket, and someday soon, the next generation will be scouring the archives of Instagram to curate the nostalgic world of the 2010s, longing for our own simpler times. 

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