1970s Photos of Lower Manhattan Revealed America’s Decay

A ferry travels across a body of water toward the city skyline on a hazy day. In the background, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stand prominently amidst the dense cluster of buildings, partially obscured by the fog.
Smog obscures Manhattan as the Staten Island Ferry sails on the Hudson.

In the 1970s, photographer Wil Blanche was assigned by the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to document New York’s decaying natural environment in what was the first major look at the impact of industrial cities.

Blanche’s photos were part of Documerica, a photographic project looking at areas of environmental concern across the United States. Blacnche’s assignment was to focus on Lower Manhattan where the newly-built 1,368-foot-tall Twin Towers had been erected.

Blanche’s task was to visually show the link between Americans and their impact on the environment. He photographed all types of scenes including landfill sites, children playing in the park, and traffic entering the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel.

A construction site filled with rubble in an urban area. Partially completed buildings and cranes are visible, with a white car in the foreground. The tallest building in the background is under construction.
Construction on Lower Manhattan’s West Side.
A vintage photograph shows numerous cars lined up in multiple lanes, waiting to enter a large tunnel surrounded by tall buildings in an urban setting. Traffic cones guide the vehicles. Trees and other buildings are visible in the background.
Manhattan entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel.
A row of passengers sitting on a train, most of them absorbed in reading newspapers. The scene is indoors with natural light coming through the large rectangular windows on the left side. The overall atmosphere is calm and quiet.
Commuters on the Staten Island Ferry.
A person sits on a wooden platform by the water, gazing out contemplatively. A bicycle with a basket is leaning nearby. The area is rustic, with old cars, wooden beams, and scattered debris. Another individual is visible in the background near the cars.
Overlooking Hudson River.

Now the photos act as a remarkable and thorough photo documentation of a New York that was very different. The 1970s was a notoriously difficult time for the Big Apple with riots playing out after a blackout in 1977.

According to Flashbak, Blanche was a New York native who worked for magazines like Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Modern Man.

His photos are an incredible resource for those studying the city’s history but it is difficult to look at images of the World Trade Center without thinking about the horror that played out on September 11, 2001.

A street scene from the 1970s with several parked trucks and cars. Two vintage cars, one brown and one dark blue, are in the foreground, driving on the cobblestone road. Buildings and a few pedestrians are visible in the background.
Holland tunnel traffic.
A street scene in New York City featuring the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. The church in the foreground is St. Paul's Chapel. Pedestrians walk along the sidewalk, and people and cars can be seen on the street.
Trinity Church on Lower Broadway.

A person with long hair wearing a blue top and light-colored pants walks along a sidewalk in an urban area. The street is bordered by a tall brick wall on one side and several high-rise buildings on the other. The Twin Towers are visible in the background.

An urban construction scene with tall, skeletal high-rise buildings under construction. A crane is visible along with debris and rubble in the foreground. A truck drives along the street, with other vehicles parked nearby. The city skyline is in the background.
Apartments being built on the Lower West Side.
Two people sit on a bench by the waterfront, with one drinking from a can and the other eating. A river and distant city buildings are visible in the background, along with a boat on the water. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed.
Morton Street Pier.
People sunbathing on benches and walking along a pathway in a park with the New York City skyline, including the Twin Towers, in the background on a sunny day.
Morton Street Pier.

A large red cargo ship sails in the foreground, while the iconic skyline of New York City, including the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, stands prominently against the hazy, dusky sky in the background. Other boats are visible on the water.

A view of a cityscape with tall skyscrapers under a cloudy sky. In the foreground, a parking lot is filled with various cars, mostly from the 1970s, lined up diagonally. The buildings exhibit a mix of modern and older architectural styles.

A rusted, dilapidated barge is moored by a pier in a body of water. Debris and wooden planks float near the barge, and the overcast sky looms above. The surrounding area features distant industrial structures and a relatively calm water surface.
A rusting barge and debris floating in the dock.
Two people are seen leaning on a railing, looking out at the New York City skyline from across the water in a vintage photo. The buildings of downtown Manhattan, including the Twin Towers, are prominent against a slightly hazy sky.
Staten Island Ferry.
A close-up of scattered debris from a burned building, including charred wooden planks and singed materials. In the center, a partially destroyed briefcase with papers protruding is prominently visible amidst the rubble.
Debris floating on the Hudson River.

What Was Documerica?

Documerica ran from 1972 to 1977 and involved over 100 freelance photographers capturing images of air and water pollution across the United States on behalf of the EPA. The shutterbugs also captured the impact of industrialization as well as daily life in urban and rural areas.

Over 22,000 photographs were produced which offered an insight into how the environment was affecting people’s lives. The negatives and prints are housed in the National Archives and are considered to be a valuable historical resource.

Image credits: Photographs by Wil Blanche/Environmental Protection Agency/Public Domain.