Fear City Reemerges from Memory in the Form of a Wish

Search “new york in the 70s” through Google and you’ll notice a trend of links with titles like “1970s New York in 41 Terrifying Photos,” “A decade of urban decay,” and “New York City Used to be a Terrifying Place [PHOTOS].” Likewise, you’ll find articles that take the opposite approach and address the era’s glamour, like The Guardian’s “Why we’re still obsessed with the 1970s New York of Lou Reed and Patti Smith.” A 2015 T Magazine article calls the ‘70s the  “last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘martyrs to art’ […] the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status.”

There’s been a resurgence of interest in this particular time and place in the last few years, especially in the medium of TV: Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” (2016), David Simon and George Pelecanos’s “The Deuce” (2017), and Martin Scorsese’s “Vinyl” (2016) are all examples of this apparent longing for the New York of the 1970s. I said in class, as we looked at the pictures taken for New York Magazine in Sandy’s aftermath, that the pictures looked the way my parents and others who lived in New York in the 1970s and ‘80s describe the city as having been. I meant that as compared to the aerial photos in the Cut slideshow which gave a more complete picture of what parts of Manhattan were with and without power, a viewer basing their understanding of Sandy’s aftermath on the New York photos might be forgiven for thinking that New York had become an uninhabited black-and-white wasteland. My comment was a joke, but the more I looked at the New York slideshow, the more it looked to as if it could belong in a gallery of the disaster landscape photographs which typify the image of Seventies New York. These shots of empty Lower East Side streets in particular (and the food cart on West 13th) reminded me of similar nighttime shots of Manhattan like those found in this collection. The conversation was then directed in the direction of Glenda Moore, the Staten Island mother discussed in Tavia Nyong’o’s “Black Survival in the Uchromatic Dark,” whose two young sons drowned as a direct result of her neighbors denying her shelter, and I Google searched Moore’s name. The second-to-last link on the first page of results for her name is an article entitled “Hurricane Sandy’s ‘Kitty Genovese’ Moment.” It was this find that solidified for me that there was an overt link in the representation of Sandy’s impact on New York and of the city’s “bad old days,” particularly in visual representation.

While looking through pictures to base this post on, I noticed a particular affinity between New York Magazine’s Sandy portfolio and photos of the blackout of 1977, and thought there might be another visual parallel in photos of the blackout of 2003 (images of which you can check out here). There wasn’t really, though: pictures from 2003 generally tend to focus more on gathered groups of people, on MTA workers/NYPD officers/ConEd workers, and on the blacked-out skyline. I’ll come back to the 2003 blackout and why I think the discrepancy in representation is significant later in this post.

Although the murder of Kitty Genovese, the seminal example of the bystander effect, happened in 1964, I think it’s been absorbed into the city’s collective memory as part of a dark period in New York’s history which is generally remembered as having lasted from the mid-Sixties through the mayorship of Rudy Giuliani (whether or not that’s true is a suitcase too large for me to unpack here, although I think what matters is that it’s popularly remembered this way). The last years of the Sixties would see job actions by transportation workers, teachers, and sanitation workers, slowdowns by police and firefighters, and the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The Seventies brought New York the Knapp Commission, high crime rates, the Son of Sam murders, and a fiscal crisis that put the city on the brink of bankruptcy. Arson was a major blight on the city: a New York Post article on the subject states that “seven different census tracts in The Bronx lost more than 97% of their buildings to fire and abandonment between 1970 and 1980; 44 tracts (out of 289 in the borough) lost more than 50%.” Arson and fire are at the root of much of the visual representation of the era, either in pictures of burning buildings or of New Yorkers moving through the burnt-out lots that were left after the fires. There may be no more enduring quote in New York’s memory of the time than “the Bronx is burning” (though the Post article mentioned before speculates the phrase was “invented by New Yorkers […] and spun by credulous journalists”). “Fear City,” referenced in the title of this post, was a campaign initiated in 1975 by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association which warned the tourists who Fear City pamphlets were handed out to to “Stay off the streets after 6 P.M.,” “Avoid public transportation,” and “Remain in Manhattan,” as “police and fire protection in other areas of the city [was] grossly inadequate and [would] become more inadequate.” This Guardian article on Fear City describes these warnings, which the PBA would eventually back off from using, as “ludicrous exaggerations or outright lies” to fight potential police layoffs, but the assertions of the Fear City campaign seem to have more or less lived on.

Roach writes in “Echoes in the Bone” that as “evocations of the past, […] myths of origin […] suggest alternatives for the future,” and at these junctures, “catastrophe may reemerge from memory in the form of a wish.”  I bring up all this municipal history to emphasize how deeply the dread of the mid-Sixties and Seventies and Eighties have embedded themselves in the consciousness of New York City. I would go so far as to say that the most basic template for the representation of terror in New York — terror as an overarching or underlying feeling that affects the whole city — is found not in September 11th, 2001, but in the later part of the 20th century. I think this is why images of the 2003 blackout are not framed in the same semi-apocalyptic way that the New York Magazine pictures of Sandy’s aftermath are: the blackout of ’03, although originally suspected in to be terrorism-related, was caused by infrastructure failure. Sandy, albeit a natural storm, was altogether more catastrophic in its effects on parts of New York and up and down the East Coast. Contemporary romanticization of 1970s New York also likely had much to do in the way that Sandy was visually represented: in some sense, the New York pictures of Sandy, if not the catastrophe itself, reemerged from the memory of the Seventies in the form of a wish for the era’s visual style. We’ve done a lot of talking about collective memory; Mark Jacobson, writing about New York’s “so longed for, so endlessly discussed” ’70s period in New York Magazine, three years after Sandy, summarizes the issue: “The mean-street memory of the 1970s adheres to the collective big-city conscious like Proustian poo wedged in the waffle soles of your Chuck Taylors when they were still $19 at Vim’s; you didn’t even actually have to be present to be haunted by the time.”


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