Reflecting on Wendy Clarke’s “New York Tapes” (1990) Three Decades Later

by Lauren Wilks

New York City has been in the news lately for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the current mayoral election which has unearthed questions around whether candidates can equally serve all constituents in one of the most populous and diverse cities in the world. The musical film In the Heights has also recently increased discussion around the range of people living in the city: the movie celebrates the spirit of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in the uppermost part of Manhattan that has been the home of many immigrant populations, with the most recent influx comprised of Dominicans in the 1970s and 1980s. While many films use NYC as the backdrop of their stories, it is much less common that the diversity of the city’s population is highlighted. Although the film takes seriously the task of telling Latino/a and immigrant stories, some audiences have noted the lack of significant Afro-Latino representation in the movie, citing concerns about the underrepresentation of this demographic group which currently makes up a significant part of the neighborhood’s population. This instance further illustrates how the city–and its residents–contain multitudes of experiences that are often obscured or altogether omitted from broad consciousness. 

Even with its highly diverse population, there have been times and experiences where the city felt more unified than not. Nearly 20 years ago, on September 11, 2001, NYC experienced a tragedy that reverberated across the country, all the while resonating most deeply for the city’s residents. In reflecting on difficult experiences that have caused tension and challenges for the residents of the city (and for the nation more broadly), we can also reflect on how we come together in times of difficulty–finding human connection amidst various taxing circumstances helps immensely in working toward this goal. To that end, the works of Wendy Clarke, an independent video artist known for working collaboratively with her subjects, helps provide a nuanced look into those shared experiences through a focus on the most human of elements. 

Above is Wendy Clarke’s “The New York Tapes: A Video Portrait of New York as Told by its People” (1990). This video portrait provides a glimpse into the larger project.

Two of her projects, The Love Tapes (1980) and The New York Tapes (1990), were created in New York in collaboration with people visiting, living, and working in the city. The Love Tapes, filmed at the World Trade Center in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ask people passing through to describe, in three minutes or less, what love means to them on film. Some of the participants lived or worked around the area, but others are tourists or NYC residents stopping in before heading out to another part of the city. The resulting collection is connected through themes of love, loss, heartbreak, confusion, and self-reflection.

 The New York Tapes, created in 1990, seek out participants all over the city, from all five boroughs, from different age groups, socio-economic standings, professions, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and countries of origin, to talk about their lives in the city. By working with participants in their neighborhoods, Clarke also documents the sights and sounds of the city, adding depth to contemporary understandings of life in NYC before the full impact of “urban renewal” efforts, the AIDS crisis, and eventually, the 9/11 terrorist attack, fell upon the city. Stories told in the collection include participants’ reflections about the city’s changes, their social ties to its neighborhoods or organizations, their various professional responsibilities, or in some cases, their experiences with both the challenges of and optimism fostered by immigrating to the city. Across each interview in this archive, a throughline comes to the forefront: there is earnest investment in being a New Yorker, with unfiltered acknowledgement of the bad and the good, the difficulties and the opportunities specific to being a resident of the city. The WCFTR is proud to care for Wendy Clarke’s collection and is in the process of digitizing even more of its components, with the ultimate goal of making her important works broadly accessible to the public. We hope you enjoy what we have so far. You can view the collection on the WCFTR’s Internet Archive page.