a picture is worth a thousand-word story

Guardian Angels on the NYC Subway

Guardian Angels on the NYC subway, 1980

(Look! A picture taken AFTER 1950!)

Though their identities are unknown, these two men are part of an organization called the Guardian Angels. I know – not exactly the quintessential image of an “angel,” but the picture represents their purpose. Founded by Curtis Sliwa in 1979, the group was formed in response to an overwhelmed police force in New York City. Crime was rampant in NYC at that time, and Sliwa decided to round up other angered citizens and form a vigilante task force to make up for all the police could not do.

The subway system in NYC was the top priority for the Guardian Angels. In the late 70s and early 80s, the subway was “New York’s most ravaged symbol of urban decay, deemed un-patrollable and unsafe even for the most street savvy commuter.” So the Guardian Angels developed a uniform (the shirts in the picture above as well as a usual red beret) and a method of communication. “When the train would stop at a station, each member would pop their heads out of the open subway door and if they noticed that one of the doors was unattended, it meant someone needed backup.”


(Sliwa is in the middle.)

“Their membership were mostly young men, black and Latino, who had eschewed gang life in their own neighborhoods to better their city…. While their presence was oftentimes flamboyant, many New Yorkers grew to feel relieved to see the muscle-y red-beret-wearing youths when boarding the train at night. Soon the Angels, over 500 in total, were out patrolling the city streets, their training and audacity standing in for actual civic authority.”


Photographer Bruce Davidson recently released this photo, along with many others of the Guardian Angels, as a book. When recalling the atmosphere of the subway in the 80s as he began his journey of photographing the group, Davidson said, “As I went down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and on to the darkened station platform, a sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack. The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night…. Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist – or a deranged person.”

“It remains an extraordinarily visceral record of a particular time and place, when New York was a darker, more uneasy, more colorful and altogether more violent place than it is today. Shooting in color, Davidson saw himself as a hunter stalking his prey. He soon sensed that the subway had its own peculiar psychology. ‘People in the subway, their flesh juxtaposed against the graffiti, the penetrating effect of the strobe light itself, and even the hollow darkness of the tunnels, inspired an aesthetic that goes unnoticed by the passengers who are trapped underground, hiding behind masks and closed off from each other.'”

Once his book of photographs was published, people responded in Davidson’s favor. They appreciated the “contrast between the often palpable solitariness of the passengers in their silent worlds of thought and the clamor of their surroundings: the rumble and screech of the trains, the messy overload of the graffiti scrawl that covers every inch of the walls and windows. Here, the enclosed world of the subway is a metaphor for New York itself, in all its frantic hustle and bustle – its violence, its humanity and its hope.”

“It’s a great social equalizer … From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the train moves into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom and we, trapped inside, all hang on together,” said Davidson. Around 1990, the Guardian Angels retired as a prominent task force, as crime was quickly being reduced in the city and they did not feel their efforts were needed.

Interestingly enough, Davidson’s book was released relatively close to the same time that the Guardian Angels announced they were coming back into play, focusing mostly on Central Park. According to Sliwa, Central Park has seen a rise in crime, specifically gun violence and attacks on homosexuals. Sliwa said there aren’t many police officers who patrol certain areas of the park, so the Guardian Angels are providing crime watch there as well as advocating for installing more lights to improve safety at night.


So this isn’t essential to the story, but Sliwa (at the time) was married to a woman named Lisa, who was a complete badass. She was EXTREMELY involved with the Guardian Angels. (They eventually divorced… It wasn’t a great match.) I’ve provided multiple pictures to both prove my point and entertain you guys.

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Sliwa angels

KIl 1982-12 Cov


4 Responses to “Guardian Angels on the NYC Subway”

  1. Tanner Quiggle

    This is really, really, cool. I had never heard of this organization before, but I think that it is an awesome concept. The wide diversity of the people in the Guardian Angels probably gave a sense of unification to heir ideals, since people from all backgrounds were included. How cool, what an awesome idea, great post!

  2. Peter Rivera

    I wonder what happened between Sliwa and Lisa…hm. Regardless, this post was simply superb! I’ve actually seen these types of photos numerous times and my parents have told me about the Guardian Angels as well. I enjoy that in the face of crime and injustice, people decided to take a stand. Legally, it’s wrong but morally, I would argue that it was necessary. They definitely provided a comforting and soothing presence to many on the subway and were passionate about protecting people. Very nice post, I enjoyed it quite a bit (and the color 😉 ).

  3. jwd5222

    The NYC metro system is definitely a sign of urban decay due to crime and poor car conditions, so it was nice to read that there was a group of people who had the audacity to step up and fix a growing problem. I guess that this situation can be related to having Auxiliary cops around campus; people who really don’t have executive authority but who can alleviate and give help to a situation.

  4. JP

    It seems like the Guardian Angels may have gone a little soft… From promoting Karate and providing backup in dimly lit train cars to promoting more lights in Central Park? I guess the little things do matter though. And what are you talking about, a bad match? Those two are obviously perfect for each other, and are essentially “goals.” I can’t understand why you would think they weren’t meant for each other, and to be honest, I consider their break up to be one of the greatest crimes of the 1900s (I’m assuming it happened before 2000).

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