Ed Driscoll

Longing for the Bad Old Days

Back in 2005, Daniel Henninger explored a curious phenomenon — elite New York hipster-poseurs, who longed for the city’s bad old days of the 1970s. Recall that for the rest of us, this was the era when audiences cheered for Charles Bronson’s civilized architect-turned-urban vigilante in Death Wish, because unlike virtually all elites at the time, he at least fought back against crime:

This past Sunday a New York Times feature in its City section asked famous New Yorkers to identify New York’s golden age. At least four identified the 1970s as the golden age. This is worth notice because in the 1970s banks said New York had spun its credit rating into dross and refused to lend more money to a city whose accumulated deficit reached $8 billion. Today its budget office reports that starting in FY2006, per-annum deficits for three years will be $3.7 billion, $4.5 billion and $3.7 billion. There is a mayoral election this November when we’ll get the opinion of all New Yorkers on the city’s current alchemists. But perhaps we should regard the famous Times’ commentators yearning for the 1970s as canaries in the gold-plated mine shaft.

The actor John Leguizamo: New York in the ’70s “was funky and gritty and showed the world how a metropolis could be dark and apocalyptic and yet fecund.” Fran Lebowitz, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair: The city “was a wreck; it was going bankrupt. And it was pretty lawless; everything was illegal, but no laws were enforced. It was a city for city-dwellers, not tourists, the way it is now.” Laurie Anderson, a well-known New York artist and performer, admits the ’70s were considered “the dark ages” but “there was great music and everyone was broke.”

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One of the better-known artifacts in the archaeology of New York is the movie “Death Wish.” Released in 1974, it stars Charles Bronson as a Manhattan liberal who snaps under the burden of New York’s violence and goes into the subways to mow down thugs the cops can’t or won’t catch. Back then the city’s audiences cheered and screamed as Bronson smashed one civil-liberties platitude after another.Peter Hall, in his magisterial study of history’s great urban centers, “Cities in Civilization,” remarks offhandedly that “not for nothing did New York develop so rapidly after the first subways . . . brought their trains into the center of Manhattan.” The subways, of course, aren’t for the tourists but for unwealthy city-dwellers. Starting in 1970, fires, collisions and derailments routinely wrecked New York’s subways, injuring and even killing passengers. In August 1973, a chunk of concrete fell from the roof of the IRT Steinway tunnel and killed a passenger. A 1975 fire trapped 12,000 evening rush-hour passengers. But the cars were colorful. They were covered with graffiti, celebrated by Norman Mailer in a famously provocative paean to the graffiti painters.

The ’70s golden-agers in the Times story don’t deny what was going on then–but they kind of miss it. The photographer Mary Ellen Mark remembers “it was a time of costume and excitement, a time of youth and great energy.” Caleb Carr, the novelist of old-time New York, thinks the city has been “sterilized by the Giuliani years.” He says that “like a troublesome child taking Ritalin, New York may be more manageable now, but it has also sacrificed its personality.”

These comments raise the question of just what liberalism believes makes a city great or even golden, rather than just . . . interesting.

From New York’s “golden age” to a more “romantic” time in the city’s history — romantic as defined by former president (and former sax-toating wannabe hipster himself) Bill Clinton:

Former President Bill Clinton fondly remembers a “romantic” time when you could still get a prostitute in Times Square.

Clinton was at a news conference in Times Square with Mayor Bloomberg on Wednesday when a reporter asked him about the formerly seedy neighborhood.

Clinton said he first visited Times Square in 1964 when he was a freshman at Georgetown University. He said he saw “a hooker approach a man in a gray flannel suit.” He said it was “pretty heavy stuff for a guy from Arkansas.”

Clinton said the area is cleaner and safer now — and that’s good.

But he sounded like he missed the old days.

“I still have vivid memories of it,” he said. “Romantic. Fascinating. It was dangerous.”

As Henninger wrote in 2005, “These comments raise the question of just what liberalism believes makes a city great or even golden, rather than just . . . interesting.”

Of course, these days, if former President Clinton wants to spend the evening in a town that’s romantic, fascinating and dangerous, there’s always Detroit.