Death Wish: Is New York Ready for That 70s Show?


What a difference a crash makes. In recent years the wise heads of our local editorial world have been as content with rich, safe latter-day New York as investment bankers. In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article James Traub shuddered to recall the New York of the 1970s and praised the days when “New York got its swagger back: Giuliani rode high in the saddle.” When in 2005 the Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Henninger heard some creative types say the 70s were a “golden age” for New York arts, he could only remember Death Wish and scoffed that those “high IQ boys and girls” who “had the smarts to survive and thrive in a city beset with drugs, welfare dependency and housing stock distorted by World War II rent controls” were just looking for “‘free rides’ on the backs of the workers” who, presumably, are less equipped to deal with poverty and danger than liberal arts students.

But in this week’s New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten asks us to “postulate that the collapse of the financial-services industry spells catastrophe for New York City, a return to the nineteen-seventies.” He doesn’t seem to think it’s all bad:

Throw out the other strips, the grim probabilities — the crime, the decaying infrastructure, the hardship all around, the heroin and the syphilis. What do we have left? The bright side: maybe Manhattan will become affordable again, and cool, and dangerous. Dangerous in theory, but not to you or your family and friends. Dirty, but in a good way. Night clubs where anything goes. Art, music, Billy Martin.

Paumgarten avoids going all the way with this, suggesting that we can have the sweet side of the 70s cup without tasting the bitter. The collapse has unloosed something in him; for a long time such as he could not mention New York’s bankrupt days without a show of revulsion, as old-world types could not mention the devil without crossing themselves. But the Wall Street debacle tells him that those prayerful gestures have come to naught: the bubble’s burst and the wolf is at the door. Now he can admit that there was something cool about those old days, and he can even be glib about them.

But when that 70s show really goes into re-runs, we won’t be able to edit out the unfunny bloopers. There was never a chance that we’d get cheaper rents without a crash, and as of now the market fluctuations are only ruffling the high end of the market. We’re a long way from the vintage conditions of that last renaissance. Before you can have the Ramones, you have to have rehearsal spaces that even glue-sniffing slackers can afford. Before you can have Taxi Driver, you have to have urban moonscapes that don’t need to be built by film crews. And you only get those in the wake of real catastrophe.

Joy-popping the 70s is a fun pastime, but be not deceived: playful speculation is nothing like the real thing. We remember fondly our $125-a-month railroad flat in a forsaken neighborhood called the East Village, and the good times we had there. We also remember nightly gunfire, mugger money, and Etan Patz. Are we willing to accept one to get the other? It’s not worth wondering about: we’ll find out when we get there.