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40th Anniversary

Boom-Bust-Boom Town

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1977: The blackout.  

The nationally branded version of “the late sixties” may have been mainly about flowers and sunshine, but the New York edition was edgy, even grisly, always embedded with the imagination of disaster—that is, New Yorkier. Elsewhere the new romantics were escapists, dreaming of Arcadia; here, the model was more Weimar Republic, a dystopian Utopia. Cabaret, after all, became a Broadway smash two years before Hair opened. Andy Warhol’s Factory was a dark place. The archetypal New York band was Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground, singing songs about sadomasochism, transsexuals, and heroin. The city’s best-remembered and most important moment of sixties social protest wasn’t a well-planned antiwar march or tripped-out Be-In but a spontaneous riot by homosexuals outside a Mafia-owned dive in the Village.

In other words, the Beat-inflected hipsters of New York raced through or entirely skipped the peace-and-love phase. And in the seventies, the best of times got more so—when Saturday Night Live and CBGB were brand new, I rented a sweet East Village apartment with two exposed-brick bedrooms and a working fireplace for $410—and so did the worst of times. In fact, they started to feel a little like end-times. New York City’s budget was so out of whack by 1975 that it couldn’t sell its municipal bonds, and 38,000 municipal workers (including 5,000 cops) were furloughed—the first such layoffs since the Great Depression. Garbage piled up in enormous stinking heaps. Subway cars lacked air-conditioning and were covered in graffiti.

On Easter Sunday in 1976 at St. John the Divine, the Episcopal bishop Paul Moore Jr., one of the city’s final Wasp titans (and, we learned this year, a secret homosexual), delivered the last sermon to which New Yorkers paid close attention. “Great hulks of buildings stand abandoned and burned,’’ he preached. “Look over your city and weep, for your city is dying. Be part of the rising, not the dying.” A pious new president of the United States was nominated at Madison Square Garden a few months later, and when he visited the South Bronx for a photo op the following year, the iconic images looked like Beirut. Exactly a week after Jimmy Carter went to Charlotte Street, during the second game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Howard Cosell delivered his voice-over to an ABC aerial shot of the neighborhood: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

“Look over your city and weep, for your city is dying.”

But we danced by the light of the fires. As the Bronx was burning, its sons—D.J. Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa—were giving birth to the most important new popular musical form of the last 40 years. And in the four-mile-long fillet of Manhattan from the Park to the new World Trade Center, Weimarized New York, post-disaster but pre-apocalypse, thrived, in its fashion. Between 1975 and 1978, when the city’s disintegration was at its most vivid and apparently irremediable, Studio 54 and the Mineshaft and the Mudd Club and Plato’s Retreat and Mortimer’s and Tavern on the Green all opened, as did the Palace on East 59th, famous exclusively for being the priciest restaurant ever. The 1977 blackout, complete with looting, didn’t slow down the party. A kind of willfully childish gaiety reigned. Again, Henry James saw it coming 70 years earlier—a city “so nocturnal, so bacchanal, so hugely hatted and feathered and flounced, yet apparently so innocent.”

It was at this bleak but giddy moment that Rupert Murdoch’s sudden appearance (in 1976 and 1977, he bought the Post, the Voice, and this magazine) reinforced the local sense that New York was falling to pieces, and being sold off for parts. Murdoch’s Post—manic, loud, prurient, shameless, proudly unrespectable, finding entertainment in the hideous—was both an appalling funhouse mirror and an absolutely accurate reflection of the city.

For reasons that made no rational financial sense, Murdoch was besotted by New York, and by the idea of owning a sort of postmodern parody of a rough-and-ready tabloid. I’ve always been fond of Murdoch, despite everything, partly because he made a big, risky bet on this city at its grottiest, ultra-bathetic state, an enthusiastic out-of-towner who came in and bought low just as I, in my own tiny way, was doing the same. Collectively, the moving and shaking of Murdoch and the hip-hop pioneers and the would-be artistes living in the rougher precincts of lower Manhattan (as well as a few white knights of the Establishment like Felix Rohatyn) amounted to the first stirrings of the phoenix in the ashes.

Not that we knew it then. And the rebirth occurred neither quickly nor unambiguously. Among these last 40 years, the most pivotal may have been 1982. I remember the May morning I read the first Times story about the mysterious sexually transmitted illness infecting gay men. Nearly half of the 335 known cases, the article said, were in New York City. Fourteen libertine years had passed since 1968—as it happens, exactly as long as the actual Weimar Republic lasted.


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