In 1968, many New Yorkers were panicked about the city's future too.
Needlessly, as it turned out.
By Kurt Andersen
Published Sep 28, 2008
New Yorkers have pretty much always felt elegiac about the
transformation of their city, with alarmist peaks every half-century
or so. (And given that we're now approaching the half-century
anniversary of the alarming start of the last prolonged New
York's–going–to–hell era, our present Wall Street horror show looks
uncomfortably familiar.) Although Henry James was a New Yorker only
briefly and involuntarily, as a child in the 1840s and 1850s, and
chose to live most of his life in Europe, people think of him as a
chronicler of New York. And that's because of two booksthe novella
Washington Square, set in the quaint Knickerbocker burg of his
childhood, and the nonfiction The American Scene, which contains his
melancholic and disgusted 40,000-word account of returning at age 61
to an utterly transformed New York.
In the time since James was a boy, the city's population had grown
from 500,000 to almost 5 million, resulting in a "consummate
monotonous commonness, of the pushing male crowd, moving in its dense
mass," a monstrous incarnation of the "will to moveto move, move,
move, as an end in itself, an appetite at any price." Skyscrapers of
20 and 25 stories ("the detestable 'tall building' … and … its
instant destruction of quality in everything it overtowers") had
arisen, and the underground train system ("the desperate cars of the
Subway") had just opened. "The terrible town," this "remarkable,
unspeakable New York," now had a large Jewish ghetto in which the
streetside fire escapes created "a little world of bars and perches
and swings for human squirrels and monkeys."
"I have the imagination of disaster," James wrote elsewhere, not long
before his brief return to New York, "and see life as ferocious and sinister."
By the 1960s, middle-class New Yorkers were not merely saddened by
their city's coarse, exotic new hurly-burly, they felt besieged, in
fear for their lives as well as their lifestyles. The disaster felt
actual. Americans at large were discombobulated, of course, between
1964 and 1968, by several sudden changesthe war in Vietnam, the
counterculture, the spasms that followed the civil-rights movement.
But New York at the same time entered its own particular perfect
stormradical economic and demographic change, plus governmental
dysfunction, plus an increase in violence so exceptionally steep and
sudden it was almost as if war had broken out.
Imagine the unsettling Rip Van Winkle sensation of being a New Yorker
in 1968. Two decades earlier, the city had been a thoroughly
working-class place, with more manufacturing jobs than anywhere else
in America, but most of those factories and their jobs had
disappeared, leaving a city of office workers and the poor. And now
the white-collar good times were looking iffy: At the beginning of
1966, Wall Street's postwar boom reached its top. In just eight
years, between 1960 and 1968, the city's population had gone from 14
percent to 20 percent black. And during the same eight years, murders
in the city had increased from about one a day to nearly three. In
the winter of 1966, the subways and buses were shut down by a strike,
followed over the next two years by a sanitation strike and two
teachers' strikes. All were bitterespecially the second teachers'
strike, which grew out of a fight between mostly Jewish teachers and
mostly black parents over community control of Brooklyn schools.
But if you were young or youngish and had a sense of fun or
adventure, it was the best of times as well as the worst. This
magazine in its early years specialized in chronicling local crimes
and life going haywire, yes, but catered just as obsessively to the
eager new mob of proto- yuppies and bourgeois bohemians gorging on
the swingy new New York, the people scrambling to eat the best food
and wear stylish clothes and buy cool tchotchkes, to see the smart
new art and movies and plays and comedians. In 1968, Elaine's was
still new, and in the Fillmore East's first two months of existence
Janis Joplin, the Doors, the Who, Frank Zappa, Traffic, and Jefferson
Airplane all performed.
In a Times article that year about what a "startlingly expensive
place to live" New York had become, the reporter marveled at the
nutty Manhattan prices: On the West Side, for God's sake, six-room
co-ops were selling for $50,000 and "unrenovated brownstones" for
$100,000around $300,000 and $600,000 in today's dollars.
And while the cohort that essentially dreamed up contemporary New
York (and, not coincidentally, New York) were mostly members of the
nameless generation that came of age between V-J Day and the creation
of the Mets, there was a huge pool of younger would-be neo–New
Yorkers in the pipeline, drawn to the sexy flicker and buzz of the
groovy, glamorizing metropolis: In 1968, the oldest baby-boomers were
just graduating college and the youngest were just starting school.
The nationally branded version of "the late sixties" may have been
mainly about flowers and sunshine, but the New York edition was edgy,
even grisly, always embedded with the imagination of disasterthat
is, New Yorkier. Elsewhere the new romantics were escapists, dreaming
of Arcadia; here, the model was more Weimar Republic, a dystopian
Utopia. Cabaret, after all, became a Broadway smash two years before
Hair opened. Andy Warhol's Factory was a dark place. The archetypal
New York band was Lou Reed's Velvet Underground, singing songs about
sadomasochism, transsexuals, and heroin. The city's best-remembered
and most important moment of sixties social protest wasn't a
well-planned antiwar march or tripped-out Be-In but a spontaneous
riot by homosexuals outside a Mafia-owned dive in the Village.
In other words, the Beat-inflected hipsters of New York raced through
or entirely skipped the peace-and-love phase. And in the seventies,
the best of times got more sowhen Saturday Night Live and CBGB were
brand new, I rented a sweet East Village apartment with two
exposed-brick bedrooms and a working fireplace for $410and so did
the worst of times. In fact, they started to feel a little like
end-times. New York City's budget was so out of whack by 1975 that it
couldn't sell its municipal bonds, and 38,000 municipal workers
(including 5,000 cops) were furloughedthe first such layoffs since
the Great Depression. Garbage piled up in enormous stinking heaps.
Subway cars lacked air-conditioning and were covered in graffiti.
On Easter Sunday in 1976 at St. John the Divine, the Episcopal bishop
Paul Moore Jr., one of the city's final Wasp titans (and, we learned
this year, a secret homosexual), delivered the last sermon to which
New Yorkers paid close attention. "Great hulks of buildings stand
abandoned and burned,'' he preached. "Look over your city and weep,
for your city is dying. Be part of the rising, not the dying." A
pious new president of the United States was nominated at Madison
Square Garden a few months later, and when he visited the South Bronx
for a photo op the following year, the iconic images looked like
Beirut. Exactly a week after Jimmy Carter went to Charlotte Street,
during the second game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Howard
Cosell delivered his voice-over to an ABC aerial shot of the
neighborhood: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."
But we danced by the light of the fires. As the Bronx was burning,
its sonsD.J. Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataawere
giving birth to the most important new popular musical form of the
last 40 years. And in the four-mile-long fillet of Manhattan from the
Park to the new World Trade Center, Weimarized New York,
post-disaster but pre-apocalypse, thrived, in its fashion. Between
1975 and 1978, when the city's disintegration was at its most vivid
and apparently irremediable, Studio 54 and the Mineshaft and the Mudd
Club and Plato's Retreat and Mortimer's and Tavern on the Green all
opened, as did the Palace on East 59th, famous exclusively for being
the priciest restaurant ever. The 1977 blackout, complete with
looting, didn't slow down the party. A kind of willfully childish
gaiety reigned. Again, Henry James saw it coming 70 years earliera
city "so nocturnal, so bacchanal, so hugely hatted and feathered and
flounced, yet apparently so innocent."
It was at this bleak but giddy moment that Rupert Murdoch's sudden
appearance (in 1976 and 1977, he bought the Post, the Voice, and this
magazine) reinforced the local sense that New York was falling to
pieces, and being sold off for parts. Murdoch's Postmanic, loud,
prurient, shameless, proudly unrespectable, finding entertainment in
the hideouswas both an appalling funhouse mirror and an absolutely
accurate reflection of the city.
For reasons that made no rational financial sense, Murdoch was
besotted by New York, and by the idea of owning a sort of postmodern
parody of a rough-and-ready tabloid. I've always been fond of
Murdoch, despite everything, partly because he made a big, risky bet
on this city at its grottiest, ultra-bathetic state, an enthusiastic
out-of-towner who came in and bought low just as I, in my own tiny
way, was doing the same. Collectively, the moving and shaking of
Murdoch and the hip-hop pioneers and the would-be artistes living in
the rougher precincts of lower Manhattan (as well as a few white
knights of the Establishment like Felix Rohatyn) amounted to the
first stirrings of the phoenix in the ashes.
Not that we knew it then. And the rebirth occurred neither quickly
nor unambiguously. Among these last 40 years, the most pivotal may
have been 1982. I remember the May morning I read the first Times
story about the mysterious sexually transmitted illness infecting gay
men. Nearly half of the 335 known cases, the article said, were in
New York City. Fourteen libertine years had passed since 1968as it
happens, exactly as long as the actual Weimar Republic lasted.
But just as one era of ecstatic, heedless, devil-may-care New York
self-indulgence was about to end, another would begin. In August
1982, the great bull market of the eighties and nineties took off.
Over the next eighteen years, the Dow would increase fifteenfold. The
eighties were not exactly smooth sailing for New York: aids became
epidemic, killing tens of thousands; crack appeared, ravaging
numberless lives and whole neighborhoods; and murders increased by 62
percent between 1985 and 1990, to more than six a day. Yet even
though most of the metrics of decent urban life got hellishly worse
before they got better, as the nineties began, more of New York was
part of the rising than the dying.
Without the prosperity of the eighties and nineties, and without the
chastened rightward tacking of our mayoral politicsreactionary?
revanchist? sensible? all of the above?we wouldn't now be recounting
a story with a happy(ish) ending. John Lindsay was the last proudly,
charismatically liberal leader of New York, and while he inherited a
fiscal mess and truculent municipal unions, his mayoraltyfrom 1965
to 1973, just as New Yorkers were being mugged by reality (and
muggers)did a lot to make old-school liberalism synonymous with
namby-pamby profligacy and incompetence. And so for the last 30
years, excepting the brief interregnum of David Dinkins, our
putatively super-liberal city (which Richard Nixon, by the way, lost
in 1972 by a mere 3 percent) has elected hardheaded mayors from the
center and center-right: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg.
One big change leads to another. Murder and other crimes went down by
40 percent all over America during the nineties, the result of many
factorsfewer people of crime-committing age and higher incarceration
rates undoubtedly, economic growth and legal abortion possibly. But
only in this city was murder reduced by 78 percent since 1990, and
almost half that drop came in just two years, from 1993 to 1995. It's
literally fantastic, the closest thing to a miracle I've ever seen.
And most of those extra lives saved in New York are inarguably the
result of our political spine-stiffening in the eighties and
nineties, which led to a much bigger and more aggressive and
For New York, policing and prosecution were, like war, the
continuation of politics by other means. And the great
counterintuitive irony is that the eradication of crime, empowered by
post-sixties-liberal political toughness, has achieved two great
goals of the left: The tens of thousands of victims and families
spared have been overwhelmingly poor and black and Hispanic, and the
main idea of liberalismthat government intervention is essential to
making life betterhas been vindicated.
And each big change leads to still another. Of course, an advance
guard of bourgeois bohemians was trickling into déclassé
working-class neighborhoods like Park Slope well before Bill Bratton
took over the NYPD. Gentrification was coined in the sixties, around
the same time as SoHo and a few years before TriBeCa. The Times
magazine, in a 1979 story called "The New Elite and an Urban
Renaissance," made the new phenomenon official: "People often snicker
when they first hear of it. A renaissance in New York City? The rich
moving in and the poor moving out? The mind boggles at the very notion."
But the gentrification process was gradual and spotty until crime
started plummeting. It was the radical increase in security, both
real and perceived, that uncorked the flood tide of young and
youngish white college graduates from Manhattan into the Lower East
Side and Harlem and vast stretches of Brooklyn during the nineties
and aughts. In 1990, Harlem was 1.5 percent white; today it's
probably close to 9 percent. The presence of yuppies and bobos, white
and otherwise, attracts more of their kind, which tends to bring more
security, which in turn leads to more yuppies and bobos. That boggled
1979 mind would be stunned into speechlessness by the
parallel-universe vision of New York on the eve of 2009the
graffiti-free subways, the civilized perfection of Central Park and
(even more) Bryant Park, the cutesy snow globe that is Times Square,
$3 million houses in Fort Greene, curb-to-curb hipsters in the Lower
East Side, gourmet food and Swedish furniture in Red Hook. And so on.
The progress of gentrification wasn't only a result of the
precinct-by-precinct diminution of crime. My bit of Brooklyn, Carroll
Gardens, was a very safe (and almost entirely white) working- and
middle-class quarter when I arrived in 1990 with my wife and baby
daughters. Nor were we exactly pioneers; a couple of editors had
already renovated our brownstone. But at some moment between the
eighties, when I knew exactly two people in Brooklyn, and the end of
the century, when at least half the younger people of my acquaintance
were living there, the borough not only lost most of its stigma but
acquired an unprecedented aura of stylishness. It was an emergent
rebranding as alt-NYC, driven first by the invisible hand (cut-rate
real estate just across the river) and then by the self- propelling
presence of more and more People Like Oneself. I can peg the
tipping-point moment fairly precisely in my neighborhood: As I waited
to vote in 1992, I was the demographic outlier in the polling-place
crowd of retired longshoremen and their relatives; when I returned in
1996, almost every voter in the place, I swear, was some kind of
writer or graphic designer or MTV producer a decade or two my junior.
And the following year, all at once, Smith Street changed from a
dreary Poughkeepsiesque stretch where we went only to catch the F
train toabracadabra!a groovy restaurant row thick with recently
expatriated young Manhattanites. Manhattan is not over, certainly,
but for the city's "creative class" New York is no longer a
one-borough town. Brooklyn has become St. Paul, maybe, to Manhattan's
Minneapolis, rather than Compton and Glendale to its Hollywood and
As the city's well-to-do have become more numerous, more widespread,
and more well-to-do, money has become more than ever the central New
York subject. Not that art and ideas and love and baseball were the
sole preoccupations of the city in any of the old days. A century
ago, a good deal of the wellborn Henry James's horror at the new city
involved its vulgar celebration of cash: "money in the air, ever so
much money," "the colossal greed of New York," "the crudity of
wealth," the "candid look of [houses] having cost as much as they
knew how." (Mr. James, let me introduce you to Mr. Trump and Mr.
Schwarzman … ) But it was during the Gilded Age that Jacob Riis
published How the Other Half Lives, his startling chronicle of New
York's poor. It's hard to imagine an equivalent exposé today that
would so shock the conscience of respectable New York. Indeed, the
very title of Riis's book now connotes the oppositethe lifestyles of
the rich and famous.
Our present Gilded Age began in the eighties. The crash of 1987
didn't end it, nor the recession of 1990, nor the bursting of the
tech bubble in 2000, nor the attacks of 2001, nor the new hegemony of
"sustainability" as a governing idea. The spell of big money and
super-high-priced things has lingered on and on. We are bedoozled, to
use a slang term from the century of the original Gilded Age. That
first famously money-mad New York–centric era is said to have ended
with the Panic of 1893. Which began with bank failures. And led to an
economic depression that lasted several years.
So maybe the final chapter of this 40-year novel of the city will
include another big turn of the screw, with some of the city's
overmonied about to be kicked to the curb and brought down to earth.
And even if the limos keep rolling, and people keep lining up for
$1,000 Per Se meals, don't we prefer the main isotope of civic
resentment and mistrust to be derived from class rather than race?
Twenty-five percent of New Yorkers today are black, up only modestly
from 40 years ago. But since then we have nevertheless, rather
strikingly, become a city of color, from almost two-thirds white in
1968 to only a third today. So New York has grown much less
dangerous, much less bedraggled … andsuch a great ironymuch less
white. Non-Hispanic whites are now just another minority in this city
of minorities. At the same time, the spectacularly awful moments of
racial discord of the ninetieswhen a black man in Crown Heights
murdered a Jew in revenge for the accidental killing of a black child
by a Hasidic driver, when cops killed Amadou Diallo and tortured
Abner Louimanow seem like the ugly twilight moments of an era.
Indeed, one of the silver linings of the terrorist attack in 2001 was
that New York's racial anxieties were suddenly subordinate to our new
common fear of crazy foreigners who wanted us all to die.
And speaking of foreigners: The final dramatic shift in the nature of
the city since 1968 derives from the huge and strangely rather
underheralded influx of people from abroad. As it happens, all the
black victims in those awful nineties incidents were
immigrants7-year-old Gavin Cato was from Guyana, Diallo from Guinea,
and Louima from Haiti. The foreign-born fraction of New York is now
nearly 40 percent, more than double the figure of 1968and more than
three times as many as in America at large. During the last four
decades New York's immigrant population has gone from its smallest
since the early 1800s to its highest since 1910.
Inevitably, babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. I do
slightly miss the loss of the seventies bohemia, even though I was
one of the objects of those DIE YUPPIE SCUM graffiti in the East
Village at the time. When it lacks for grit and the Man and a frisson
of danger, bohemianism becomes just another style. On the other hand,
I can't join the latter-day Bizarro World Jamesians who find Times
Square insufficiently squalid, and regret that Avenue C and Rivington
Street are no longer open-air heroin markets. Me, I'll settle for the
High Line, a totally 21st-century nostalgic embrace of New York decay
and desolation, a sweet, slightly smug Piranesianism that recalls
1968 from the arm's-length comfort of 2008.
Of course, one lesson of the last 40 years is that it's folly to
predict the future by extrapolating in a straight line from the
present. Pendulums tend to keep swinging. History doesn't end.
There's always the possibility of another terrorist attack. Half the
drop in crime was a mysterious gift, and it could mysteriously shoot
back up again.
While urban rejuvenation of an organic, ground-up kind has worked
wonders, we've apparently lost the ability to accomplish heroically
scaled, top-down development of the Rockefeller Center and Robert
Moses sorts: The debacle at ground zero (and Moynihan Station) is a
case study in New York dysfunction, a reminder of the bad old pre-311
days. Just as George Bush failed to take advantage of the post-9/11
moment to forge a radically sensible new national energy policy, our
local political and business leaders failed to seize the opportunity
in 2001 and 2002 to turn the World Trade Center site into something
grand and good.
And then there's this Panic of 2008. What's happening nowunlike
1974, 1987, 1990, and even 2001does look and feel not like a mere
correction, but rather a much larger historical turn, the end of a
hypercapitalist era. A chastened, more prudent Wall Street may be
good for America and the world … but perhaps not for New York. Our
local renaissance the last quarter-century was fed in large measure
by all that cash gushing into the city's economy, and by all that
exuberancecynical as well as optimistic, irrational and
otherwisecoursing out of Wall Street. "This is not going to be a
feel-good time," Mayor Bloomberg said last week, as he proposed
raising property taxes by 7 percent immediately.
We have been through booms and busts before. And this being the city
it is, the ups and downs seem more extreme and operatic than
elsewhere. We are drama queens. "Poor dear reckless New York," Henry
James wrote a century ago. But the city also, in its gimlet-eyed,
show-must-go-on way, makes do and muddles through. James: "Its
mission would appear to be, exactly, to gild the temporary, with its
gold, as many inches thick as may be, and then, with a fresh shrug, a
shrug of its splendid cynicism for its freshly detected inability to
convince, give up its actual work, however exorbitant, as the merest
What has given and (knock wood) will continue giving New York the
ability to recover and regenerate? The subway system. The
compactness. The fact that it's headquarters for not just one but
several of the Ur-modern industriesfinance as well as fashion as
well as marketing as well as media as well as art. The routine
difficulty of day-to-day life that makes the city a sort of
perpetually toughening boot camp. And the unstoppable inflows of
variously dreamy and eager emigrants, from the rest of America and
abroad, who keep coming because of the self-consciously thrilling,
muscular, glamorous, universally familiar idea of New York City. This is Oz.