The Hidden History of the City’s Greatest Era


New York’s 1980s street life has long gotten a bad rap, and it is high time to correct it. For that matter, the only decade with a worse reputation than the ’80s in New York is the ’70s in New York, when the city was supposedly totally unlivable. So the corrective really should begin there.

Let’s start with the undisputed historical record, by which we mean the movies. Dog Day Afternoon. Need we say more? If there has been a recent event more inspiring than bank robbers leading a cheering throng of Brooklynites with the chant “Attica! Attica!”, we didn’t hear about it. Speaking of lost arts, does anyone believe that New Yorkers dance better now than they did in Saturday Night Fever? Of course not. And that was in Bensonhurst. The cost of shooting the movie at the old Palladium on 14th Street, where really talented dancers went, was prohibitive because the extras charged too much.

Then there is Taxi Driver, the greatest cinematic depiction of an era since Ben-Hur. Did you notice how Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle picks up that free glass of seltzer at the old Belmore Cafeteria on Park Avenue South right before he asks Peter Boyle where he can buy a big gun? Any restaurant offered you free seltzer recently? Check out the block now. One giant condo. Call that urban improvement?

At the other end of the social spectrum, there is Annie Hall, which keenly portrayed New York’s voracious intellectual appetite, a hunger that has since been sated by online gossip columns and Thai takeout. Anyone recall recent instances of annoying movie-line discussions of Marshall McLuhan’s media theories? You wish.

The fact is that to live in New York in the late ’70s to early ’80s was to enjoy a cornucopia of inexpensive artistic and intellectual entertainments. There were institutions known as art-movie houses that were sprinkled across neighborhoods where the hipoisie lived. They had names like the Thalia, the Elgin, the New Yorker, the Bleecker Street, and the Charles, all of which played only double bills of the classics. Toward the end, some people stopped going to the Charles, which was on Avenue B, because it was necessary to keep your feet elevated to avoid chance rodent encounters, but these were not your die-hard film buffs. For those who tired of Mizoguchi festivals, there was a string of movie theaters on 42nd Street that also played only double bills, although they were a bit more of a crap shoot in terms of cinematic fare. Actually, audience members there were known to shoot both craps and dope while the movies were rolling, which was often more entertaining than the pictures themselves.

Although there are still vestiges today, the Carter-Reagan era gave birth to one of the great people’s art movements of the late 20th century—street graffiti. This artwork was taken much more seriously back then, and helped promote enormous fortitude and self-reliance in the general public. These traits were required, since enormous swirls of graffiti covered all the subway-train windows, obliging riders to memorize their routes.

No one actually noticed when the ’70s ended and the ’80s began. Why would you? You went to bed on New Year’s Eve 1979, woke up the next morning, and Ed Koch was still mayor. Speaking of Koch, the defining year of that entire epoch was 1977, when he was elected. The current generation thinks ’77 was significant because that was when a disturbed post-office employee calling himself the Son of Sam got hold of a .44-caliber revolver, or because the blackout riots tore up chunks of Brooklyn that summer. Hardly.

There is much talk these days about giving Mayor Bloomberg a third term in office because the alternative candidates are so lackluster. Believe me, this was not a problem 30 years ago. In 1977, we had a Democratic mayoral primary featuring the greatest political minds of a generation. You had Bella Abzug, who managed to be a magnificent battler for women’s liberation and a stand-in for everyone’s nagging aunt, all at the same time. You had Herman Badillo—tall, brilliant, and Puerto Rican—who understood that the greedy bankers trying to take over the city under cover of the fiscal crisis deserved nothing better than a kick in the cojones (embittered by rejection, Badillo later became a Republican, another clear sign of our urban decline). There was Percy Sutton, the Manhattan borough president from Harlem, who was the smoothest and best-dressed candidate for citywide office since Jimmy Walker. There was Mario Cuomo, that eloquent lawyer from Queens who could talk anyone under the table. And there was Koch, the congressman who skillfully got voters to forget he was a bachelor from Greenwich Village by demanding the death penalty every time he toured a senior citizens’ center. (This dazzling field was marred only by the presence on the ballot of the incumbent mayor, Abe Beame, a vertically challenged accountant who couldn’t count—but that’s what drew such talent to the race.)

A lot of people were upset with Koch once he got into office. For one thing, the mayor had this nasal foghorn of a voice, one that penetrated walls and made people’s fillings vibrate. “His voice is like the car alarm in the middle of the night that won’t stop blaring,” wrote the Voice‘s Jack Newfield. Koch had all these sayings that quickly had New Yorkers holding their heads like in that Munch painting: “How’m I doin‘?” “You’re a wacko!” “Oh, pul-leez!” he’d whine. Once, a tall and distinguished black congressman from California came to the city to examine allegations of civil-rights violations by the police. Koch called him “a Watusi.” What a card. OK, a little over-the-top maybe, but is there a single word that Mike Bloomberg has ever said that you can remember?

Another great falsehood about the New York of that era was that it was somehow less democratic because it was ruled by something called the Board of Estimate. Such slander. The board was composed of three citywide officials and each of the five borough presidents. Its biweekly meetings on big projects and contracts were exercises of pure democracy in action. They were held in a great, carpeted hall on the second floor of City Hall (Bloomberg made it into his private office). These were always standing-room-only affairs: You got to go up to the front of the room and tell city leaders (well, their representatives anyway) exactly what you thought of them. If you peeked down the hallway, you could watch the lobbyists sneaking up the back stairs, whispering instructions to the officials. Meetings often went all night, and there would be great theater—as when Donald Manes, the lovable borough president of Queens and Koch’s great friend, would take off his shoe like Khrushchev and pound it on the table. Manes later killed himself in the midst of a huge corruption scandal, and many who had spent late nights at the board mourned him as a friend who’d lost his way. I guarantee you, there is not this kind of connection to the current crop of city officials.

Finally, the silliest knock on the city back then is that it was some kind of jungle, that no one dared live in outer-borough places like Park Slope because they were dangerous. Are you kidding? In the late ’70s, before the gentry invasion, there were 14 bars on Seventh Avenue between Flatbush Avenue and 9th Street, all of them friendly and affordable. Paradise. Today? Latte and flower shops.

We rest our case.