New York was a very different place in the 1980s. Throughout America, and the world, it had a reputation for being a crime-riddled, dirty metropolis – one much changed from its bustling, mid-twentieth century prime. And nowhere was this more evident than on the city’s subway trains and platforms. Once the pride of Manhattan and the boroughs, the network had become a virtual no-go area both at night and during the day. Indeed, even a cursory glance at crime statistics shows us that in 1985 there were approximately 14,000 underground felonies – a far cry from today’s approximate 2,000.
But to a then 22-year-old Florida photographer named Christopher Morris, who was interning at New York photo agency Black Star, and who was eager to make his mark like photographers he admired working in Beirut and El Salvador, this graffiti battleground proved an opportunity to work on something of a domestic front line. Over a six-month period in 1981, Morris (now a TIME contract photographer) embedded himself in the world below, sometimes riding the trains alone, other times riding with the Guardian Angels volunteer anti-crime group. He’d hang out with groups of teens riding trains at night, and show up in the early morning to catch work-bound commuters.