New York is a funny place in that it, at once, holds out such promise and possibilities for the future, and in the obverse, harkens one to the good, old days. Well, as someone who has lived in Manhattan for all of my almost 59 years, I clearly remember the “good old days” as not being as good as the cliché implies. In current times, for me, despite my usual kvetching about the weather, traffic and subways, etc., every day in New York is a Shangri La experience.
I find that many newcomers to this great metropolis take for granted the city’s ability to make itself run, to help us all get along, to transport us many miles through its diverse neighborhoods, to provide recreational activities, and most of all to thrive and prosper. For all of you who are not from New York and/or not of a certain age, I feel it vitally important that you have some baseline notion of what a true mess this city was for the fifty years leading up to the present day.
Back in the 60s, the city was plagued by strikes, a blackout, rampant crime, race riots, corruption, police brutality and all manner of municipal dysfunction. I clearly remember that the Harlem riots of 1964, which were precipitated by a charge of police brutality, held the city in a grip of absolute terror. For days, any non-African American who drove near or around Harlem or other black neighborhoods was at risk of being set upon by angry mobs. While there had been other Harlem riots in the 30s and 40s, this was the precursor to the racial seething which eventually led to further explosions of street violence in the 70’s, 80s and even the 90s. For example, in 1977, as a result of a major blackout, many of the city’s black neighborhoods, especially those in Brooklyn, erupted in chaos, with many local businesses being gutted to the very walls. In the 80s, a gang from Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst hunted down a black teenager to his death by gunfire. In 1991, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a motorcade of Hasidim accidently struck and killed a black child, thereby leading to further rioting, which culminated in the gang murder stabbing of an innocent rabbinical student. Needless to say, this sophisticated and cosmopolitan city was not much of a melting pot.
Strikes, both municipal and private sector, were a way of life in this town. The first was a 1966, 12-day transit strike which served as both a perverse model for future municipal strikes and a stoker for the growing enmity between municipal labor unions and the feckless city. In 1980, a second transit strike hit the city, and the Transit Authority’s graffiti covered subway cars lay dormant for another 12 days. I recall the subways being so revolting then that I would steel myself, as I would for a spinal tap, upon my entering. Many of the cars were so graffiti scarred, with the windows painted over, that determining one’s subway stop was a virtual impossibility. I vividly remember the constant cadre of panhandlers who would aggressively fight their way through the subway cars, and, of course, their street level counterparts, the “windshield squeegie men,” who would hold up traffic only to add another layer of grease to your already opaque windshield. One early Saturday morning, I entered the presumably vacant, last car of the number 4 Train, only to be screamed at by a homeless family which had taken up residence there. I was greeted with words to the effect that I was violating their space and committing some kind of Constitutional equivalent of home invasion. During this period, I remember the appalling “open sewer” smell of the subways and their stations, on which I personally witnessed two incidents of people publicly relieving themselves – and one was a woman! During the late 70’s and early 80’s, the subways and city had become virtually lawless. During the transit strike of 1980, resourceful subway muggers began taking their trade to the street level where taxi cabs, packed with ride sharers, were subject to hold ups.
Crime was rampant back then, and the city was deemed by many to be ungovernable. In fact, at a public appearance in the late 1970’s, actress Shirley MacLaine, declared New York to be “the Karen Ann Quinlan of American cities.” Sadly, our elected officials governed from the position of holding-the-line and not making things worse. Improving the quality of life took a back seat to damage control. I remember the police department’s experiment which, in order to compensate for its reduced ranks arising from brink-of-bankruptcy budget cuts, called for the parking of empty squad cars overnight in the city’s most crime ridden areas. The motive was to maintain some semblance of police presence, albeit by way of a vacant vehicle, as a deterrent to crime. While this worked for about a week or so, the crime rate in these areas actually increased, and now came to include the stripping for parts of city-owned vehicles.
As a further illustration of the city’s ungovernability, I remember the DO NOT SHOOT dictates of then-Mayor Lindsay of Fun City fame, whose tenure was wracked by a spate of riots and looting. Taking this mandate to the extreme, the hamstrung police force allowed the looters to do their thing. Possessions, the mayor claimed, were not worth lives. This was evidenced by a front page photo on one of the tabloids of a frustrated police man holding up traffic for a looter carrying his new color TV set.
One of the most outrageous “quality of life” crimes occurred in April of 1989, when a 28 year old investment banker was viciously raped and beaten to within an inch of her life while jogging in Central Park in the daylight. Forever known as “the Central Park jogger”, this unfortunate woman was the subject of the thuggish practice of “wilding” in which groups of young men wreaked havoc and violence upon anything in their path. The city, and, for that matter, the entire country was aghast at such savagery, especially in a city which had shown some hint of promise for a turnaround. One year later, during the annual Puerto Rican Day parade in June, another wilding attack in Central Park saw several women being involuntarily fondled and partially undressed to the delight of jubilant gangs of screaming youths. Most of the attack was recorded on video, and played nightly by the local and national news to the outrage and dismay of the entire country. At the cusp of the 21st Century, Fun City, as Mayor Lindsay called New York, 25 years earlier, had not yet shed its lawless mantle.
In the mid-1980’s, the chaos of crime had reached comical proportions. I remember reading the account of an Upper West Side resident, who, after years of having had so many of his late model cars broken into, finally threw in the towel and purchased a jalopy of a car which he parked in the street nightly, subject to alternate side of the street parking rules. Wise to the fact that most burglars gain entry by breaking the windows, the car owner decided to post a “NO RADIO” sign on his windshield (a common practice, then, of car owners) , as well as a notice that the doors were unlocked. To further kill his tormentors with kindness, he left the keys to the ignition in the glove compartment. To his astonishment, several weeks had gone by without incident, except for the fact during his daily start-ups, the odor of cigarettes permeated the air. Sometime later, to his further surprise, he found in the glove compartment a small transistor radio which was tuned to the Spanish language station. It was only then he realized that someone was taking up overnight residence in his car. He deduced that the car was protected from break-ins by virtue of the presence of this chain-smoking squatter. Fearing to upset the apple cart, he welcomed this anonymous, guest by regularly leaving him sandwiches and all sorts of snacks and drinks. After all, it was cheaper than repairing or buying a new car. As time went on, he noticed that the smell of cigarettes had lessened, and the secreted transistor radio was gone. With no one to stand sentry over his wheels, this benevolent yet hapless victim soon suffered a fate all too familiar to his New York contemporaries – his car was stolen.
Despite the aforementioned strikes, to which should be added the sanitation strikes of 1968 and 1981, the teacher’s strike of 1968 and even a 1970 strike by draw bridge operators, which paralyzed the city’s waterways, probably the one strike which pained New Yorkers as much as any other had its origins in the private sector. It was the great newspaper strike of 1962/1963. Lasting 114 days, New Yorkers were news starved to the point where they were importing daily tabloids and broad sheets from other cities. Entrepreneurs made small fortunes in making nightly runs to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. The outrage of the citizenry speaks to the literacy of the city, and the desire to be “in the know” about current events. After all, how could a New Yorker express his God-given right to an opinion without the facts to back it up? I could not imagine the denizens of LA suffering from an equivalent information deprivation. One of my fondest memories of that period was the day my mother woke me up for school with a loving tap on the head from a partially folded and newly minted copy of The Daily News which screamed the headline, “We’re Back!”
There is no time like the present to celebrate the gifts and bounty of this great city. My longstanding love-hate affair with New York has morphed of late to that of a love affair – a torrid one indeed! The historical problems and woes of New York as summarized herein can only scratch the surface. My reasoning for highlighting them is founded not on my desire to accentuate the negative, but to impart to all that this great metropolis did not come to be without its share of tsuris. For as one sage of a man once said to me, “Without struggle there is no growth.”
So, the next time the subway is late, a fellow Gothamite strains your nerves or the news channels broadcast a mugging, just look back and think of how bad it once was or could be, for as the poet and philosopher George Santayana declared, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
[Ed. note: Many thanks to our guest contributor Lou Piccolo for this post. A true New Yorker, Lou’s wisdom on this city’s days of yore are true words to live by.]