Photographer Stephen Harmon’s remembrance of Countess Vera, The Woman Who Loved Pigeons, was so well-received that we asked him to search his archives for another nostalgic photo essay. He sent this one about the Off-Track Betting parlor on West 72nd Street, in the 1970s and 80s.
By Stephen Harmon
Fifty years ago this month, the first OTB (Off-Track Betting) parlor opened for business in NYC, and by the mid-1980s, there were over 150 throughout the boroughs. Before the advent of OTB, betting on a horserace was illegal, except for bets placed at the racetrack. Not everyone could get to a racetrack, so every neighborhood had a bookie, or several, who worked the illegal operation usually from a legal neighborhood business, such as a candy store, or a grocery, or a diner. Sometimes they used violence to collect on a wager.
OTB was started for two primary laudable purposes. First, to provide a government-authorized venue for placing non-racetrack bets on horse races, and, second, to raise revenue for NYS, which took a percentage of the wagering. Why OTB failed in NYC is too complicated for me to discuss. Suffice it to say part of the reason was competition from casinos that opened in Atlantic City in 1978 and from the ever-growing NYS Lottery, as well as from other kinds of wagering. By the early to mid 1980s, OTB parlors were considered by many to be unsightly and unpleasant (many did not have toilets in order to dissuade customers from staying at the OTB for hours), and the clientele was considered by non-bettors to be unattractive, lazy or just unsavory. I, however, did not see it that way.
My neighborhood OTB was a fairly large one on the south side of W. 72nd Street, a few doors from Broadway. I saw the OTB in the late 1970s and 1980s as a democratic (small “d”) place that was available to everyone — men, women, old, young, white, black, brown or other color. The people who bet inside or just hung around outside were so wonderful to see. Some of them looked like they had just walked out of a Damon Runyon novel. They could spend a few minutes or a few hours talking with each other and enjoying each other’s company. The OTB was a big part of the soul of that area of the UWS. I was not a bettor, but I was sorry to see it go.
Here are some photos of how it looked to me. Most of these are from 1982.
There’s also a movie about OTB by lifelong Upper West Sider Joseph Fusco that is now out on demand. It’s called “Finish Line: The Rise and Demise of Off-Track Betting” and is available for rent or purchase here.