New York in the '70s: The Grit Wasn't So Splendid

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June 12 2009 9:49 AM

New York in the '70s: The Grit Wasn't So Splendid

With today's release of The Taking of Pelham 123, Tony Scott's remake of the 1974 caper film about a hijacked No. 6 train, I am bracing for another onslaught of nostalgia for New York City in the 1970s. The theory goes like this: Back when the city was nearly bankrupt and everyone looked like Al Pacino in Serpico, New York was scuzzy, but it had soul. (Because it was scuzzy, it had soul.) The lofts of SoHo were hives of funky industry. Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin were trying to strangle each other in the Yankee clubhouse. Television was playing at CBGBs; Bianca Jagger was snorting coke at Studio 54. Everyone was out of work; there was a real-live serial killer on the loose; and when a blackout hit the city, actual looting and mayhem ensued! You know, New York was dangerous, "edgy"—authentic.

This has become a party-line position among New York's arty chattering classes, especially as the economic downturn threatens to teleport us back to the bad old days. A trendy thing to say (in certain New York circles, at least) is that '70s-style deprivation would ultimately be a boon, scrubbing the gilding off the 21st-century metropolis and purging the town of hedge-funders and Eurotrash. The rents would drop, and bohemia would blossom again in the shadows of the condo towers and chain stores.

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James Wolcott doesn't go that far in his tone poem to '70s New York published in the June issue of Vanity Fair. But "Splendor in the Grit" typifies the romantic pop-historical vision of the period—a surprise, coming from Wolcott's normally acid-dipped pen. Wolcott draws reasonable contrasts between the city of then and now, pointing out that New York was "a more egalitarian city than it subsequently became with the rise of the super-rich," and that Manhattan below 14th Street holds less surprise today than it did in the days when "art galleries and Off Off Off Broadway theaters could spring up in shoebox storefronts."

But then he gets all rhapsodic about how hard-boiled the place was. The city, he writes, instilled in its denizens a "jungle-cat quickness ... and fine-tuned a ninja ability to suss out something ugly about to go down at the pimp bar." The tourists "looked scared." (Awesome!) And Wolcott's kicker is a doozy. Evoking the possibility of a "second go-round of the 70s" this time with "those spiky glass buildings that have gone up in recent years ... reflecting our own overreaching folly back at us with sterile mockery," Wolcott concludes: "Really, I much prefer rubble."

Oh, does he? Wolcott may have seen rubble on the front page of the Times when President Carter visited the South Bronx. But I doubt he had to step over any on his way to the art-house cinemas about which he waxes lyrical. I don't know about Wolcott's own circumstances, but I'm confident that many of his fellow travelers in '70s bourgeois-bohemia had a social safety net to fall back on if things really got ugly—namely, parents in a Westchester colonial or a Central Park West classic six with an empty guest room and a full refrigerator.

If you weren't a scene maker, New York's crumminess held a lot less allure. Stagflation, rotting infrastructure, sanitation workers' strikes, and rampant crime didn't just turn New Yorkers into ninjas and jungle cats—it made the city an incredibly unpleasant and often terrifying place to live. I have a memory, from around the time I was in second grade, of a perhaps forgotten New York folkway: the breakfast table distribution of "mugger money," cash that parents would give to their kids before packing them off to school. The idea being that a $20 bill would placate the mugger so he would opt not to blow a child's head off.

Or take some more memories from my family scrapbook. My mother was robbed at knifepoint on upper Broadway two times in 1974. She worked for a time at a city-run drug rehabilitation program in the Bronx, where she witnessed appalling corruption, including the sexual exploitation of junkie prostitutes by the bureaucrat in charge. (Her attempts to report this to higher-ups were met with indifference.) She got laid off in fiscal crisis of 1975 and took a job driving a taxi, which was very scary work, especially for a woman. Eventually, she had to move with her young son to Boston—a far worse fate, as I'm sure Wolcott knows, than living in a New York with fewer storefront galleries.

I hasten to add that my mother was a Barnard-educated professional who grew up in a tony Connecticut town, in the heart of New York's affluent commuter belt. Things were much direr for those teenage hookers in the rehab program and for millions of other New Yorkers whose plight is reduced, in the Life on Mars-Bronx Is Burning version of history, to the backdrop before which scenes of "gritty" glamour unfold.

Don't get me wrong: New York in the '70s was uniquely vibrant. No reasonable person is immune to the charms of Bella Abzug's hats, the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album, or Joseph Sargent's crud-caked lens. But the town was also uniquely miserable—not a place we want to revisit. There is something gross about nostalgists aestheticizing squalor that they never really, fully experienced.

As for rubble: It still exists in New York City in 2009, and Wolcott doesn't even have to leave his home borough of Manhattan to see it, although he might need to use his MetroCard. The thing is, rubble looks a lot better from a distance of 35 blocks, or 35 years.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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