The 1970s were a highly recognizable era for Brooklyn, from the graffiti’d stoops to the local dress, the comparative lack of tall buildings and the ubiquity of mom and pop shops. A student at Pratt at the time, photographer Peter Bellamy captured the era on film.
Bellamy’s images prove that the more things change they stay the same, showing row houses and streetlights that are still Brooklyn fixtures today. Yet the images date themselves in subtle ways: an open field that has long since been developed, old car models and the placement of a traffic light.
Brownstoner spoke with Bellamy about the changing face of the borough, his selection of neighborhoods to photograph four decades ago, and the people who rode their horses through the Gowanus overgrowth.
What were your favorite neighborhoods to photograph?
I would stay in areas where I would be safe. A lot of them were areas off the F line.
The crime rate in Brooklyn in the 1970s was very high — I couldn’t go to Bed Stuy, Bushwick. I’d try Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst. Carroll Gardens was a safe area. I wouldn’t get mugged. I photographed a lot in different working-class white areas at that time. Photographing Greenpoint was a favorite of mine.
Were people generally open to having their pictures taken?
I had a method where I would interact with the people I took photos of. I’d go back and give them the photographs I took. If you didn’t give people the pictures, then you weren’t really safe. You were taking something without giving back.
I was taught to never let anyone know what you have or where you live. People would bug you — “Where’s my pictures?”
Tell me about the photo of the kid on the horse behind the Kentile Floors sign.
At that time that meadow there was just wide grass. These people would keep their horses there and you would see them every day when you’d go down into the F train. It was like no-man’s land. Nobody cared, nobody was there.
How do you feel about today’s Brooklyn?
In some ways Brooklyn has changed, but in some ways it went back to what it was. I think Brooklyn always changes. A lot of New York is changing incredibly fast, so it’s always worth photographing.
I moved to Brooklyn in 1974. I’m 61 now. You don’t see stickball on the street or stuff like that anymore.
When I grew up in the ’60s we’d go down and play in the abandoned buildings in Tribeca. In the ’70s I remember going down to Dumbo with my camera and building a fire to keep warm. The buildings were abandoned in Dumbo.
In what ways do you feel Brooklyn has changed in your lifetime?
In some ways what’s really changed is people used to be able to hang out more, take it easy. If your rent is like $300 or $400 a month, you can hang out in the afternoon. But now you have to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day just to keep going. That’s how life has really changed in New York: Everything’s faster. You don’t really have time to hang out.
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