Unemployment, looting, budget cuts, rising crime, rapid population loss—the summer of 2020 was the worst season New York City has experienced in decades. It was a fitting time, then, to read Jonathan Mahler’s chronicle of another seminal summer, more than four decades ago. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City, first published in 2005, is an apt work of modern history. Fifteen years on, the text itself has become history. It bodes poorly for New York’s future that Mahler’s book, and its assumptions in favor of the basic precepts of urban livability, likely couldn’t find a publisher today.
It was in 1977 that America saw on its TV screens the scale of New York’s crisis. Mahler takes his book’s title from announcer Howard Cosell’s play-by-play during the second game of the 1977 World Series. As the Yankees battled the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cosell followed ABC’s cameras across the dark sky to an inferno not far from the stadium. He reminded the audience that President Jimmy Carter had visited the South Bronx just days before to view the remains of block after block of charred tenements. Across the city—not just in the Bronx, but in Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bushwick, too—property owners, tenants, and squatters had destroyed tens of thousands of housing units in just a few years. Owners had set their near-worthless rental properties ablaze for insurance proceeds; tenants had set fires to gain relocation funds; and drug-addicted squatters had caused accidental blazes trying to keep themselves warm.
Cosell’s attention nationalized New York’s woes, but the summer of 1977 was the nadir, not the start, of a decade of rapid urban descent. In 1965, Mahler writes, New York had endured a citywide blackout, during which “crime had actually dipped.” When the lights went out in mid-July 1977, however, thousands of people from Brooklyn to Harlem rushed to loot neighborhood merchants, from luxury jewelers to the corner grocery, often burning the shops once nothing was left. The ’65 blackout happened in November, not July, and began earlier in the afternoon, Mahler notes. Yet “the rampage that followed hard on the heels of the onset of darkness in ’77 could not be reasoned away by the temperature and the time of day.” He explains how middle-class neighborhoods, their grown-up, children-of-immigrant Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents lured away by the promise of suburban backyards and pushed by rising crime, had destabilized almost overnight.
Following the sustained looting of the summer of 2020, Mahler’s history should put us on notice. Is the present mayhem an aberration, to be corrected once the pandemic ends? Or is it the harbinger of a deeper change? He informs us that New York in 1977 had lost more than 300,000 jobs over the past decade, as manufacturing moved out of dense cities. New York in 2020 has lost nearly 650,000 jobs, 16 percent of its pre-Covid total, in a single year. What happens if these temporary job losses harden into permanent ones?
To tell New York’s “fear city” crime story from this period, Mahler focuses on David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam,” who murdered six young people and wounded seven others before police apprehended him in August 1977. Berkowitz, who targeted young white women with long brown hair, was an aberration. Then, just as now, most victims of crime were young minority men, killed by other young minority men over drug deals, robberies, or petty disputes. Though Mahler doesn’t parse the data, historic police figures show that, between 1963 and 1972, the city’s murder rate had tripled. Sharp increases over just two years turned into sustained trends that took decades to reverse. Between 1967 and 1968, for example, the murder tally jumped 32 percent, to 986. Between 1970 and 1971, it rose another 31 percent, to 1,466.
Thanks in part to a near-doubling of killings this August, the number of murders so far this year is 40 percent higher than it was through the first nine months of 2019. Not even in the darkest days of the seventies did the murder rate rise so quickly. Many supposed urbanists, uneasy about discussing violent crime and the racial repercussions of combatting it, insist that this is a fluke. We should hope that they’re right.
The most jarring aspect of Mahler’s book is how out of place it would be in today’s urban politics. Mahler is no conservative; he’s been published in the New York Times magazine, among other enlightened publications. Yet much of what he wrote in 2005 now lies well to the right of respectable thought.
For example, Mahler never questions the idea that there is no justification for looting. “The truth was,” he writes, “for most New Yorkers, regardless of ethnicity or political persuasion, it was hard to square the images of marauding mobs . . . with some abstract notion of social protest.” This attitude doesn’t fly among the political class and its aspirants in 2020 New York City, who studiously ignore rampant looting, make philosophical arguments that it is an integral part of “peaceful protest,” or focus on its purported root causes. In 1977, only losing candidates like mayoral hopeful Bella Abzug attempted to explain away looting. Ed Koch’s tough-on-crime rhetoric helped him win the mayoral election that fall.
Mahler also accepts the premise that looting demands policing. Of the 3,776 people arrested for burglary that 1977 blackout night, he writes, most met up with judges who “heeded Mayor Beame’s call to prosecute looters to the fullest extent of the law.” Just 15 years ago, the notion that looters deserve amnesty because of past injustices was considered absurd.
Most damning of all by contemporary lights, Mahler treats the police as sympathetic characters. Yes, he duly notes instances of police abuse, such as cramming alleged blackout burglars into cells beyond capacity. But for the most part, he treats the police as flawed good guys:
“Seeing the destruction,” says Thomas Creegan, a redheaded veteran of the [Brooklyn] Eight-Three [precinct], “what was most upsetting was that you worked in this precinct. You worked with these people . . . yet here they were, burning their own stores down. Where are you going to go come Friday? Where’s that nice old lady in the tenement going to get her food?”
The frequent rejoinder to any comparison between 1977 and 2020 is that the pandemic is temporary and not New York’s fault. True enough, but it’s also true that the factory job losses and mass migration to the suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s were not New York’s fault, either. The city managed those crises poorly for a time—until it learned, starting in the 1990s, to manage them better, in large part through policing the violent crime that was worsening these circumstances. The city had also been lucky in the 1980s, in that the insurgent business, financial, and creative professionals still wanted to come to Manhattan, despite all its flaws. Manhattan’s rejuvenation allowed New York to rebuild its crime-fighting tax base a decade later.
Now, with New York’s Midtown Manhattan office buildings empty and neighborhoods falling prey to gunplay, New York once again needs to be both smart and lucky.
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