Charlie Ahearn’s “Doin’ Time in Times Square” captures a neon-lit NYC cityscape in the late ’80s

By on April 9, 2018

Doin’ Time in Times Square is a strangely engrossing 40-minute film that captures the grimy, seedy world that filmmaker Charlie Ahearn — best known as the director of 1983’s seminal hip-hop/graffiti cult hit Wild Style — witnessed from his second-story loft window, overlooking a “Forty-Deuce”-adjacent neighborhood in all its pre-Giuliani glory.

Compiled from over sixteen hours of camcorder video footage, shot during the mid-to-late ’80s, Doin’ Time in Times Square gives viewers a look at a lurid neon-lit cityscape that doesn’t exist anymore, now that Times Square has, as Ahearn says, become a “Disney-fied corporate version” of its former self.

Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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In 1986, Ahearn — who’d moved to his second-floor loft apartment on the corner of 43rd and Eighth Avenue in 1981 — began filming what he saw out his window.

For the next four years, Ahearn aimed his camera down at the unflinching and uncomfortable realism of Times Square NYC, knowing that in ten years or so the world he was watching from above would no longer exist.

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Ahearn didn’t start out with the idea of turning his nocturnal surveillance tapes into a home movie from hell.

In fact, like many new fathers, he had bought the camcorder to videotape the milestones of his son Joey’s life, which is why Doin’ Time in Times Square is interspersed with quiet domestic scenes of Ahearn’s wife Jane Dickson and their son Joey on his birthday, a family Christmas-tree trimming, a New Year’s Eve celebration, and the arrival of their new daughter, Eve.

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Ahearn lived right above a transvestite bar called Sally’s Hideaway and right across the street from the Adonis Theater, which was next door to the XXXtasy video center.

His second floor window turned out to be the perfect perch to capture hookers, pimps and crack-dealers selling their wares at all hours of the day and night, and he witnessed lots of obnoxious drunks getting into screaming fights down on the street below, victims of drug rip-offs and sidewalk muggings.

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Ahearn filmed the action as it unfolded until NYPD officers showed up to break up the fights, often watching the cops throwing a few punches themselves.

“There was always some scenario going on,” Ahearn told New York Magazine. “I never set out to make a videotape. I was just living.”

Read more about Charlie Ahearn and Doin’ Time in Times Square below.

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By the late 1960s, West 42nd Street, in particular — already infamous as a site of the drug trade, vagrancy and street crime — had started to become dominated by the sex industry too, rife with peep shows, strip clubs and adult movie theaters, arcades and bookstores, populated with hustlers and street thugs, just the way its depicted in dozens of great movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Shaft (1971), among others.

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By the mid-’70s, Times Square had reached the nadir of its long post-war decline.

It was described this way by Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver:

“All the animals come out at night… whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

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Charlie Ahearn (photo by Francine Keery)

Charlie Ahearn, a native of Binghamton, NY, moved to Manhattan in 1973 and began attending the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program (Studio Program).

Later he was joined by his twin brother, John, and they helped form part of an artists collective called Colab (a truncation of “Collaborative Projects”), who were focused on getting their work seen outside of the traditional art world and galleries.

At its peak, Colab featured the work of one hundred artists and put on group showings, one high point being the June 1980 installation “Times Square Show,” a revolutionary DIY art exhibition held at their HQ, an abandoned massage parlor on 41st Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square.

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Times Square Show (1980) (photo by Francine Keery)

Although his primary artistic interest wasn’t filmmaking — he focused primarily on photography and video art — Ahearn realized it was one of the better ways to get noticed and to reach people through his art.

One of his very first films he made was The Deadly Art of Survival, which he filmed with a Super 8mm camera using non-professional actors who were already doing live martial art scenarios in front of audiences at the Deadly Art of Survival school in the Alfred E. Smith projects, a public housing development on the lower east side.

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Ahearn was already going to see kung fu movies — which he thought of as “art” movies — and because he was now being exposed to hip-hop music from the Bronx, these experiences led to him hatching the plans with Fab Five Freddy to make the Cinéma vérité documentary film Wild Style, which would encompass the music, emceeing, DJing, graffiti and break-dancing as a new art form.

Wild Style was first screened in 1982 and then premiered in 1983 in Times Square, breaking records by selling out all of the screenings over a three week period.

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Rapture (Scratch) by Charlie Ahearn (found here)

Doin’ Time in Times Square — which is particularly engrossing if you’re a voyeur who enjoys the dark side of life — was first screened at the New York Film Festival in 1992, and released on DVD in 2007.

Read more about Charlie Ahearn here.

Watch Doin’ Time in Times Square on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.