Travel Back In Time: Growing Up NYC during the 80’s and 90’s

Apache and I have watched NYC transform and not only in the way of new business approaches but also the culture which I would say is more of a feeling, or something intangible that is hard to put into words for me, but i will try.

Back In The Day

As a child I remember the trains covered in graffiti, litter and housing the homeless.  It seemed lighting was less bright back then and I didn’t think it was good or bad –it just was.

Now I look back on that time never to be returned and it gives me a sense of nostalgia of the music we listened to, how family and friends spent time together and the way we were all living.  I will jump around time periods a bit and all around the city here but it is how the various memories appear, intertwine and flow through my mind.
Photo by Katsu Naito / /Harlem Kids in the early 80’s

There were so many abandoned buildings for a long time that later became crack houses.

Photo by Matt Weber/ Times Square 1990
Photo by Mitch o’ Connell /1991 Times Square

I remember con artists having fun with large groups of people surrounding them in Midtown Manhattan while they flipped cards or cups and moved money around until the player found theirs gone.  It was common place to see young b-boys and girls doing head spins on card board boxes revolving and performing hip hop acrobatics in the street, sometimes for money, with a big boom box radio that played cassette tapes blasting beats that will stay embedded in my being for the remainder of my life.

Photo from Pinterest /Kids Break-Dancing on a cardboard box in 1980’s NYC

I remember going with my mom to her friend’s or my uncle’s house parties and hanging out with their kids in the back rooms while soulful music from the 70’s & 80’s filled the air well into the late evening hours.

I remember 125st always busy and bustling, a hub for black pride and culture. There was a place called The 125st Mart which was like a mall where vendors rented out spaces to sell stuff like African fabrics, baseball hats, jewelry and fake model management. Outside gold jewelry shops, bean pies, Jamaican beef patties and African hair braiding salons were popular.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Thomas Monaster/ / Indoor vendor at Mart 125 during the 90s

On 125th st, the Apollo Theater has survived . As kids, my brother and I got into the theater via “Showtime at the Apollo” on tv.  This theater has held it’s ground since 1934, launching countless African-American performers into worldwide stardom.  Another generational Harlem staple that was a part of our childhood, that still stands today is Sylvia’s Restaurant where you can get authentic, home-style traditional soul food. Unfortunately, our beloved Copeland’s Restaurant, where we ate every year to celebrate my brother and Aunt Cora’s birthday has since shut down.

In the early 90’s, I remember 125th street lined with entrepreneurs selling oils and natural skin care products. Every corner sold something bootleg from movies to CDs, mix-tapes or women’s purses. There were T-shirts with the latest pop culture icons printed on the front and really whatever you could imagine at low prices.  I always had a good time when I would leave High School with my girlfriends Corris, Jeannine, Geale and Yvonne to hang out there and we knew we all had each other’s back because that’s the way it was.

I always wanted a pair of big gold door knocker earrings like the group Salt N Pepa had but was not allowed because 1) my mother didn’t want me thinking I was grown and 2) she didn’t want me getting ripped off by some crazy crack head or possibly a group of teenagers which would happen to people all the time.

A. Philip Randolph High School stairwell pic with my friends! We had a running 5-way diary!

I remember the East Village being a part of NY that embraced art, creativity and individuality and I fell in love with this place. Window shopping here with my friend Berni would be a frequent plan because lawd knows we were not buying a thing. We were feeling so grown but didn’t have anything but what our parents gave us which was possibly train money and enough for a cheap meal.

Greenwich Village which borders East Village was a great place to people watch (not cell phone watch) in Washington Square Park, a lot of times there were street performers there.  There were so many unique and unapologetic fashion approaches to admire, eccentric shops, great food which at that time was a $1 slice of pizza and a soda cause that was the budget- thank the heavens that’s one thing that has not changed, you can still get a perfect $1 pizza in NYC (praise hands a flyin).

Photo from /Washington Square Park in NY

Growing up in NYC 80s and 90s

When I was very young, maybe 7 years old it had been the harmless elderly winos who had given up on their lives long ago and resigned to their daily group gatherings along our streets in Washington Heights (a neighborhood in Manhattan that is bordered by Harlem). Over time, most of them were replaced with red lid crack viles sprinkled around our elementary school yard grounds in the late 80’s.

People became possessed by the new drug crack cocaine and would do literally anything to get it. Our neighbor was killed in the train station for his wallet, one block away from home after he had gotten off from a long day of work.

 As a teenager, I remember stepping off that 1 train on Broadway many days walking stiffly past the first group of drug dealers that alternated between hissing and yelling “Flaca!” at me daily as I strode on by up to my block which was Amsterdam. Nodding at the second group of old timer drug dealers that were around my Moms age and some of whom went to school with her and her brother so looked out for us (my brother Wesley and I).  And then, last but not least, the third pack of new young dealers (who at least did not harass me, probably because of the older group that stood watch across the street). The new, younger dealers stood right on our stoop and we all had to get through them every day in order to enter or exit my building- Fun Times.

Wesley and I in our apartment 469 W. 157st

Once as kids, Wesley and I hit the ground to avoid flying bullets and listened to them often from our apartment- I think I was always in a bit of denial as I would always say “I think those are fire crackers.”  And then there was the time my brother and I once watched a man get shot down in the middle of a cold, dark, quiet winter night.  His body lay still in the snow with only a dim street lamp light to witness his ascent besides our young peering eyes from mom’s bedroom window. This would not be the only body we have seen crossing over on a NYC street.

Sitting out on my fire escape talking to my girlfriends on the phone watching all the movement on the block with my bird’s eye view, from the 5th floor feeling safe and serene up there, way up high.

My early morning view from our 5th floor apartment building 469 W. 157st /1991

This was a community with love and also strife and struggle.  If you have ever seen the movie “Juice” screenplay by Ernest Dickerson, and Gerard Brown it was filmed in our neighborhood, and also in my high school A. Philip Randolph located in Harlem and is a depiction of our teenage era in that place and time period.

The beloved bodegas still stand- Hispanic corner stores where you can get a heavy NY Latin accent served with any grocery you need. They usually had their music playing and sometimes also sold food native to their country, both of which I absolutely love.

Bodega photo by Jake Davis/

Try a bodega bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on a roll, unlike any other bacon, egg and cheese sandwich you will ever taste in your life! The bacon, egg and cheese on a roll is rich with flavor probably because its cooked on some grill in some old yummy bacon grease that has also been used to cook some other yummy foods (I dunno what they put in it, just guessing). This sandwich use to be a favorite hang over breakfast as a young adult.

Our apartment building was passed down in our family 3 generations so we had reduced rent. This building is an antique, reported as built in 1900 on   My brother and I were intrigued with the old antiques we would find around the apartment. I owned a large antique vanity and old typewriter- both of which i knew were precious, passed down from my Great Grandmother Nanny.

My brother Wesley and I across the street from our apartment building- 1980’s

In our apartment, I knew where every old floor board creak was and learned how to tip toe around them in order to not make a sound and was proud of this skill. Things were made to last back then and our apartment building was no exception, old as she could be.

The rooms were very large and I really loved mine – it was a sanctuary where I’d journal my heart and soul out. The spaciousness in my bedroom allowed me to turn it into my Barbie doll’s wonderland as a child and also my own personal dance floor.  It was a dreamer’s escape.

We painted over the cracks in the walls which would quickly return reminding us of the buildings age.

My bedroom window faced a abandoned old house (at least 100 years old) squeezed between our and another apartment building. This used to be the home of young Sidney Poitier and his family. Rumor in my family is that the young Mr. Poitier was in love with my grandmother. No one would be surprised at that if they knew my grandmother (pic below). She was gorgeous inside and out.

Our Grandparents Norbeta & Casper Greshaw on mother’s side.
Sidney Poitier

Pigeons lived between my window sill and that broken old house that I continually tried to get my friend to move into when she would feud with her mother- why did I think this was a good idea? –it could be an adventure! lmao I think I watched “The Goonies,” “The Never Ending Story,” “The Wiz,””The Dark Crystal,””Legend” and other old adventure movies one too many times, which distorted my perceptions just a little bit!  Sometimes I lived in somewhat of a fantasy land in my head, sure that one day my brother and I would escape to find a magical land with fairies in an alternate reality.

The people who lived in my building were either really hard working like our mother who had the night shift at the Post office or they were older retired folk.

Mom in the 80’s at the NYC Post Office

My building was full of good loving people, one of which was our babysitter for a time, Mrs. Grieves (who taught Wesley and I how to make omelets). Mrs. Grieves was pleasantly plump, a retired fair complexioned old woman with a nicely shaped poof of reddish-brown hair and a kind smile that held spaces for teeth that used to live there.

Then, there was Linda who was on the short side but stood with an erect posture, shoulders back, serious face and was not to be messed with- One thing I knew was how a person carried themselves could dictate their chances of being vulnerable to this environment.  Linda once threw boiling water out the window for the dealers below in an attempt to show her disgust and annoyance.

Mabel lived across the hall, she would sometimes keep my brother Wesley and I before school and we would watch our favorite cartoons (GI Joe and Transformers for Wesley and I waited patiently for JEM) on her plastic covered couch.  My mom grew up with Mabel’s daughters. Mabel actually was present when my mother’s water broke, with me, anxious to come busting out into this world cause I thought I had a lot of things to do! lol

 There was that poor older man that lived downstairs who must not have had anyone. We came to this conclusion because there was a progressively thickening stench of rotting flesh that filled our hallways over a period of weeks that we came to find out was that nice older man’s carcass.

NYC would get so hot and sticky in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, REAL snow blizzards…. Once Wesley and I walked from 92nd st. to 157st because the snow was so bad the buses stopped running.

The diversity in NYC is sweet.  I went to Junior High in downtown Manhattan where I literally had a friend from every part of the world!

6th grade friend from China
8th grade graduation from I.S. 44 Junior High

I had my two close friends (both from my neighborhood) one of which was from Trinidad and the other half Irish and half Puerto Rican in Junior High. Before that, I also had friends from Hungry, Africa, India, China, and the Dominican Republic.

It was really exciting for me to have friends from all over the world because I could ask them a million questions about what life was like for them in their native countries, learn about their customs, food and dream of traveling there.

NYC is loved for her diversity, creativity, culture and sometimes the challenge. The city is fast moving, quick talking, upfront and boisterous. Taking the good with the bad from it all has sculpted me and I believe some character.

Loud, bumping, vibrating music would seem to come out of the thin air right into our apartment. Either salsa, Afro-Caribbean or the latest Hip Hop tunes would come stomping through our window panes from either overly impressive rides with the best speakers money could buy or from old clunkers with way too much reverb where all you could hear was an awful  vibrating sound.  Depending on the car, I either danced and sang along or I covered my ears wondering why in the hell the driver thought they were entertaining anybody with that jacked up sound system.  Other popular city sounds would be frequent fire truck, police car or paramedic sirens.

Apache and I hung out in the early 90s in a old pool hall in midtown Manhattan with my brother, sometimes also my uncle Lee and sometimes one or two other female friends.  Mostly the group was comprised of a large pack of dudes we had met in NY.

There was a little music shop where records and mix tapes were sold and a DJ would be playing whatever the newest hit was.  I remember being so excited when a DJ at “Disc-o-Rama”  handed us Biggie’s “Ready To Die” LP on vinyl for free “promotional use only”on one of those nights.

There were still big shopping department stores and even a mall (Manhattan Mall) but it definitely did not have all the big screens, virtual reality images and cameras everywhere, as well as us InstaGramers running around in ultra trendy fashions looking for perfect social media backdrops.  It was just a different time.

In the pool hall in Midtown Manhattan in the 90s, we had a smaller group this night.

This is the one and only photo i have of our pool hall days. We wore over sized jeans, Timberland boots, jerseys and we were immersed in Hip-Hop/Reggae culture.

I always felt honored to be standing in the cypher (in the Urban Dictionary it is defined as “Anything cyclical”).  We were a group of people in a circle. As a Hip-Hop connoisseur of sorts, i got to appreciate up close and personal the Wordsmiths/lyricists that bounced profound and complicated rhymes back and forth between one another, somebody beat-boxing with their mouth while others in the circle took turns challenging one another in a way that encouraged as opposed to battle rhyming in this particular group.

For some reason, I knew I  was standing in a special place, in a very special time and never took this for granted.  I felt like a Queen in this group because i was embraced as a member and always treated with respect. We just wanted to congregate, talk endlessly about the end of the world or how the elite class was planning world domination via media confusion and technology while enjoying each others company- which also sometimes included long vomit sessions in  dirty bathrooms from drinking one too many 40 oz.(beer bottles).

As the sun went down, the streets were getting a little rougher and desperate as the day shoppers and corporate workers went home.  There were other groups of people in the pool hall as well who were doing cocaine and hookers doing more than that downstairs in the same building. This was the the 90’s, midtown, NYC.

Photo from Pinterest /Midtown Manhattan mid 90s

We had pay phones (which cost a quarter to make a phone call) on most streets and during this time beepers were becoming increasingly popular although i never had a need for one.

Today midtown looks like manic, consumer mania which is entertaining for a short while and then exhausting after that. Although, everyone should get to experience the energy there at least once in their life- especially since we don’t know how long this will last since online shopping is now taking over.

Photo from Pinterest

Today my old neighborhood of Washington Heights and Harlem are continually evolving so they look and feel some different. With remnants of the old there is also plentiful new as these areas are being gentrified.  I appreciate the decrease in crime and opportunities to enjoy the neighborhoods new small businesses.  There are more cafes, joggers, boutiques, modern and eclectic new lounges. At the same time,  it is sad to see people who love and call Harlem their home being forced to leave because they cannot afford the cost of living here anymore.

 I am grateful for growing up in my neighborhood because it contributed to who I am today. Whatever I have in my possession is valued. Luxuries are not taken for granted. Being wasteful is not okay with me and i avoid it as much as possible.

Lower income neighborhoods, although not always pretty, are home to intelligent, hard working adults who try their best to raise their families, and talented kids as well. Often, criminals,as irritating as they can be, are people that have been abused or neglected themselves. Some may be misguided, thinking they have no other choices at all.

My mother used to tell me that many of the older corner people she had known from childhood had never left the block. I wonder where they are today. Can you imagine never leaving the block you grew up on when the world is so big?

The 1 train was only a block away. I could see something different, get another perspective, go to a museum, or get to Grand Central Station which could take me even further. Conditioning had many people probably afraid they wouldn’t fit in any other place in the world.

 As a child I would dream about world travel. Leaving was a possibility to me because my mother made efforts to get us off the block to see what was going on elsewhere. We went Ice skating in Central Park, for bike rides on Riverside drive along the Hudson River, far up into the mountains for the summers and other trips out of the city.

There is a feeling of gratitude, carried within my heart for the journey, the whole picture which is the past and now my experience. This is a tiny piece of my story about growing up in old NYC which I felt compelled to share. Talking about what’s new doesn’t feel balanced without sharing a bit on what came before.

Thoughts of how many lives we have lived in this one with wonders of how many more are yet to come…… – Nikia Mason Knapp

3 thoughts on “Travel Back In Time: Growing Up NYC during the 80’s and 90’s”

    1. Thank you Vivian for reading! It was meaningful for me to share about our generation, i don’t want our time to be forgotten. Sending you much love on your journey as well.

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