Discovering an Older New York: Nelson Sullivan’s Work

Just recently I discovered the work of Nelson Sullivan when coming across a video depicting East Village life in 1986. This particular video shows how Sullivan as a street videographer walks through several streets and across many avenues from St. Marks Place to Tompkins Square Park on a Sunday afternoon in June.

Although both the East Village and technology have much changed in the past 29 years, I still liked this video a lot. Not only does it show that people back then were doing similar stuff we are doing right now. But it conveys a pretty relaxed Sunday vibe in the city that never sleeps. The East Village seemed to be more of a ‘friendly’ neighborhood than the over-commercialized student hot spot it is now. And still, people are going for brunch, drinking coffee, hanging out in front of a deli, listening to music in the park, and strolling the streets on a warm afternoon. The pure essence of what makes out New York – being able to do all of these things without having to drive anywhere or planning much in advance – has still remained similar to me. Perhaps the reasons above are part of why I am still here after 5 1/2 years of making and breaking living in the Big Apple.

People (including me) like to complain about the fact that neighborhoods are changing in the wrong (and mostly more expensive) direction, that New York is changing too fast, that rent prices are increasing too high, and that too many rich people are driving out the starving artists who supposedly used to make out the appeal of this city. But perhaps change is inevitable (as always) and what is happening here is reflecting upon the entire country. The West Coast is not necessarily a cheap place to live, either, and I know of places down South that are experiencing a similar boom in rent increase. And not all that comes in is bad. Crime has decreased to such a level that I am no safely roaming the streets of BedStuy at 4am – something I probably wouldn’t have dared to do just 5 years ago.

What I like about New York is exactly what you see in Sullivan’s work: There is always something going on, always something to do, always a new spot to explore. Stores are not closed on a Sunday and the end of the weekend is not depressing like in other cities I’ve lived. And yet – if you want to do something low-key, you are certainly able to do it.

What a shame that Sullivan died the moment he decided to take his street videography to the next level and only moments after he quit his full-time job to become a professional videographer…

Find a few more of his videos here:

His intake on the Gay Pride of 1983.

His capture of the Pyramid club in 1986.

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2 thoughts on “Discovering an Older New York: Nelson Sullivan’s Work

  1. Thank you so much for this video! After Lina and I were in NYC last (when we saw you!), I have an extra special little place in my heart for learning about East Village. Our Airbnb was one block from Tomkins Square Park, so this just made me feel all yummy and warm inside. Oh, how I am longing for a little NYC again!

    • Oh Liz, his work is quite extensive (for the 80ies era). I’ve wasted almost an entire afternoon looking up some of his videos. I’m glad you appreciate it! The East Village can still be quite a magical place nowadays, especially when half-deserted… Hope you make it out again, soon!

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