On the Town

Garth Risk Hallberg, New York City, February 2016
Christopher Lane/Contour by Getty Images
Garth Risk Hallberg, New York City, February 2016

Every American decade since at least the 1920s is eventually reduced to a handful of images—photographs, news headlines, movie stills, cartoons, posters—that become the clichés of their time. For New York City of the 1970s, the images include weary and hemmed-in subway riders on a train every inch of which has been sprayed with graffiti; an aerial view of acres of burned-out apartment buildings in the South Bronx; curbside garbage piled like sandbags along a war trench during a sanitation workers’ strike; hordes of young men, beer bottles held joyously aloft, overflowing from the leather bars under the old elevated West Side Highway; a drab photograph of the punk music club CBGB on the Bowery; and the Daily News headline of October 30, 1975: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” with the subheading “Vows He’ll Veto Any Bail-Out.”

Most of these are images of despair, either because of what happened later (the decimation that would come with AIDS) or the advanced state of decomposition that beset New York at the time. Yet even then they carried a whiff of lawless glamour, and in recent years the 1970s have become New York’s most romanticized decade. Scorned by the rest of America (and by capital markets), the city was free to be its disinhibited self, its own raw glorious id that, the legend goes, constituted itself spontaneously out of urban grime.

In 1970, New York City’s population was 7,894,862. When the decade ended it had shrunk to 7,071,639, the lowest it had been since 1930 and the first and only decade in New York’s recorded history that it lost more inhabitants than it gained.1 1.75 million “Caucasians,” as the Census Bureau deemed them, left the city during the period, many of them moving to the Sunbelt after tax policy and rising energy costs encouraged the migration of jobs from the Northeast. Every other group increased: blacks by 116,000, the foreign-born by 233,000, Asians by about 137,000, and the census category known as “other or mixed race” by 678,000.

From this we might glean one version of what the city looked like in the 1970s: brown, queer, foreign, and so short of money that subway maintenance workers were obliged to rip spikes from one section of track to repair another. It was the antithesis of how much of America wished to see itself, yet a reflection of what many Americans feared the country might become.

“Drop Dead” of course was tabloid shock speech; President Ford never used those words. His avowed resistance to bailing out the city was meant to mollify New York haters in the hinterland. He and his advisers knew that, to use current parlance, New York was too big to fail without toppling credit markets nationwide. In…

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