Heavy looting followed a citywide blackout in July 1977
Jonathan Mahler met with the Gotham Gazette Reading NYC Book Club at the Jefferson Market Branch of the New York Public Library on April 27 to discuss his book "Ladies and Gentlemen the Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City." Mahler argues that the year was a turning point in the city. The edited transcript is below.
Gotham Gazette: This month we are with Jonathan Mahler who is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. His book Ladies and Gentlemen the Bronx is Burning is about the events of the summer of 1977 in New York City. Mr. Mahler is going to begin by reading a passage of the book about the blackout.
Jonathan Mahler: The book is about the year 1977 in New York. I chose that year because, from a narrative perspective, it was very eventful: mayoral race, blackout, [serial killer] Son of Sam, many other things. But also, from a broader perspective I chose that year because it was a pivotal moment when New York went from being one kind of place to a different kind of place. I guess you could say the old New York - this quasi-socialist city with the great free higher education, rent controlled apartments, lots of jobs for the working class - was dying and a new capitalist utopian city was being born. That's the city we live in, with real estate barons and media tycoons and the like.
I devote a lot of space to the blackout in the book. I tell much of the story of the blackout through the eyes of a group of cops in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which was the neighborhood that experienced the worst looting that night. I had the good fortune to meet these guys as I was researching the book. Obviously, it was a night they couldn't forget, so they all had specific and detailed memories. The narrative that I am going to be reading I was able to piece together through the accounts of these guys.
(reads passage starting on page 187).
Gotham Gazette: How did the blackout and the riots serve as a turning point or the low point of New York at that time?
Jonathan Mahler: Well, this all happened in the heat of a mayoral race. At the time of the blackout, this little-known long-shot congressman named Ed Koch was running for mayor. And his competition, the front-runners were, of course, the incumbent Abe Beame, Bella Abzug, and Mario Cuomo, all of whom were far ahead of him in the polls. But after the blackout, Koch - who was not terribly well known as I said - was able to kind of, for lack of a better word, exploit the bloodlust in the city in this sort of fear of crime. And he ran a real law-and-order campaign, which ultimately led to his election. He campaigned for the death penalty, [even though] mayor has no say in whether or not New York State adopts the death penalty. But it became a campaign issue. Mario Cuomo was adamantly opposed to the death penalty.
One thing Koch criticized Beame for was not bringing in the National Guard in during the blackout. So it became a campaign issue.
I think if one takes a broader view, at the time, the New York City Police Department was really depleted because of the fiscal crisis. And there was not a lot of good will toward the police department, because as a result of those layoffs, there had been a lot of police protests, which people don't like to see. There was one police protest at Yankee Stadium. And while literally thousands of cops were protesting outside Yankee Stadium, drinking beer and holding up protest signs, there were gangs of teenagers mugging people and breaking into cars. If one takes a longer view, I think that something like this that allowed for the emergence of a Giuliani who could really take a much tougher position on crime, and in a sense, in doing so, sort of rescue the police department.
Gotham Gazette: But do you think you can really draw a straight line between the riots after the blackout in 1977 and Giuliani?
Jonathan Mahler: No, not a straight line. But I think you can see that in a sense the city had to bottom out in a way for the people to be willing to endure the things that Giuliani did. They would have been unthinkable in an earlier era, but once the city had been this low, it changed people's perspectives.
Calvin Johnson: How did you weave a narrative together out of all these events? Who did you talk to, and how did you piece together the story that you tell in the book?
Jonathan Mahler: Specifically the blackout?
Calvin Johnson Yes, Part Two of the book.
Jonathan Mahler: Different parts of the section I relied on different sources.
Before I get to Bushwick, I do a pretty lengthy retelling of how New York lost power from inside the control room of Con Edison. I did that largely through the telephone transcripts of the various Con Ed system operators, which were all subpoenaed for a federal investigation and have therefore been made available. I didn't even know they existed, frankly, and then I went down the Municipal Archives to see what they had. It was kind of a great find; it's incredibly dramatic reading. The system operator of Con Edison, William Jurith, you really see him panic. Here's this guy who is at the helm when New York City is about to lose power. So I used those telephone transcripts largely to figure out what had happened. One of the experts who was subpoenaed in the federal investigation to analyze what had gone wrong was very helpful in explaining all the science I had to understand. There were three separate investigations - a city, federal, and state investigation - and I read all of those. There was also all the newspaper coverage at the time, but because of the looting, what had actually gone wrong kind of got overshadowed.
In terms of what happened in Bushwick, I started by meeting one cop who had worked in Bushwick that night. As luck would have it, they were having a precinct reunion in a couple of months. I went with him to the precinct reunion in Nassau County and there were dozens of cops there who had worked that night. They were all great, and shared their memories with me. Then I followed up with a lot of them and went back to the neighborhood with them.
I also got all the police reports. First I tried to get the police reports from the city. If you ever try to get a police report from 2004, they're going to think you're crazy; asking for one from 1977 was a joke. After the blackout the Ford Foundation had done a study - it was called Blackout Looting - and I went to the guys who had done this study and they had everything. So I used those against the accounts of the cops against any newspaper reports, and then I met some people who were living in Bushwick that night.
Barbara Oliver: You write in the book that WINS at first reported that it was a party atmosphere in the city. How long did it take it before the radio stations began to realize that it was not a party everywhere?
Jonathan Mahler: I'm not sure exactly when, but my impression is that it was well after midnight. And the looted had really started right away.
Marsha Cohen: I actually worked at Channel 2 News in 1977, and I was in the newsroom that night. We didn't know anything was happening until people's friends started calling, and their mother-in-laws started calling saying, "It's getting very dark in our apartment. What's going on out there?" That was the first we heard of the blackout.
The minute we started to send the crews out - they were just starting to get videotape where they could go out and microwave and get stuff happening live - we knew, because they were coming back from outside in the trucks, and telling us how bad things were. We broadcast all over the country that night, only New York couldn't see it. We knew pretty soon because the reporters and the cameramen were coming back with the footage showing us what was going on by 10 or 11 o'clock -- that the city was under siege.
NEW YORK AND THE REST OF THE COUNTRY AFTER THE BLACKOUT
Gotham Gazette: You also mention in the book Jimmy Carter, who New York City helped to elect and who swore at the beginning of his term never to tell the city "drop dead." Actually, by some interpretation, he did just that by refusing to allow federal disaster funds to go to New York after the blackout. Did the blackout serve as a turning point for the way the rest of the country saw New York?
Jonathan Mahler: I don't know that it was a turning point so much as an affirmation, or a reaffirmation. The rest of the country was already very down on New York. It was not a safe place to visit; it was dirty. Throughout this whole summer, the superstar of the New York Yankees - Reggie Jackson - and its manager - Billy Martin - were in a nasty public dispute that didn't reflect well on New York. So I think that actually one of the editorials that I read from some other city was basically to the effect that New York got what it deserved; who would have expected anything else to happen in New York after the lights went out? That was very much the national view: Of course when the lights went out in New York the criminals ran wild, it's New York.
As far as Carter goes, it wasn't only that Carter failed to make the emergency funds available to the city, which the city badly needed - there were hundreds of millions of funds in damages. He didn't even visit New York in the wake of the blackout, even though Vernon Jordan, who was at the time the head of the National Urban League, tried to push him to. He eventually came in October, but he didn't come after New York had endured a major tragedy.
It was also just a time when the city's poorer neighborhoods were in trouble. In the ensuing years we've all seen the symbolic power of politicians going to poor neighborhoods. The South Bronx, for years, became a mandatory stop for national politicians. Carter did, to his credit, come in October. But he should have come right after the blackout.
Gotham Gazette: Besides Carter not coming to New York or providing aid directly after the blackout, are there policies you can point to on the federal level that indicated the f government was no longer focusing on New York, or cities in general?
Jonathan Mahler: One of the things that Carter had run on and that was attractive to New York was that the federal government was going to relieve some of the welfare costs for the cities. It's something that he never followed through on, and this was at a time that New York was on the verge of bankruptcy and there was massive unemployment.
Naomi Dagen Bloom: What I am interested in is whether you had a sense that in 1977 things were going well for other cities. [They probably thought it was] kind of nice to have New York look so bad.
Jonathan Mahler: I think that's a good question. I haven't studied other cities in depth during that era, but I think it wasn't a great time for American cities. What other cities like Detroit and Newark experienced in the 1960s, New York kind of held off, in part because of Mayor John Lindsay. For all his flaws, he handled those tense moments after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination very well. So I think the city avoided those racially driven riots in the 1960s. In some ways, that bottled up and suppressed rage came out during the blackout.
I also think that New York was a more ambitious city in some ways. No American city has tried to do so much for its citizens - and did so much for its citizens as New York did, under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia most notably. Here was somebody who drove around every Sunday looking for things to build. What a different era! Because of that fact, New York had farther to fall in a way; the New York idea was such a lofty one.
THEN AND NOW: THE BLACKOUT OF 2003
Gotham Gazette: You started writing this book in 2000. So at some point you were researching the 1977 blackout, and then the 2003 blackout happened. What were your thoughts at that time?
Jonathan Mahler: Before that, I was researching the blackout on September 11, 2001. Obviously, those are two very different events, but it did strike me how much the public perception of New York had changed. After the blackout in 1977, everyone was saying that New York got what it deserved, and then there was just this tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support for New York after September 11.
In terms of the 2003 blackout, I live in Brooklyn, and I drove around Brooklyn that night because I was curious what would happen. As you know, there was no looting, nothing. I think there are circumstantial factors. When the lights went out in 1977, it was already dark; when we lost power in 2003 it was late in the afternoon but it was still light out. I think that's certainly a factor, but I think the aftermath of the 2003 blackout is a testament to the fact that the city is a much different place.
One way that we can hone in to this idea is that there was no looting in Bushwick. I talked to a couple of people afterward just because I was interested in knowing why. It is my sense that what the city has done mostly through partly private-public partnerships since this era is help people own their own houses. Bushwick has built quite a bit of low-income housing that people have bought. When you have a community of homeowners, obviously the chances of this happening are greatly diminished.
Ron Bloom: Just to give you some context, I was working that summer two years ago in Harlem Hospital in the psych ward when the lights went out. I finally found a door I could escape from at 5 o'clock, and I live in Harlem, so I literally walked home from 135th and Lennox to 124th and Amsterdam. I was comfortable; it was a completely different kind of place [than what was described in 1977].
Jonathan Mahler: Were you here in 1977?
Ron Bloom: No, I was outside the city. But I was here in 1965, and that was a party.
Jonathan Mahler: 1965 and 2003 were similar; 1977 was the exception.
DID NEW YORK "DESERVE IT"?
Mike Miscione: Can't a credible case be made that New York did get what it deserved?
Jonathan Mahler: How would that case be made?
Mike Miscione: Well, since the Wagner administration, the finances of New York had basically been a house of cards meant to prop up the various administrations of the city, leading eventually to the financial collapse of the city. This collapse made the city unprepared for an emergency like this. Concurrently, that system was meant to prop up a social welfare system that essentially inflamed the elements that led to the rioting. There was a tremendous hubris about New York City toward the rest of the country that I think that the rest of the country perceived - accurately so.
Jonathan Mahler: That's of course the debate that followed the blackout: Was this a form of social protest, was this a cry for help from the ghetto, or was this just criminals running wild? That became the dialogue afterward.
Certainly New York was not on a sustainable course. That much was clear well before 1977. The moment that Abraham Beame took office he knew he was inheriting a mess; as comptroller of the city before he knew better than anyone. Whether or not the city deserved to be turned upside down in a night of rioting and destruction is, maybe, a separate question. But certainly it wasn't working financially.
THE REBIRTH OF NEW YORK
Even as the city struggled, places like dance club Studio 54 were thriving
Gotham Gazette: If we could turn away from the blackout for a minute, because the book isn't just about New York falling apart; it's about New York at a turning point. At one point you write that the city is "blooming in decay." Can you talk a little bit about the signs of rebirth or change that New York was starting to show in 1977?
Jonathan Mahler: Before I go on to that specific question, just to pick up on your point, it was spontaneously regenerating and re-imagining itself. I was only eight years old in 1977. And just writing this book made me wish that I were old enough to be living in the city then. As bad as it seemed in many ways, there were so many exciting things going on. It was a great cultural moment: the whole disco scene was flourishing, the whole punk rock movement was happening, and it just seemed like the city was this wild, exciting place.
In terms of the specifics of your question, I think the best example of it is SoHo, a neighborhood that had once been filled with factory workers and bustling activity. But over the course of the 1960s and early 1970s, it had been abandoned and these old lofts were left empty. And then gradually this community of artists started moving in and repurposing these wide open spaces that had once been long tables for garment workers - turning them into lofts and studios for their work. Then of course the art dealers followed, and then the boutique storeowners followed, and then the restaurants followed. Dean and Deluca opened in SoHo in September 1977. And, voila, you have today's SoHo. It's a good example of how the city finds a way to survive, to reinvent itself to re-imagine itself and to adapt, in a sense. That's my favorite example.
THE 1977 MAYORAL CAMPAIGN
Ed Koch (left) and Mario Cuomo (right) engaged in a nasty campaign for mayor
Gotham Gazette: During the mayoral election of 1977, how much did the victory of Ed Koch, the insurgent candidate who didn't seem to have a chance at first, rely on the fact that he was imagining a so-called new New York, and how much of it relied on the fact that he played into what you refer to as "blackout backlash," which was a racist backlash largely coming from the outer boroughs?
Jonathan Mahler: I think it was the latter; I don't think anyone has ever accused Ed Koch of being a visionary. I don't even think he would claim to be one. He sounded tough, and he said he would stand up to the unions who had been holding New York hostage; he campaigned for the death penalty; he said he was going to be tough on crime. And it was a very practical message. I don't mean to disparage Koch too much, because I think he came to serve as a great mascot for the city and came to lift the city's spirits in a really important way.
I think a lot of [Koch's victory] was due to his campaign manager, David Garth. Without him, Koch wouldn't have won. And the truth is that Cuomo ran a terrible campaign and kind of destructed.
Someone like Bella Abzug was too far left to be elected in this climate. It was already clear when Abzug was promising the city that she wasn't going to close fire stations, that she was going to eliminate the tuition that had recently been imposed in City College, that she was going to beef up the municipal hospital system, that she was going to add childcare centers and senior centers and libraries - that it was impractical. It was unrealistic, and it was out of touch with where the city was in that moment.
Gotham Gazette: One thing that struck me was - as we start this year's mayoral campaign - you had Bella Abzug driving around in the Impala with a bullhorn. You had people throwing sausage pizzas at Ed Koch's car in Brooklyn. It just all seemed much more colorful than what we get today. Do you feel like there's a different way that politics and campaigning works in New York City now than it did back then?
Jonathan Mahler: I don't cover New York City politics now. But certainly, the characters to me, anyway, were just much larger than the prospect of Bloomberg and Freddie Ferrer, or whoever it is. Whereas Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, those were personalities.
In terms of campaigning, I do think that politicians seemed to work the outer boroughs more than they do now, or at least they work them in a different way. Just reading the papers from that summer, I was really struck by, for instance, this photo of Mario Cuomo campaigning at a beach club in Brighton Beach and surrounded by all these Jewish guys in their swimming trucks. I just can't imagine Bloomberg doing that today. But I don't really know why that is. I guess because of TV advertising. There was obviously television advertising in this campaign, but no one really had enough money to do as much TV advertising as they wanted to, so they had to just get out on the streets.
And, I think you had a somewhat unique situation here where you had Cuomo and Koch. Cuomo, from the moment he entered the race, was considered a real contender because those who did know him knew how eloquent and wonderful he was; and Governor Hugh Carey pushed him to run, which was going to be helpful to him. So the two of them certainly had to get out a lot more, because no one knew who they were.
BASEBALL AS A METAPHOR FOR NEW YORK CITY
Muriel Mandell: It's interesting that no one has talked at all about the many chapters you had on baseball and Reggie [Jackson] and Billy [Martin].
Jonathan Mahler: I guess I can talk about that as well. For those who haven't read this book, baseball is a main storyline as well. It was the year that Reggie Jackson arrived in New York amid a great amount of fanfare after baseball had its first free agent draft. From the moment he arrived - even before he arrived - he was at loggerheads with the team's manager, Billy Martin.
The feud between the two of them was played out to no end in the tabloids this summer. Keep in mind that Rupert Murdoch had just bought the New York Post at the end of 1976, moved into the editor's office on January 1, 1977, and started turning it into the New York Post we know today. It is a far cry from the New York Post that it was before, which was a great old liberal newspaper. Reggie and Billy fought this incredibly nasty feud in the tabloids, with the sorts of quotes that you would never see today.
The city became very invested in the struggle between these two people. This plays into the larger theme of my book, but before I say this, let me say that I am not one who tries to get too metaphorical about sports, so forgive me if this seems like too much of a stretch. In many ways, the sort of old New York/new New York struggle that was going on in so many other senses in the city was very similar to the one that was going on between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. You had this arrogant superstar, who was black, making millions of dollars. Then you had Billy Martin, who had played for the Yankees in the 1950s, who was real scrappy, tough, from a hardscrabble childhood - he was really a working class icon for New York. So much of the city naturally sided with Billy Martin in this dispute.
That feud also plays itself out over the course of the summer and while this will be sort of ruining the book for those of you who haven't read it, the book climaxes with Reggie hitting three home runs in a single World-series game which redeemed him. And, in a symbolic sense, it can be seen as a sort of redemption from New York. The tabloids certainly read it that way: the Post in the day after the three home runs had an editorial that says "who dares call New York a lost cause?"
Kristy Bristen: I actually read the book because of the Yankee connection. When I was reading the book, I thought the whole thing was fascinating, but I kept thinking a lot about things that have changed since 1977 and things that haven't. When I was reading the book, it was a few weeks ago when George Steinbrenner sent his memo to the team basically threatening that heads are going to roll. I'm wondering if you had a chance to talk to George Steinbrenner; is he one of the people you interviewed? It's interesting, out of all these people he's still around.
Jonathan Mahler: I didn't talk to him. I talked to Reggie Jackson and I talked to a lot of the other players on the team. I made an initial attempt to interview him, but I felt like it was going to require more time than I wanted to devote to it; I just felt like I wasn't going to learn anything new.
In many ways I feel like he's sort of the exception to the rule that players and managers aren't as colorful as they were then and they don't say the kinds of provocative things they used to say. He still does it. He's almost become a caricature of himself - he has become a caricature of himself.
He was relatively new to New York in 1977 and the city really turned on him. I think now Yankee fans would tolerate him much more than they did then, because he's now built some winning teams. Then, people really hated him. Part of it was that he was giving Billy Martin such a hard time and people felt so loyal and passionate about Billy Martin so they couldn't abide him: "Here he was some shipbuilder from Cleveland who comes into New York and who does he think he is?" I can't stand him myself, so the sooner he goes, the better. He makes it hard to root for the Yankees.
Katie Store: I have no problem hating the Yankees; I detest them because I am from Pittsburgh, which has a really small market team. I think this "baseball and urban life in New York" metaphor is a really interesting one because the way that Steinbrenner handled free agency by just loading money onto Reggie Jackson has bred a whole different baseball than the one that used to be. And, similarly the way that I think New York recuperated from this period of decay bred a whole different kind of urban life. What I'm wondering is - this is outside the scope of the book, but this is what came into my head and what troubled me reading this - is the plight of the ordinary person better or worse now? Was the way we handled it really good? And, was the plight of the small-market team any better now than it was before, because clearly it's not.
Jonathan Mahler: I think that's a very good point, and it has come up in my readings before. I think there's something missing from New York now and as one who's not part of the power elite of New York myself, it's a hard place to live, it's expensive. I think basically what you're saying is correct. Money and power are concentrated now among a small group of the rich and powerful, the elite group. The same is true in baseball as in the city. Rupert Murdoch is one, for example: He was just starting out in 1977 and now he's one of the richest men in New York and he has an incredible amount of power. I don't know how there is going to be a middle class in New York at this rate in ten years. It just seems very difficult.
Mike Miscione: But New York was a pretty miserable place for a lot of people.
Jonathan Mahler: I'm not nostalgic for New York of 1977. I think that the transition that occurred in this era that I'm writing about is when New York went from being a kind of working class city to being the city it is today.
I think that what New York had at that time was doing was unique. The New York experiment was unlike what was happening in other American cities: the municipal hospitals, the subsidized subways, the rent-controlled apartments, public housing, free high quality public education. You weren't getting that in other cities.
Ron Bloom: The 1960s, when we lived here, was rent-controlled apartments and the streets felt safe. We left for 30 years and lived in Baltimore. We started coming back, and I remember reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, especially the beginning of it, and really getting frightened. And I would see these abandoned cars when we came to visit family here, walking the streets, seeing the cars that said "No radio inside." Things have changed. I know it's not in certain ways for the best, but it has changed. My wife Naomi [Bloom] has spoken about the fact that this has become a buyer's apartment place rather than a renter's place.
Jonathan Mahler: You can't make the argument "would I rather raise my family in New York of 1977 or New York City today?" Of course I'd rather raise a family today; it is a cleaner, safer, better place to live. That doesn't mean that we can't be sad about some things that are no longer part of the city. It's not a zero-sum game; it's not a one-to-one equation. I think there was better music, for instance. It would have been more fun to be a teenager then.
Gotham Gazette: Is there is anything besides the music of 1977 that we should lament not having now?
Jonathan Mahler: I think that before 1977, before the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York was a much more hospitable place for the working class; it was an easier place to live and raise your children. So yes.