“Hell on Wheels” is a Joyous Ride Through the New York Underground from 1977-1984
Warm and faded colors of yesterday, oversaturated with blues and yellows, create a nostalgic haze that will envelope you with a warm embrace… reminding us of a time that has come and gone in just about every single way.
Willy Spiller’s photographs of the New York City subway system circa 1979 capture the feeling of the city at a crucial time. Two years after the brink of bankruptcy, the city struggled to come back from abject neglect and abuse under the federal government’s policy of benign neglect. As white flight took hold and the city was abandoned en masse, what remained with the True Yorkers who would not—or could not—leave the city that never sleeps.
Instead they made good in a world that bred poverty, crime, and despair—shining light a light at the end of the tunnel (you know the one, you can see it when you ride in the front car). At a time when there were 250 serious crimes per week on the trains alone, New Yorkers were resolute, refusing to abandon their home. Perhaps then, as never before, there was a feeling of camaraderie that understood—we’re all in this together, for better or for worse.
Spiller’s photographs are a testimony to this, bringing back the heart that beat deep beneath the city’s breast. Collected together in Hell on Wheels: Photographs from the New York Underground (1977-1984) (Sturm & Drang), the book is a kaleidoscope of life on the city’s massive subway transit system.
The beauty of Spiller’s work is that it is personable; this is no search for the sensational. These are the photographs of a man who rode the trains to work, every day back and forth from his home downtown to his job at Lincoln Center. As a recent arrival from Zurich, Switzerland, Spiller didn’t try to be cool or jaded. He enjoyed the city with a wide-eyed innocence that allowed him to absorb it all, discovering the pleasure to life at its most mundane: the daily commute to and fro on the trains.
The result is one that speaks of the city as so many of us remember it, of a place filled with beautiful people who were simply regular folk. At a time when the city was broke, it was a space for pure originality and creativity essential to the human spirit. Everyone had a look that spoke to their lives, a pure authentic energy that was anything but contrived.
As Tobia Bezzola writes in the book’s introduction, “Willy Spiller doesn’t discover darkness in the underground but rather an idiosyncratic, vivid realm of its own. It’s a shimmering, glitzy world where flickering neon and electric flashes dance together and plumes of stale, warm air fill the place—not unlike a discotheque on rails. “
Spiller’s gift was capturing the sheer humanity of the times, of the humble beauty of New York when no one gave an F about it. For all the government cared, it could fall into the ocean—but True Yorkers did not abandon the city or each other. Hell on Wheels is pure magic in its quiet embrace of the day-to-day reality that has all but been erased.
All photos: SUBWAY NEW YORK, 1977-1984 © by Willy Spiller 2016, courtesy of Sturm & Drang.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.