In the 1960s and ’70s residents who could afford to were fleeing cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. These cities were congested, smelly-smoggy-dirty, crime-ridden, and rife with bureaucracy and inefficiency. White people feared black people and fled to newly developed suburbs, enabled by the automobile. At the same time there was a fomenting in the streets — mass protests, marches, and demonstrations over civil rights, anti-war sentiment, women’s liberation, and the beginnings of the environmental movement.

That time and its impact can be explored in “The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” on view at Princeton University Art Museum, opening with a lecture and reception on Saturday, February 21, and continuing through Sunday, June 7.

The exhibition uses more than 150 photographs and films, architectural renderings, planning documents, posters, and periodicals — drawn from more than 40 collections across the country — to expose the challenges and unrest of the era and offer new possibilities for American cities.

Photography and film not only expose the conditions of crisis but present a vision for the future of American cities. “The City Lost and Found” uses as a starting point “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs, written in the early 1960s when planners believed that wholesale reconstruction and the building of high rises was the best way to save the city. Jacobs held a different view. She saw life in those old neighborhoods, in their diversity, the narrow streets where children could play, and argued for their preservation. But in the name of eradicating “blight,” urban renewal often meant the demolition and erasure of entire neighborhoods.

Artist Romare Bearden captured the moment, and the exhibition features his 18-foot-long collaged mural of a block of Lenox Avenue in Harlem — a colorful depiction of one such neighborhood. It includes a liquor store, a barbershop, a church, and a funeral parlor, as well as a corner grocery store. People walk along the street, play on the sidewalk, sit on the stoops in front of their homes — indeed they turn the stoop into a living room, the sidewalk into a playground. When it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971 Bearden’s mural was accompanied by a soundtrack of jazz and church music, children laughing and playing, news broadcasts, and the general cacophony of city life.

A color photo, “Harlem,” by Camilo Jose Vergara, shows a late-middle-aged woman in a pink printed dress seated before a cinderblock wall painted with a mural of the projects. In the eyes of the beholder, this beautiful depiction, with a sparkly sun and puffy clouds in the sky, presents its tall buildings in pinkish hues, each window painted a different jewel tone. As if to show its approval, Mother Nature sends a few tendrils of sumac vines over the top of the wall.

On the darker side Bruce Davidson’s chromogenic print shows straphangers inside a graffiti-laden train seen through subway dredge-streaked windows. This graffiti was not yet the new urban art. This graffiti was the angry expression of disenfranchised youth. The straphangers look down, off into the distance, or close their eyes entirely to block out this bleak existence, perhaps dreaming of a better place, a better time.

In another image Davidson’s eye catches a young man in glasses and regiment-striped tie, carrying an armload of heavy textbooks, walking alongside the debris and ruins. Projects are seen beyond a chain-link fence in the distance.

Danny Lyon shows us the destruction of lower Manhattan. Magnificent cast iron buildings from an earlier century were demolished to make way for skyscrapers, including the World Trade Center. Lyon’s photographs of the neighborhood razed to make way for New York’s Twin Towers in the 1960s were exhibited at PUAM in 2011, and his photographs of the civil rights era are on view at the College of New Jersey.

The idea for “The City Lost and Found” came about in 2009, when Katherine A. Bussard, now PUAM’s curator of photography, was associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. She had been talking to Greg Foster-Rice, a photo art historian who is a scholar on Romare Bearden, about projects on the Bowery from the mid-1970s and how artists were responding to urban changes during that period. Alison Fisher, a curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago and the third curator for “The City Lost and Found,” was brought into the conversation when they decided to consider how urban planning and design grew out of racial and political upheavals in the three cities under consideration.

Looking through the New York City Planning Commission’s 1969 study on postwar housing, the three curators observed how photography was used to show city living conditions. The study included an aerial view of crowds at Coney Island, people sitting on a stoop, and a family in a kitchen where the father bathes in a tub alongside a sink filled with dirty dishes.

“They were starting to pay attention to how people live and inhabit a city,” says Bussard. The cinematic preamble to the Plan for New York City, “What is the City but the People,” was broadcast on PBS channel 13 in 1969, and showed a man and a woman punching each other, protestors screaming at the camera, and two homeless men beating each other with bottles. The end credits state: “Whatever its foibles, this film is true and believable because real people are so deeply involved.”

This was just the relationship between film and urban planning the curators were seeking. “The urban experience itself was a reflection of the commingling of real incidents and projected imagery,” writes Foster-Rice in the catalog.

In 2013, when Bussard came to Princeton, she was delighted that the university agreed to co-organize the exhibition and take on the publication of the 272-page catalog.

What cities lost during the two decades covered in “The City Lost and Found” are “a sense of how cities worked and how they served their constituents,” says Bussard. That message was heard loud and clear in the protests of the 1960s. “It showed what was lacking, and how cities underserved their population with housing, empowerment, and civil rights.”

The November 1, 1968, cover of Time Magazine featured a beleaguered Mayor John Lindsay over a collage of tumbling buildings, designed by Romare Bearden, with the headline “New York: The Breakdown of a City.” Lindsay is also pictured leading a group of men through trash-laden streets in an AP newswire photo during the city’s Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968. Trash piled up at the rate of 10,000 tons a day. There has always been a fascination with New York City’s garbage, and this period of time was well documented in photographs of the nine-day strike.

Seven years later New York nearly went bankrupt. In that year Andy Blair made a haunting photograph of a ravaged car picked clean of anything of value, abandoned on the West Side Highway. It looks like it has been there forever, and yet how could it have been left on such a busy highway? How did it get there in its condition, so old, so dilapidated, so stripped bare?

When cities were abandoned by those who could afford to do so, only then did cities make an attempt to shift their thinking toward restoration and revival. Perhaps it was time to consider Jane Jacobs’ view of neighborhoods being a vital part of renewal. Who’s to say that kids playing in a park designed by a developer are any better off than kids splashing in water released from a fire hydrant on a hot summer day?

Jacobs was part of the battle to save New York’s Penn Station from demolition — she is pictured in front of the McKim, Mead and White Beaux Arts architectural jewel before it was razed in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden. While that effort failed, it galvanized citizens and begat the historic preservation movement and the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

We may not be able to replace the great buildings and neighborhoods that have been lost, but through photography and film they become part of the permanent record. Photography and moving image are also important to inspiring preservation, says Bussard.

When the city was supposed to be on its way out from urban despair, a slew of New York disaster films were released. In the 1973 dystopian film with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson “Soylent Green,” it is the year 2022. New York City is up to a population of 40 million, and people sleep on top of one another in staircases. Homeless people fill the streets, the oceans are dying, there is year-round humidity due to greenhouse gases, and people subsist on processed food rations made of plankton by the Soylent Corporation.

The works in “The City Lost and Found” blur the line between art, activism, and journalism and demonstrate the connections between visual practices and the political, social, and geographic realities of the American city in a tumultuous era.

Although it is a coincidence that “The City Lost and Found,” which premiered at the Art Institute of Chicago in October, appears during the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, Bussard says she never would have predicted the “resonance of people taking to the streets in the past year. The images coming out of cities like Ferguson are very similar to the images from the civil rights era. A lot of the issues are still with us.” The exhibition includes photographs of police brutality during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Photography served as the ambassador to image makers, say the curators. A sculpture by Barnett Newman, “Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley,” was created in 1968 as a reaction to Mayor Richard Daley’s hard-fisted handling of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The exhibition brought together Lee Bontecou, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Morris. Newman’s barbed wire grid suggests the military jeeps outfitted with panels of barbed-wire fencing that patrolled the city’s streets, displacing protesters. A press photo shows one of these jeeps that may have served as reference for Newman.

A mobile-friendly website featuring maps of particular pockets of creativity in each city is available at artmuseum.princeton.edu/city-lost-and-found.

There will be a keynote lecture by Michael Sorkin on Saturday, February 21, at 5 p.m. at 10 McCosh Hall, and a seven-week film series.

All programs are free and open to the public and have been developed in concert with the new Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities (www.princeton.edu/arc-hum).

The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton. Opening Saturday, February 21, with a reception at the museum, 6 to 7:30 p.m., and on view through Sunday, June 7, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.

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