Coming of Age

1976–1985: Punk to Pomo, Basquiat to Breakdancing

The "very sick guy" is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten's husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten's prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis.

Burned out in the South Bronx, 1978
photo: Sylvia Plachy

Arson for Hire

The Men Who Are Burning New York
By Joe Conason & Jack Newfield

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June 2, 1980

Arson breaks up families, frightens away investment and jobs, and deprives the poor of housing. Every arsonist is potentially a mass murderer. Those subversives who hire others to torch occupied buildings—like those who move the envelopes of fine white powder—are the first vultures of late capitalism.

It was more than two years ago that we first stumbled upon this city's biggest arson ring of landlords, lawyers, brokers, and insurance adjusters.

In the winter of 1978, the South Bronx was already a moonscape with abandoned, charcoaled shards. The cops who worked in the 41st Precinct no longer called their station "Fort Apache." They called it "The Little House on the Prairie," because there were so few surviving buildings or families in the area.

In the winter of 1978 the burning of the Bronx had moved north into neighborhoods called Morris Heights, Morrisania, Tremont, Highbridge, Kingsbridge, and Fordham. Whenever there was a suspicious fire and the homeless tenants were Hispanic or black, the media would call the area the South Bronx. But it was really other communities, and other police precincts.

For several days that winter we walked around these dying blocks with a cop named Joe Dean, who was then assigned to the Bronx arson task force in the 48th Precinct. We met not only the most recent victims of arson, but those who feared they would become tomorrow's refugees.

We saw tenants and small shopkeepers plead for protection, saying the building next to them had burned the night before, and that their house would be next. But because of budget cuts, neither the police or the fire marshals or the district attorney's office had the manpower to watch a building through the night.

Each day Joe Dean had to explain this to poor people who sensed they would soon be burned out for the second or third time in their lives. And Joe Dean felt powerless to do anything about it.

Within a week we saw the tenants of 201 Marcy Place, 1126 Kelly Street, and 1403 Grand Concourse turned into urban boat people by arson. And soon Dean was so frustrated by the suffering he saw—and could not stop—that he asked to be transferred to more risky plain-clothes work in Times Square.

Eventually, we discovered a pattern to the burning of the Bronx, and later of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Over the last five years, 250 buildings, all owned by one interlocking network of landlords—and all insured for large amounts—have had fires.
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'Dead End Kids': Signaling Through the Flames

Mabou Mines Plays Out Nuclear War
By Erika Munk

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November 12, 1980

A conversation between two colleagues, overheard the day after the election: A—"Depressed?" B—"Very. Abortion, welfare, energy, business running everything . . . what's going to happen?" A—"I mostly worry about war." B—"Jesus. I don't let myself think about it. I have kids."

Joanne Akalaitis let herself think about it, and has made Dead End Kids, a play with Mabou Mines on nuclear development, nuclear power, and nuclear death. The piece is poetic, sensuous, bitterly funny, a collage of surprises. It is also filled with agitation and what I supposed Edward Teller would consider propaganda. A brave, astonishing event.

What's brave is that it takes on our worst fears about the future—the ones barely faced in private, rarely in art, abstractly in social science, never in theatre. And what's astonishing is that Mabou Mines—a group praised and damned for many things, but never yet for its politics—has merged uncompromising experimental theatricality with outfront didactic intent.

It's about time. Theatre no longer addresses our inner lives with any intensity, and ignores that outside world which, finally, controls us. Reagan seemed to take over mainstream showbiz before he won the election; probably producers didn't vote for him—they just anticipated his taste while too afflicted with Zeitgeist to challenge his message. And those few remnants of the avant-garde which haven't died of artistic or financial exhaustion seem to perform less and less about less and less. (Chaikin's Exiles and Refugees was a moving, though gentle, exception.)

As for political theatre, Bread and Puppet preaches Christian pacifism in the hills, defends the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the city, and ignores the contradiction, while lesser groups use old techniques—agitprop skits, allegorical pageants, naturalistic problems plays (a dwindling genre except among minority groups), Brechtish derivations—to deal with subjects which may not always be simple, but which are bearable to contemplate. Nuclear war is not bearable.

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