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William Bratton On the "Turnaround" of Crime in New York.

Former Police Commissioner of New York City and Boston William Bratton. When taking over as New York's commissioner in 1994 he publicly vowed to bring the crime rate down. His new memoir is about how he accomplished his goal," "Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic." (w/Peter Knobler, Random House). (


Other segments from the episode on February 4, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 4, 1998: Interview with William Bratton; Interview with David Plowden.


Date: FEBRUARY 04, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020401NP.217
Head: Turnaround
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Crime rates have been going down in several American cities. One of the most dramatic drops took place in New York City during the two-year tenure of Police Commissioner William Bratton, who presided over the largest crime drop in the city's history.

The success was attributed to his approach to crime fighting, as well as to some factors outside his control, such as changing demographics and a decrease in the crack epidemic. Bratton resigned and went to work in the private sector in early 1996. He's written a new memoir called "Turnaround" in which he writes about his career from his days in the canine corps of the military police to his work as a policeman and police commissioner in Boston, and head of the transit police and commissioner in New York City.

He attributes his success in New York to his emphasis on quality of life offenses -- what's become known as the "broken window" theory, which I asked him to explain.

Well, pretty much, that theory -- it's -- it was articulated in an article in 1982 in the Atlantic Monthly by George Kelling (ph) and Jim Wilson. And it argued that if you focused on many of the minor-types of disturbances that were commonplace in American streets -- graffiti, aggressive begging, public drinking, public sale of drugs, prostitution -- that that's really what was causing so much of the fear of crime, and also the deterioration of public spaces, public streets.

And that if you focused on dealing with those problems, it would go a long way toward reducing fear levels, restoring (unintelligible) on the streets, and it would ultimately have some effect on serious crime.

I was an adherent to that theory because I had practiced it in the early -- in the late 1970s in Boston. So when I read that article, they had put into words what I was putting into practice. I had worked in the -- one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Boston as a young sergeant attending community meetings. And at those meetings, residents would not be complaining about the serious crime that as a police officer I thought they would focus on -- murders, rapes, robberies -- but more frequently would complain about abandoned cars, noisy groups on the corner, prostitutes on their doorstep -- things that they saw every day that they were victimized by what they saw and it generated fear.

It was quite a revelation for a young 27-year-old police sergeant that all the teaching of that early era was that police should focus on serious crime and not pay attention, really, to the smaller things.

GROSS: One of the so-called "quality of life" offenses that you focused on when you took over as police commissioner in New York was the guys who were -- who became known as the "squeegie" men.

BRATTON: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: I want you to describe who they are.

BRATTON: Well, "squeegie pests" as they're called in New York were a -- much the same as the graffiti-covered subway cars that were so prevalent in the movies that you would see. Movies in New York City in the 1980s always depicted street scenes in which these scruffy looking characters at major intersections would be demanding money in exchange for ostensibly washing your window.

And to get into the island of Manhattan, there were only about 13 bridges and tunnels. And these characters would position themselves at those strategic locations that -- they were good business people. They knew where to go to get the customers. And every day, hundreds of thousands of people would come into New York City and have to run this gauntlet.

A study was done by George Kelling at the request of former police commissioner Ray Kelly (ph), and disclosed that there were only about 75 of these characters. But because of where they were positioned and because of their behavior, they were having a phenomenal intimidating factor on hundreds of thousands of people, and had become symbolic of the deterioration of quality of life in the city.

So the idea was, for maximum impact, why not focus on a problem that was having maximum negative potential?

GROSS: So what did you do?

BRATTON: Well, they have 38,000 cops in New York City. There were 75 of them; 38,000 of us. Needless to say, it didn't take long to get rid of them when we authorized and ordered the cops to do something about that particular problem. Within several weeks, they were gone.

GROSS: Well gone where? You used the expression "get rid of them." I mean, you're not like throwing them out or throwing them off the face of the Earth.

BRATTON: No, what I ...

GROSS: Where did they go?

BRATTON: One of the arguments that have been used by the civil libertarians and others -- the ACLU -- was that these people had no other way to make a living. Well, Kelling's study disclosed that the majority of them were receiving some type of public assistance. More than half of them were living in apartments, SROs as they call them here. And that this was just a very lucrative way to make additional money.

And the idea that they would return to lives of crime et cetera -- it didn't happen. Very similarly, as we began to crack down on other problems in the city -- aggressive beggars, illegal peddlers -- all the concerns that were raised by the libertarians and the civil rights advocates didn't come to pass; that these people by and large either disappeared from the streets and went on to do other things; or those that remained did -- conducted their activities in a legal manner, which meant that you would not aggressively solicit. You could stand there and have your cup in your hand, but you could not be out in the middle of the street. You could not follow people down the street. You could not be standing at ATM machines and demanding money.

What we did in New York City was to use the police for the first time in 25 years to control street behavior to such an extent that we changed that behavior; that we restored to the city a sense of civility -- the idea that when you're in a public place, there are norms of behavior that government prescribes to our laws and ordinances, and that the police will enforce those rules of behavior. And we will do it legally and lawfully.

So many of the concerns of the civil libertarians and the ACLU, while they expressed concerns about what the potential ramifications of a police state might be, it really did not come to pass here in New York. We did it without becoming a police state.

GROSS: What was the law that the squeegie men were violating?

BRATTON: Actually, it turned out to be a traffic ordinance; that you cannot obstruct traffic. And in their moving among cars, that they were arguably obstructing traffic. ACLU, that had no problems with us enforcing the law as long as we did it in a way that was not unlawful. And it was fairly easy to enforce because they were breaking the law.

GROSS: Now when you say that there were 75 of them -- the squeegie men -- and, you know, tens of thousands of cops, so it should be easy to make a dent. The other side of the argument goes that well, you know, sure there's tens of thousands of cops, but there's so much crime in the way of, like, murder and armed robbery, that all the cops are needed to take care of those major offenses.

So how -- what percentage of cops were you willing to devote to the quality of life crimes.

BRATTON: Thirty-eight thousand -- 100 percent. I expected every cop when they encountered something like that to do something about it, starting with myself. As I was driving down the street or as I was riding the subways, if I encountered it, I would either deal with it with my security people or we would call in to have somebody come and take care of it.

For 25 years, police were not expected to do anything about this. We had a society that was very permissive and an anything goes-type of attitude. Well, for 25 years we created a monster. But because I had so many cops to work with -- 38,000 -- that by reinvigorating them; by re-authorizing them to once again re-police the streets of New York City -- we'd effectively, in New York and indeed in America in the 1970s -- de-policed our streets.

George Kelling has written eloquently about this -- that we took all of these cops off the walking beats and out of the neighborhoods, flew them into police radio cars, and focused on responding to crime -- chasing 911 calls, investigating crimes after the fact.

We measured our success by after-the-fact indicators: How fast did we respond? How many arrests did we make? How many crimes did we clear? We were response-oriented. The big change that I'm a very significant part of in terms of American police leadership, in the thinking about what police can do is that I believe that police can prevent crime by our actions, by our strategies, by our interaction with the community.

And New York City and Boston are two clear-cut examples that that philosophy, that belief, can in fact work.

GROSS: What was your approach in New York to community policing and to dividing cops between foot patrol and cop cars?

BRATTON: Well, I'm a great believer in decentralization -- the idea of taking the power at the top and pushing it down to the appropriate level in the organization where the expression "the rubber meets the road." In Boston and New York, that's at the police precinct or police district level, with a police captain. We empowered police precinct commanders to use the resources that they had to address community problems that were identified to them at the local level.

So while I developed at the headquarters level seven or eight major priorities -- seven or eight major strategies that we wanted the whole department to focus on, including our specialized units at headquarters, I authorized the local precinct commander to use his resources as he saw fit -- plain clothes, uniform, squad-types assignments -- whatever it took to deal with the issues in a police precinct.

These precincts in New York City have an average of about 100,000 people. They're small-size cities. And to try and run an eight-million person city with a centralized bureaucracy just was not working. So decentralization and empowerment of the precinct commanders was key.

And the idea also of using the police in a timely fashion. This was a department that was focused on reacting to crime. We re-engineered it to try to predict where crime was going to occur or to catch its occurrence very quickly before it multiplied into 30 or 40 incidents. And it's -- it was a management strategy. It was a philosophical strategy. And it was all based on the concept of community policing.

Community policing is a big buzz word in America today, but it really breaks down to three simple elements: partnership -- I call them the "three Ps" -- partnership, police working with community leaders with the rest of the criminal justice system, the political leadership -- to identify what are we going to work on.

And that's the second "p" -- problems. Rather than just chasing incidents, individual 911 calls, we focus on the problems that are generating those 911 calls or that are generating crime. So in partnership with each other, we focus on problems and we focused on preventing crime, not just reacting to it -- a major sea-change in thinking about the role of the police and clearly we have shown the police can be much more effective when they focus on preventing crime, rather than just reacting to it.

GROSS: My guest is William Bratton, former police commissioner of Boston and New York City. He's written a memoir called Turnaround. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is William Bratton, former police commissioner of New York City and Boston -- Boston is the city that he's from as you can tell from his Boston accent.

BRATTON: My accent's not that bad, is it?


I'll roll a few Rs toward you.

GROSS: Right. You've mentioned 911. What was your approach to dealing with 911 calls? I guess what I'd like is -- I'd like your perspective on 911 as a former police commissioner. As citizens, we like, you know, to call 911 if there's a crime that's about to take place or if we're feeling that we're about to be the victim of a crime. You make your call, you hope for the best. You hope the cops come. Sometimes they come really quickly. Sometimes they don't.

Give me your 911 story as the police commissioner. How does it to look to you from that perspective?

BRATTON: 911 was the monster that almost destroyed American policing. Fortunately, in the late '80s, '90s, we began to understand what had happened in the 20 years since it was conceived in the late '60s, early '70s. 911 was originally intended to serve as a management system to control the influx of calls from citizens; to speedily review those calls; and then very quickly dispatch police cars to respond to those calls.

And it prompted major changes in American policing in the '70s, where we took, in most cities around the country, police officers off of walking beats and neighborhood assignments and put them into cars to feed the 911 monster.

And unfortunately over time, particularly during the '70s when many American cities were experiencing cutbacks and services were being cut back, 911 was the one way to reach government; the one way, aside from pulling a fire alarm box that you would, in most instances, guarantee a response.

The problem was the public over-used and abused the system. So very quickly in city after city, the volume of calls exceeded our capacity to respond quickly. So the original intent, we could not ever hope to keep up. And that increased citizen frustration -- that you're waiting and waiting for the police to come.

Additionally, we measured our success on how quickly we came. But again, it was after the fact. And 911, while well-intended and a necessity, you cannot get rid of it. In community policing, you have partnership, problem solving, prevention -- a better way to go. But we still have to embrace within community policing the style of policing that was developed in the 1970s, which was built around 911 -- rapid response.

When not on radio calls, our officers were to randomly patrol neighborhoods in their cars, covering large areas, and keep the criminal element off-guard because you never knew when a police car might come around the corner.

And the third element of that policing era was react to investigation. Remember good old Joe Friday on "Dragnet"? "Just the facts, ma'am" and then in half an hour he'd always solve the crime. The Three Rs have now been absorbed into the Three Ps. And we can't get rid of them, but we are now reaching out for alternatives and -- in Baltimore for example, there's 311, which is a new concept to encourage citizens, if it's a non-emergency, that you need to speak to a police officer, but you're just going to make a report or you need to report something. Well, call 311 and the response will be delayed, but at least it's freeing up police cars to handle the true emergencies rapidly.

So it's an evolutionary process.

GROSS: In your 27 months as police commissioner of New York City, you presided over the city's sharpest crime drop -- in two years -- it's the sharpest two-year drop in the city's history. Murders dropped by 39 percent, and every other category of violent and property crime also fell. Arrests increased by 25 percent.

But there was also an increase of more than 50 percent, I understand, in civilian complaints about police misconduct and brutality, particularly in communities of color. What's your response to that aspect of it? The rise in complaints about police misconduct?

BRATTON: Well let's -- let's put it into context in the sense that the reduction in crime was actually during my 27 months -- 39 percent; and the reduction in murders, 50 percent. Since the peak year for crime in New York City was 1990, when there were 700,000 victims of crime in New York City -- the seven major crime categories.

A horrendous situation. In 1997, the most recent reporting year, there will be -- or there were about 750 to 800 people murdered in New York City -- a decline of almost 70 percent; a little over 2,000 people shot -- a decline from the 6,000; about 50,000 cars stolen, down from 143,000.

Historic, rapid declines in crime, to the extent that in 1997, there were 300,000 victims of crime in New York City, not 700,000. Also keep in mind that the people that were committing those crimes, many of them did not commit crime. So the 1,500 murder victims that did not occur -- that's 1,500 perpetrators who are now not doing time in jail for committing those murders. So we used the police effectively to change behavior by controlling that behavior.

Now in controlling that behavior, we had a very large police force -- a police force that expanded by over 6,000 officers in a three-year period of time, from 31,000 -- actually 7,000 officers -- up to 38,000. So you had a lot more cops; you've got a very different policing philosophy where after 25 years of accusing behavior, we're now trying to control behavior.

We also had a civilian complaint review board that came into existence in 1994 that was put in there to record citizen complaints. It was widely publicized, widely advertised. And with 38,000 cops out there every day, the citizen interaction increased dramatically.

Against that backdrop, the number of complaints against New York City police officers is around 5-6,000 a year. Think of it: A population of 7 1/2 million; 350,000 people arrested; 38,000 cops; four million summonses -- against all that activity, 5,000 complaints against the police for all manner of activity -- use of force, verbal abuse, racial slur. That's less than one complaint for every seven police officers in the City of New York in the course of a year.

You ask the average New York citizen: Would he prefer it the way it was in 1990? Or would he prefer it the way it is in 1997, '98? I think he'll vote for '97, '98.

GROSS: You write in your book that cops learn that they have discretion that they can use in enforcing the laws.

BRATTON: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: For example, not every civilian gets a ticket for going through a red light. You can give an oral warning. You can give a written warning. You can write a ticket. I know a lot of African Americans feel that that discretion is used against them; that for instance, an African American male driving a car is more likely to be the victim of a search ...

BRATTON: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: ... is more likely to get stopped by a cop. And I wonder what your thoughts are on that?; if you've found that to be true in your experience as a cop? If it's something you've tried to deal with in your work as a police commissioner?

BRATTON: Right. That is the reality, and as much as we'd like to think that is not the case, that -- I have too much first-hand awareness of that from friends in the city -- black friends, professional business people -- all of whom have those types of horror stories. I have it from black police officers who -- many of whom were close to me, worked on my personal staff when I did focus groups to talk about these issues.

Every one of them would have a horror story where, as police officers off-duty, they were accosted by uniformed police. And even after identifying themselves, the harassment continued.

And that is a fact. It is a unfortunate reality. It's something that police commissioners, police chiefs, governors, mayors -- all have to be mindful of, that there is within policing an element, a number of cops, who under the cloak of their power and authority, do seek to abuse. And it is something that can be addressed. It is a problem that needs to be addressed, and one I'd like to think that throughout my career I've attempted to address -- sometimes successfully; sometimes not.

GROSS: What have you been able to do as a police commissioner to address that?

BRATTON: Well, one is the training that you give; two, is the supervision that you provide; three is the discipline that you mete out to make it quite clear that as police officers that when you put that suit on, when you put that shield on, that you need to be colorblind, if you will. You need to be dealing with people as people, not as blacks, not as whites, not as male, not as female, not as gay, not as straight -- that there needs to be a degree of understanding.

And that's some of the training changes that I've talked about. We received none of that in Boston in 1970 when I joined the Boston police department. Now, we spend tremendous amounts of time in police academies attempting to, one, before we bring people on the job, see if we can identify those that are racist; those that are homophobic. But two, that in our training, try to develop systems that will ensure that when police are out in the street, that even if the have prejudices, that those prejudices are subsumed to the need to be fair to all people.

GROSS: William Bratton is the former police commissioner of Boston and New York City. He's written a memoir called Turnaround. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with William Bratton. He worked his way up from Boston street cop to police commissioner of Boston. He also worked in New York City as head of the transit police and as police commissioner.

In New York, he presided over the most dramatic drop in crime in the city's history. He's written a new memoir called Turnaround.

You had a chance to try out your ideas in New York when you were the head of the New York City transit cops -- the cops that patrol the subways. And when you got to New York, the subways struck you, you write, as a "hell hole," and I think a lot of New Yorkers would -- would concur with that description.

Describe for us what disturbed you most when you first came to New York to work at the head of the transit police?

BRATTON: Well, the fact that nobody seemed to be in control. The subways under Bob Kiley's (ph) leadership, who was then the president of the MTA, had done a great job getting rid of graffiti off the train cars. Every car was covered in the '80s, but by the early '90s it was gone and the cars were air-conditioned.

But the conditions in the stations -- at the turnstiles where you paid your fare; on the platforms; in the trains -- all of these quality of life offenses were particularly problematic below ground because you're in a confined space. There's no place to escape from them.

And what did you see upon entering the subway? Well, at the turnstiles back in the '90s, most of the turnstiles would be broken, vandalized. Why? Because the vandals would either (1) your token would go in and they'd suck the token out because you couldn't get it out; or they'd disable the turnstile so the only way into the subway was through what they called a "slam" gate, which was a gate. And they would stand there, and like the squeegie pests, demand your token to let you pass unaccosted.

Additionally, fare evasion had become very rampant -- that 250,000 people a day out of the three million riders were not paying the fare. And you're an honest citizen, you pay a fare -- but after a period of time if you see people all around you not paying, well you know, your behavior's going to change.

Then you get down to the subway platforms and there were homeless encampments -- almost 5,000 people living in the subway in cardboard cities, stretched out all over the benches with cardboard boxes at the end of the platforms; hundreds of others living deep in the tunnels. Over 100 people a year were dying in the subway system, most of them homeless in drunken stupor or under the influence of drugs, walking into trains or falling off platforms.

Then you get on the subway cars, and every car seemed to have its own beggar, aggressively accosting you -- indicating "I've got TB," "I have AIDS" -- open ulcerated sores -- not a very pleasant experience.

And what were we doing about it, really? Not much. We didn't know how to deal with it. In 1990 when I was hired, we came in with a better way of doing it. We began to use the police to (1) arrest fare evaders. In other words, if you did not pay your fare, you stood a good chance of being arrested and paying a penalty. Fare evasion today in the subway in the city is down to about 25,000 people a day, down from a quarter of a million in 1990.

How did that change? We used the police to control behavior to such an extent we changed it.

GROSS: One of the things you did when you were head of the New York City transit police was to change the weapons that the police used.

BRATTON: That's correct.

GROSS: You went from .38s to semi-automatic weapons.

BRATTON: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: Why did you feel you needed the semi-automatic weapons, given that the police were focusing so much on the quality of life crimes -- the panhandlers, the guys who were sucking tokens out of the turnstiles? You wouldn't need a semi-automatic weapon, most likely, for most of those offenses.

BRATTON: Well, interestingly enough, the issue of the transition from revolvers, six-shot revolvers, to 15-shot semi-automatic weapons was not controversial anywhere in America, but New York City, which was reflective of the libertarian interests that were here and the idea that everything in New York gets embroiled in politics.

So when I first proposed arming my police -- the transit police -- with nine millimeters, Mayor Dinkins, Commissioner Lee Brown, New York Times, many of the politicians in this city argued very aggressively, editorialized, against that transition for just the same argument you used: What do they need more than six shots for?

Well, the reality in New York City was that transit police, by and large, were patrolling by themselves in the subway. They had a very unreliable radio system so that many areas of the subway system, they were not in radio communications. They were increasingly dealing with a very sophisticated weaponry in the hands of young juveniles, career predators, who were not reluctant to use their weapons. They were literally being outgunned.

And in a city as large as New York, while thankfully shooting incidents are relatively rare when you think of the number of police, number of criminals in the city, that there were still such a large number of them that I felt very comfortable equipping officers with the best equipment possible because I could rely on my training systems, my supervision systems, that they would not abuse that weapon.

And it was a significant not only morale factor of the officers, but from my perspective, a safety factor. We fought an uphill battle and we won. The -- again -- we won against the editorializing of the New York Times. We won against a mayor and a police commissioner. And it was seen as a very significant victory for the cops.

GROSS: William Bratton is my guest, and he's the former commissioner of the New York City police and the Boston police. And he's written a memoir called Turnaround.

You write that by the time you were age 18, you knew you wanted to be a cop, but Boston didn't hire cops until the age of 21. So you joined the military with the hopes of joining the military police, which you did. And you say the whole idea of the military police was based on spit and polish. And I'm wondering how that shaped your thinking for, you know ...

BRATTON: Well, I'm a ...

GROSS: ... yeah.

BRATTON: ... I'm an orderly person by nature. I -- I recognize the importance of in a military or semi-military organization, the importance of appearance to getting the job done. And in 1966, I joined the army for three years because I would have been drafted anyway for two years. It was the height of the Vietnam War. By going in for the extra year, I could choose my assignment and I wanted to be on with the military policemen.

Unfortunately, I got caught up in a new system that military police officers were being used to walk sentry dogs. So for three years, I walked behind a dog guarding ammunition dumps. So it wasn't quite my idea of being a police officer.

But the whole idea of appearance is very important. And in every organization I've gone into, I'm known for repainting the police cars, redoing uniforms, getting equipment and facilities 'cause it's important to morale. It's important to the appearance that the cops create - present to the public. And it's -- it works.

GROSS: You weren't a good shot.

BRATTON: I'm an awful shot. I still don't carry a gun because I'd hit everything but what I was shooting at.

GROSS: How has that affected your career? Do you think it helped you become an administrator as opposed to, you know, staying on the beat or becoming a detective?

BRATTON: No, actually how it's shaped my career is that it's really focused me on the importance of training. One of the reasons why the leadership of the NYPD -- my predecessor as commissioner -- would not support nine millimeters for their officers is that they didn't trust their own training systems. They thought that their police could not be trained appropriately to handle those weapons.

As a bad shot -- to somebody who doesn't like guns. I don't like carrying them. I don't like them around. I don't feel comfortable with them. I came to fully appreciate the importance of training and supervision and having weapons that were reliable and weapons that were accurate.

So my negativism toward firearms really shaped my positive thinking about use of firearms by police. And it really was a positive in the final analysis.

GROSS: Well William Bratton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BRATTON: Well, it was a pleasure being with you this morning. Thank you for the opportunity.

GROSS: William Bratton is the former police commissioner of Boston and New York City. His new memoir is called Turnaround.

Coming up, taking pictures of a disappearing America.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: William Bratton
High: Former police commissioner of New York City and Boston, William Bratton. When taking over as New York's commissioner in 1994 he publicly vowed to bring the crime rate down. His new memoir is about how he accomplished his goal, "Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic."
Spec: Crime; Cities; New York; Murder; Poverty; Zero Tolerance
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Turnaround

Date: FEBRUARY 04, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020402NP.217
Head: Imprints: A Retrospective
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Photographer David Plowden always loved trains. As a young man, he was assistant to the trainmaster for the Great Northern Railroad. He started his photography career at about the same time that steam locomotives were disappearing. His early work documented those trains in their final hour.

Ever since then, he's tried to capture parts of America that were on the verge of disappearing, from steel mills to general stores. His work has been published in his 19 books and is in the permanent collection of many museums.

His new book, "Imprints," is a 40-year retrospective. He writes that he spent his career trying to stay one step ahead of the wrecking ball. I asked him why.

DAVID PLOWDEN, PHOTOGRAPHER, "IMPRINTS: A RETROSPECTIVE": Well, I suppose because I feel that we are losing our sort of sense of -- well, how do I put it? -- the sort of sense of roots -- the root system of our culture. I started by photographing steam engines long ago when I was a little boy, and realized that these things were going to disappear. They were very important. And if I looked around, I -- I saw all of the things that I remember as being sort of the fabric of -- of what I considered to be our culture beginning to go.

And I thought, as a photographer, when I became a photographer, that perhaps I should record these things, at least a way of recording them before they disappeared, because I felt that these things represented the very things that we considered, I guess, important; our relationships with people as represented by a small town; some of our great and wonderful things like the great bridges we used to build. We still do make bridges, but some of the things that fascinated me, I felt we were -- we were losing.

A shopping center, to me, is not nearly as interesting as a -- as main street. I think the thing -- one of the things that I felt was that we were sort of losing our sense of who we were. We kept tearing everything down.

GROSS: The first photographic expedition that you made after you became a professional photographer was to eastern Canada and Maine, to photograph steam locomotives. Did you realize by then that they were disappearing?

PLOWDEN: Oh yes, very much, and that's why I made -- that's why I made the trip.

GROSS: This was in 1959.

PLOWDEN: '59 -- the summer of '59 -- and then the following spring, 1960. And I realized, you know, that I had a few actors, maybe a dozen -- maybe two dozen locomotives that would have to stand for the whole sense of locomotive-ness. Everything -- it doesn't make any difference to me whether they're (Unintelligible) Pacific or not. But they were locomotives.

And this sort of set the tone of my photography ever since -- that I would realize, you know, that I wasn't interested in the specific engine, but I was interested in the -- in how it smelled and how it sounded and really the sort of drama and the wonder of the machine, and of all the people who worked on it.

And so I worked like fury, right up until the last day of the last run, photographing my heart out, trying to convey the sense of what these things were for generations who would not understand them; not know them -- trying to make them look interesting and important.

GROSS: Can you describe one of your photographs that you think captured the sense of power of the steam locomotive? And the sense of connection -- that it was the train that connected you to the outside world?

PLOWDEN: Well, there's a picture in there of a locomotive on its very last day, which is on page 83, 82 of the book -- the 2412 -- and it's a big huge locomotive. And there's a little man coming down the side of the engine. And to me, the idea that man could have created this machine and then run it, though he be so puny in the picture and so small, has always fascinated me; that we can create these remarkable things to do things for us. And I suppose that's one of my most favorite photographs of a locomotive.

And it just so happened that this was on the very last -- they were taking it out of service at that very moment.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Plowden. His new book of photographs is called Imprints: A Retospective.

You spent years photographing steel mills. And in your new book you write that you're very ambivalent about what they represent. And you say: "In all the years I have spent photographing the spectacular and the hideous, there's one particular incident that I shall never forget." This is in a steel mill in the Ohio Valley and I want you to tell what that incident was.

PLOWDEN: Well, it was when I was in the mill in some place that I was told I couldn't photograph because the company wouldn't want this recorded. And I was taken into this place where they were galvanizing and pickling, as they call it, sheets of metal.

And it was a sort of a medieval chamber, and as I said, it reminded me of pictures of a bombed out cathedral. It was all filled with sort of sulfurous and vile fumes. And in the middle of this room were these men who -- you know, steel mills were very primitive places and -- in many ways -- and the -- these men were sort of trudging around pushing these great, huge pieces of steel that were attached to chains. They were attached to some sort of apparatus above.

And they were dropping these things into these -- into this pit. And it reminded me of something out of -- really, out of Dante. It was - it was a horrendous place. And I thought to myself, you know, it's -- it's this incredibly primitive side of -- and horrendous side of industry. Here are people working under these conditions, and then you look at these beautiful shining bridges and skyscrapers that we produce out of steel. And I think -- I think the experience of being in there was one of the, you know, it makes you realize why there are so many bars coming away from the mill gates. It's a pretty horrendous place to work.

GROSS: Do you regret that you were unable to take a photo of the part of the steel mill that you describe?

PLOWDEN: I mean, I really -- you know, I've -- there was really nothing I could do about making a photograph because I was taken to a place by a man who essentially said "I'll lose my job if I go -- if you make any photographs here." The image has been in my mind, and so I have tried to photograph other places that are like that, and in other situations which try to show that side, that very dark side of the industrial process.

The steel mill seems to be a place where everybody is sort of at odds with -- with -- at war, let us say. And it's a -- it's an extraordinary place. I mean, here we have taken rock and turned it into metal, and it's sort of like a man-made volcano. I mean, it's just -- it's absolutely mind-boggling.

GROSS: You have a series of photos of grain elevators, and you describe them as some of the most powerful icons of the century -- these gargantuan grain elevators, but you say they're among the most powerful symbols of a boisterous, productive, young America.

What got you interested in doing photographic studies of grain elevators?

PLOWDEN: Well I suppose because again, I mean when I first came out to the Middle West years ago as a visitor, and when I worked on the railroad, the one thing that impressed me was the fact that almost every little town had a grain elevator. And in a way, you know, New England has a -- has its little white clapboard church, every town in the Middle West either has a -- has a wooden or a concrete grain elevator. And these things -- these things are the center of the town because they are -- in many ways, because these are farming communities.

And so they are filled with the -- with the grain that is produced by the farmers, by the hinterland. And to me they were almost like temples. I mean, they were -- they were the icons of agriculture and, to me, of the heartland of this country. So I -- I did become fascinated with them.

And what was always interesting was because you'd be standing on a street photographing one of these things, and some guy would drive up to you in a pickup truck and say: "What on Earth are you photographing?" And I'd say: "I'm photographing the grain elevator." And he'd say: "What for?" And then I'd say: "Well, because it's -- it's the most important building in town."

And truly, if you look across the prairie, I mean, they're like -- they're like little miniature skyscrapers. And they're all so huge. I mean, the ones in Buffalo and Minneapolis and some of the -- and Enid, Oklahoma and places like that, I mean they are absolutely as -- as massive as pyramids. I mean, they're huge. And it's this massiveness, just like the steel mill and the grain elevator, which to me represent the American spirit and the sense of, I mean, we're a huge country -- make no little plans, said Daniel Brennerman (ph). We didn't.

GROSS: Now, it would be possible to see these huge, very industrial-looking grain elevators as being monstrous.

PLOWDEN: I know.

GROSS: But you don't see them that way.

PLOWDEN: And a lot of people think they are. No ...

GROSS: Yeah.

PLOWDEN: ... no, I think -- I think they are magnificent examples of -- of what we did best, which was to make useful things.

GROSS: My guest is photographer David Plowden. His new book is a 40-year retrospective called Imprints. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


Back with photographer David Plowden. He's spent much of the past 40 years taking pictures of parts of America on the verge of disappearing, from general stores to steel mills.

You have a picture of a general store in your new collection of photos. It's a general store in Cedar Bluff, Iowa. It was taken in 1987. What was significant about this store?

PLOWDEN: The significance about that store was it was about to close. And the people who had run the store had been running it for 50-odd years. And they couldn't get the people who delivered goods to come off the interstate highway, which was only about 15 miles away, to deliver things to them.

So they had to have it sent by UPS from some place in Kentucky. They simply couldn't compete. And they were selling out everything they had. And, as the lady who ran the store said to me, "Well, we think that it will last until school's out."

This was taken in February. And school was out in May or June. And I went back there, and the doors were shut.

And to me, this was, you know, it was -- going into that store was like going into Sy Davidson's (ph) store in Putney (ph) as a kid. I mean, the same things were on the shelves. And it was a time warp.

And I photographed it because I knew that it was -- I mean, someone told me that store was going to close. And it was one of the last general stores in that part of Iowa. And so I went very specifically to photograph it.

GROSS: Did you send a copy to the owners of the store?

PLOWDEN: Oh, yes. I sent -- I always try to send copies of pictures to the people that I photograph. And I always tell them when I'm doing it that I'm doing it for a book or some specific project.

And I, you know, I'm very open and up front about what I'm doing. And I -- because I think in the first place, it's a privilege to go into these places. It's not a right.

And I feel, you know, very reticent about just walking into somebody and start photographing, some of these places, start photographing without explaining the reason I'm doing it. And I explain.

I said, "Look, I understand you're not going to be in business much longer, and I wondered if I could document what is an important part of the town?"

And, "Of course," she said. "Absolutely."

GROSS: Of all the photos that you've taken of places and things and bridges and boats and trains that have disappeared, is there anything that surprised you because it disappeared? Is there anything that you took a picture of that you really didn't expect to disappear but it did anyway?

PLOWDEN: Well, yes, I guess. Well, I never expected that I would sort of see the partial demise of the steel industry. I never really expected when I was growing up that I would see the change -- the profound change -- of small towns and communities being replaced essentially by shopping malls.

I had no idea what that -- you know, I -- so the things that I photograph, in the beginning, I sense that things are going to be changing. This was something I -- I guess, started very early with me.

But when I actually discovered that they were gone, I suppose there's always a tremendous shock. And one of the things, you know, I spent six years photographing bridges. And I crossed back and forth across this country many, many times, and Canada, photographing bridges, because I knew that a lot of these great and wonderful bridges that we had made were going to be replaced.

And when I would look at some of these bridges, I would think to myself, "How could anything so strong and so magnificent be in danger of being torn down, because it's too narrow or because it's in some way or other outmoded?"

And I always when I go back and look at these pictures of bridges, I always, I'm always amazed at how many of them are not there and how these great and noble structures are, which really to me represented the very best of what we could do, have vanished.

GROSS: You know, because you have spent so much of your life traveling around the United States photographing things, I think you really have a sense of the U.S. as a country. I mean, most of us feel like we live in a town or a city or a state or a neighborhood or something. But you seem to really have a sense of the United States.

PLOWDEN: Well, that's nice of you to say, because I really -- I really have poked around in almost every part of the country except the south. And I have been there.

But you know, I say -- I tell a story that, you know, my cousins are, you know, my father was English. I have a lot of English cousins and a lot of people used to -- friends used to come from England. And they used to come. And they used to fly to New York. And then they would fly to Boston or to Washington. And sometimes they'd go to Philadelphia.

And then they would fly across to Los Angeles and then fly home across the pole. And then a few days later we would get a nice little letter saying how nice it was to have seen America. And of course, they hadn't seen anything except the coasts.

And I have spent my life being an east-coaster and growing up in the East. I found I didn't know very much about this country. And when I went to work for the railroad in 1955 after I graduated from college, I suddenly realized I knew nothing about my country, nothing at all. And so I felt -- and I was absolutely over-awed by the scale, by the -- and by the immensity of the land, and by the grain elevators and the small towns.

And I thought to myself, "Well, if I'm an American, I'd better learn something about my country." And so I have spent the rest of my life exploring it. And I really have. To me, this is -- I don't feel I can call myself an American unless I have seen it.

GROSS: Well, David Plowden, I want to thank you very much for talking about your pictures with us.

PLOWDEN: Thank you.

GROSS: David Plowden's new book of photographs, "Imprints," is a 40-year retrospective.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Plowden
High: Photographer David Plowden. He's spent 40 years chronicling the changing face of America. His new book "Imprints: A Retrospective" encompasses that work. Plowden's work is at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian and The Library of Congress.
Spec: Arts; Photography; Culture; Imprints: A Retrospective
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Imprints: A Retrospective
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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