Ed Driscoll

When The Bad Old Days Hit Bottom

Hugh Hewitt links to this piece by AP’s Larry McShane on New York’s hellish summer of 1977:

Thirty years ago, as the temperatures soared and its morale plunged, New York City endured a scathing summer custom-made for tabloid headlines: A crippling July blackout, complete with arson and looting (“24 HOURS OF TERROR”); a media-savvy serial killer dubbed the Son of Sam (“NO ONE IS SAFE”); and a dysfunctional, sensational New York Yankees team (“THE BRONX ZOO”).

There was more: A bitterly contested mayoral race, the lingering threat of fiscal disaster, the perception that crime was turning New York City into Dodge City (albeit with a splashier skyline). The nation’s largest city was becoming a punchline, but those who resisted the urge to flee the five boroughs weren’t laughing.

“There were three things that were bad for the city: First was the blackout and the looting,” recalled Ed Koch, who was running to unseat incumbent Mayor Abe Beame. “Second was the fear in the city with the Son of Sam. And third was Howard Cosell’s comment that the Bronx was burning.”

The air of desperation eventually led to inspiration: ESPN is revisiting 1977 with its eight-part serialization of the Jonathan Mahler book “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning,” while Spike Lee directed the slice of ’77 life “Summer of Sam” back in 1999.

But it’s not an era that inspires nostalgia.

Don’t be so sure.

But for the rest of us, who don’t long for New York’s Death Wish/Taxi Driver days, while 1977 may have been liberal society’s nadir, there were signs of optimism if you looked carefully enough:

  • Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and the first Apples were slowing bringing the computer into the home. CompuServe had just begun offering the information on its mainframe computers to anyone who wanted to dial in with a modem and pay an hourly fee. (Doesn’t “modem” sound better if you put Dr. Evil-style air quotes around the word and pause for overdramatic effect between its two syllables?)
  • Robert Bartley, Larry Kudlow and Jude Wanniski were rediscovering classical economics and the power of free markets, hoping to convince the next president of their power.
  • George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were rediscovering classic movie genres, helping to keep the lights on in their industry for another few decades.
  • Conrail, a government-formed bailout of Penn Central and a half-dozen other bankrupt northeast railroads, was quietly cleaning up the financial disaster it inherited and would eventually emerge as a profitable enterprise, saving private railroad ownership.
  • So chin-up, those of you who think you’re currently living in the worst of all possible times. There are always tiny pockets of hope, if you know where to look.

    Besides, as the man said, there’s got to be a pony in there, somewhere.