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The City and the ’70s

The headline at the Drudge Report shouted “Tensions in NYC like ’70s,” and we shuddered at the thought. We well remember what New York City was like during that dismal decade, and had hoped it would never again get so bad.
Those too young to recall the urban nightmare need only watch the movies of the era, now running on late night television as cautionary tales. In “The Out of Towners” Jack Lemmon is mugged, kidnapped, beset by mass transit and sanitation strikes, nearly killed by a manhole explosion, and attacked by protestors outside a United Nations embassy, and that’s a light Neil Simon comedy to start off the decade. “Panic in Needle Park,” Fort Apache: The Bronx,” “Death Wish,” “The French Connection,” the gunning gag about Central Park muggings in “Where’s Poppa,” and of course “Taxi Driver,” with its memorable lines about a hard rain washing all the scum off the streets and its blood-splattered climax, are all more realistic accounts. “The Warriors” and “Escape From New York” belong to the decade’s vast genre of dystopian futurist movies, by they’re not far off the mark. The era is still fondly recalled by the coke-addled denizens of Studio 54 and the artsier sorts who thought all the graffiti-covered and trash-strewn mayhem was somehow invigorating, but those who had to make their way to work and back home to an exorbitantly-priced have no such nostalgia.
We still recall a telephone conversation during the late ’70s with a college chum who had moved to the big city. Expecting to be regaled Runyon-esque tales of Gotham, we were surprised to hear him describe an urban nightmare more redolent Heironymous Bosch. Our friend was a small town Kansas boy, but he was also a pony-tailed hippie and a liberal, and he frankly confessed that he had no idea how the time might go about saving itself. Taxes were already so sky-high that any further increases would only drive more taxpayers away thus result in even less revenue, he conceded, and social services were generous enough to lure all sorts of troublesome characters to the streets, and the criminals were being treated with as much sensitivity as even America’s most progressive city could muster, so our friend was stumped. The best advice he could offer was to not let our own hometown get in such bad shape.
Not long after that the city was so short on ideas that it elected Rudy Giuliani as Mayor, and he famously cut taxes, but new restrictions on social services, and started enforcing order on the streets. Although counter-intuitive to New Yorkers, the program put the city’s finances in good enough order to fund basic services, the economy improved enough to provide jobs for former welfare cases, and the crime rate fell so dramatically that tourists were tempted to take walk through Times Square or Central Park. It worked so well, in fact, that New Yorkers took the good times for granted and assumed it was safe to return to the city’s old ways of doing things.
Higher taxes on the richest workers who have largely supported the city, more free stuff for the ones who aren’t working at all, and more sensitivity toward the criminal class were the platform that got Mayor Bill de Blasio elected. When several of his officers were involved in a fatal encounter with an unarmed man who was illegally selling cigarettes and was unwilling to be arrested for it, he didn’t call for an investigation of the questionable methods that caused the death, or ask for the city’s respect for a grand jury that declined to press charges, or question the city’s tobacco policies that created the black market the man was dealing in, but rather spoke of how his biracial son was endangered by the city’s police and egged on the protests that chanted for the murder of police. The chanters got their wish on Saturday, when two New York City police officers were gunned down by a man who had proclaimed his motive of revenge on the internet, and already the headlines liken the tension to the ’70s.
The cops in New York have no desire to return to that violent decade, and we hope that the rest of the city is similarly disinclined. People seem to have to relearn the lessons of the past from time to time, however, even when those lessons are playing on the late night movies.

— Bud Norman

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