Escape From New York

When Gotham bottomed out: A serial killer, widespread arson, and the seeds of reinvention

Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning gets its title from a fire that broke out inside an abandoned public school a few blocks from Yankee Stadium on the night the Bombers played the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Two of the 1977 World Series. The flames were visible from inside the ballpark, and ABC's Howard Cosell, whom Mahler notes "later misidentified the building as an apartment complex," announced to TV viewers with his inimitable grandiloquence that our uppermost borough was ablaze.

As if the nation didn't already know it. Two years before, President Gerald Ford had told the running-in-the-red Apple to "Drop Dead," as the Daily News headline succinctly put it. Ford's contempt for the five boroughs suited the country just fine. "The syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak understated the matter considerably," Mahler observes, "when they wrote, 'Americans do not much like, admire, respect, trust, or believe in New York.'"

With defining features like public transportation and a multiculti citizenry, the city looked to the heartland like a petri dish of socialism rotting from its own homegrown bacteria. Worse, some of the most memorable American movies of this era, born of urban diversity, only egged the nation—not just the raw, street-fighting-man tales of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, but the ghoulish gangland fantasy of The Warriors, and even 1981's Escape From New York, which bookended the era by imagining a futuristic Manhattan converted into a penal colony, and which at the time didn't probably scan as science fiction so much as wish fulfillment for the national audience.

New York subway car, 1977
photo: James Hamilton
New York subway car, 1977

Details

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City
By Jonathan Mahler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 339 pp., $25
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Ladies and Gentlemen vividly recounts 1977, the year Gotham bottomed out. By that time, municipal insolvency was the least of City Hall's troubles. A serial killer the tabs dubbed Son of Sam was on the loose. Then an infamous blackout in July resulted in riots and looting on the city's most impoverished blocks. The property damage was most severe in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood already "fighting a losing battle against arsonists." (According to Mahler there were 4,000 fires in Bushwick between 1975 and September 1977.) When that long, hot summer night was at last over, 3,776 people had been arrested—at the time, a city record for mass arrests.

Yet that October the Yanks, who had a blustery new owner named George Steinbrenner, won their first championship in 13 years. For Mahler, that victory was an omen of a city reinventing itself. The Boss, Reggie Jackson, and Rupert Murdoch—who had recently bought the New York Post and revitalized it with his sensationalist touch—"would lead the city into a new era." Mahler gives these "emerging titans" as much credit as Mayor Ed Koch for laying the foundation of Giuliani-Bloomberg's safe-for-Friends metropolis. The "new New York . . . was going to be different. The city that had once dared fly in the face of capitalism could no longer aspire to be all things to all its people. New York's future belonged not to labor bosses, political power brokers, or social visionaries but . . . to entrepreneurs."

In a recent article in New York magazine that was composed essentially of outtakes from this book, Mahler calls Murdoch the town's "preeminent right-wing robber baron," yet strangely he continues to fawn reverently. Mahler's principal conceit—that 1977 was a turning point for the city—is not a difficult one to concede. But even if you agree with him that Murdoch and Steinbrenner are partly responsible for the turnaround, it's not as easy to share the author's enthusiasm for the new New York they helped build. No matter how extreme the makeover of what were once some of Manhattan's most neglected neighborhoods, the wealth of developers hasn't exactly trickled down to the places that need help the most. Mahler admits that Bushwick's recovery from 1977 is "slow, halting, to this day incomplete, yet inexorable." That vastly understates the case. Carfire, a documentary that screened at this year's New York Underground Film Festival, reports that Bushwick today has the highest concentration of automobile arsons in North America. A fuller acknowledgment of the people not invited to the gentrifying party might spoil the fun, but then as Mahler himself says, this new New York isn't for everyone.

Mahler's analysis is sharpest when he sticks to baseball, and if the corporate overlords are the heroes of his story, the most compelling character is intense, neurotic Yankee manager Billy Martin, a belligerent drunkard whom Steinbrenner would soon fire and rehire, twice. Martin's loutish, scrappy integrity imbued him with a strange courage. His was a street-level DIY ethos shared by the punks downtown and the B-boys in the Bronx, immortalized in Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude , and who are conspicuously missing from Mahler's account. While the middle class fled and the nation turned its back, these sonic youths made a counterculture out of the ashes of their burning city.

 
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