What always interested me about NY when I first came here in the late ’80s was how, like London, it was essentially a working class city. The working classes lived in the heart of the city, and constituted a great deal of its personality. Sure, the economic, media, and fashion elites, the beautiful people – they were all here. But at bottom, NY was fed, consumed, given its vitality by the great mass of its working people: black, white; Manhattan and outer boroughs. All these classes, often in conflict, also fed off each other, gave Manhattan, the whole city, its great dynamism. NY still contains many working people of course, but with the loss of the industrial base and rampant gentrification, a great many less of them are in the central part of the city.
During that period of great decline, which started in the 60’s, and continued through the ’70s and into the ’80s, many poorer neighborhoods were made unlivable. Abandoned buildings became haves for drugs, crime, the lost. In some neighborhoods, usually central, they became have for artists, bohemians, outcasts of all kinds.
What fascinates me was the mix of decay and glamor, how the two existed side by side. In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, you’d never know the Bronx, or the LES existed yet his New York was no less real than, say, Taxi Driver. The decay of the LES was only a short walk from the power of Wall Street, with the Twin Towers in view throughout the lower part of the island. Even those without power could see it all around them. This could work both ways of course, but it was very different from being stuck in an outpost of, say, Detroit. This is why I don’t think Detroit, or any city like it, will ever become the ‘new’ New York.
It wasn’t all crime and misery, it’s important to remember that.
A lot of people in my neighborhood, Bed-Stuy, talk about my neighborhood being a pretty good place in the 1970’s. Crime was relatively low, shops were still around, and the community was strong. It wasn’t until the crack epidemic of the 80’s, and the gang culture that came with it, that life got really hard, and continued so until very recently.
So let’s look back, in video . . .
Police on the street, 1970’s: “Being a cop has got to be the toughest way I know, to make a living!”
Bus trip traveling east on 14th street, 1973:
Montage of NYC in the 70’s to the Stones’ Shattered:
To read more, see City of Strangers blog