253 Stockholm Street. A perfectly standard Bushwick row-house. Clad in faded red siding, covered in graffiti, it could probably use a fresh coat of paint. The building is empty, though not, apparently, abandoned; plywood boards seal off its windows on the second floor. Black cable wires run down the front of the building. Out front an open fire hydrant sprays water at vehicles driving by. Across the street stands a sidewalk memorial to a neighborhood man recently killed by a carjacker at a nearby car wash. Balloons and flowers and empty Hennessy bottles and candles sit atop a makeshift cardboard altar. A picture of the victim hangs taped to the gray brick wall above. Black and white, the photo shows a heavyset man in his late twenties or early thirties. He’s wearing a Yankees hat and jacket, leaning forward with a wide-eyed look of feigned menace and flipping the camera the bird.
Were this July 1977, the situation at 253 Stockholm would seem entirely clear. Arson-bait, a dump, a dying building, a decaying block. July 1977 — a year in which the Bushwick fire department was, once again, among the busiest in the five boroughs; the month in which the city went dark and the neighborhood, infamously, almost tore itself apart. In July of 1977, that house, in that condition, at that spot, was perilously close to a forgone conclusion.
In July of 2007, of course, it’s on the market for $600K. “Townhouse For Sale,” it says. A square black sign hanging over the front door. Get together a down payment. Make the call. It’s an opportunity, as they say, to get in on the ground floor.
They got five hundred dollars a square foot just a few streets away, a real estate agent says. No one thought they could do it, but they did. Five hundred dollars a square foot. Thirty-two units, gone in six months, with a waiting list eight hundred people long. Eight hundred people for thirty-two spots. Doing the math, you come up with this: it was easier for a person to get into Harvard than to buy one of those condos.
Two blocks away, in July of 1977, they were running out of sutures stitching up looters at Wyckoff Heights. Police were stationed at the hospital’s front desk, filling out reports on the injured as they came in to be treated. But in July 2007, one after another after another, new apartment buildings are arriving up and down the avenue. Hundreds of new units rising in a neighborhood that thirty years before couldn’t keep its homes from burning down.
And, of course, it’s the same most everywhere across the city. Bushwick has, perhaps, a certain unique resonance — no other neighborhood was left quite so devastated by that summer — but from Cobble Hill to Harlem to Clinton to Alphabet City, the basic template applies. It’s a different place today. Radically so. Crime is way down. Property values are way up. A coolly efficient billionaire mayor has taken over the show. Porn is out at Times Square. The Olive Garden is in. The subway is tag-free. There’s an upscale French bistro at Port Authority.
Contemplating this march of progress, though, thoughts turn to Orson Welles as Harry Lime and a certain speech atop a ferris wheel in The Third Man.
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
This is always the argument for the old New York. It was a mess, yes, but a glorious mess. There were riots and fires and murders and muggings and you wouldn’t want to walk in the park at night or down the streets of half the city’s neighborhoods during the day, but… But… BUT, man… you could drink a beer on a bench without being hassled by the cops. You could rent a room in a downtown walk-up for eighty bucks a month. There was punk and hip-hop and Andy Warhol and Studio 54 — all of it still vital and thriving and fresh. If you were tough enough and smart enough and savvy enough to stick it out, the city was yours for the taking. And for those who could take it, it was the greatest, craziest, freest, most exciting place ever.
This seems almost certainly crap. One part narcissism, two parts nostalgia, and with a twist of selective amnesia to smooth things over. Few things are more tedious than listening to someone tell you about the good old days. Your grandfather you have a certain duty to indulge — a formerly pill-addled scenester, not so much.
Looking back to New York as it was in 1977, it does seem somehow iconic in a way that no other year has quite managed since. The riots, Reggie Jackson, Rupert Murdoch, the Son of Sam (and here I might, recommend for a bit richer account of the year’s happenings, Jonathan Mahler’s excellent book, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning). And it is true — the reliably exaggerated claims of the relevant loyalists aside — that all eras are not created equal. Some years are simply more interesting, more eventful, more memorable than others. The 70s faded, and crumbling buildings and spray-painted subway cars and un-ironic facial hair gave way to Wall Street mob scenes and ten-pound cellphones. With the 90s came the great Giuliani clean-up and the e-Everything concerns of Silicon Alley. And today? What will they say of today? Well, did you see those lines for the iPhone?
Gone are the fears of three decades before, that the city was going to destroy itself. Prosperity is the new concern. The million-dollar apartments, the ever-escalating rents, the fact that even an empty row-house in Bushwick is asking for $60,000 down. Thirty years ago the question was, “Who the hell would want to live here?” Today it’s, “Who can afford to?” There is the worry that, like some happy burgher a bit too well fed, the city will choke on its good fortune.
If you were tough enough and smart enough and
savvy enough to stick it out, the New York City of 1977
was yours for the taking. And for those who
could take it, it was the greatest, craziest, freest,
most exciting place ever.
And then there are the subways, graffiti-free now, but not without a new set of signs perhaps more appropriate to the era. “If you see something, say something,” reads the vaguely sinister message. Again, long gone are the fears of 1977, that the city might collapse from within. The notion of attacks from without, however, has grown so familiar that we now hardly notice.
Real estate and terror alerts; being priced out of town or blown up in it — these would be my bets for the defining preoccupations of the age as looked back on 30 years hence. Chances are, of course, that neither will come to pass. Instead, an entirely new set of problems will roll unforeseen down the pike. In the meantime, though, there’s the city and a summer to enjoy, and myths to be made and stories to be collected, with which, provided that all goes as it should, we might one day stultify the younger generations.