Monday, October 02, 2006

INTRODUCTION

In 1977, crazy weather drove New Yorkers insane all year long.

An extremely cold winter gave way to a burning hot summer. Then a July thunderstorm sparked the worst blackout in New York history. The entire police force was ordered to report for duty but few off-duty cops bothered to show up. Those that did got a taste of true fear when their patrol cars, crawling down blackened streets, were pummeled by bricks and bottles and the occasional round of fire. Patrol car headlights blinded bad New Yorkers who hit the streets for the biggest looting spree in city history. One Brooklyn mom was not pleased when she plugged in the family's newly acquired air conditioner and nothing - just the same hot air blowing in from the darkened street. She let the unit drop out of the window and yelled at her son to get out there and come back with good merchandise next time. Maybe the greatest hit of the night happened up in the West Bronx were 50 new Pontiacs were stolen from a poorly defended dealership. At Rikers a dozen inmates escaped under the cover of darkness.

A lover’s lane serial killer, who had been discharged from the army for refusing to carry a gun, decided that it would be a good idea to stay off the streets that night. Son of Sam was the big story in New York for most of the calendar year. The .44-caliber killer, a postal clerk and former auxiliary police officer, was a man of few words, but when Harvey the Labrador retriever talked, he listened. The result was no joke as 6 young men and women were killed and the lives of survivors and family members were ruined. In the extended media frenzy and general hysteria leading up to the arrest in August, detectives on the hunt for the killer were followed by television crews and newspaper reporters. A tabloid newspaper war, fueled by Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post in January, benefited from the story of a lifetime. In May, The Daily News got the goods delivered right to Jimmy Breslin’s mail box in the form of a personal letter from the fugitive.

Son of Sam grabbed the headlines but a plague of pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers and drug addicts, car thieves, muggers, rapists and killers were also out there working hard alongside the famous slayer. Criminals with special skills included cabbie killers, bank robbers, art thieves, pickpockets and lowly petnappers. It was a year in which fumbled robberies competed with botched investigations. A large population of especially heartless predators favored elderly victims. Some of the city’s baddies preferred the subways, others stuck to Times Square. At a time when one or two major crimes were reported every minute, it should have come as no surprise that a local gun group offered a $200 reward to victims who killed their assailants. Vigilantes in all five boroughs were ready to answer the call.

By 1977 the famous South Bronx fire plague had moved on to newly-minted slums like Bushwick, Brooklyn. A few of the blazes were undoubtedly caused by exploding boilers and bedtime smokers, but arson was all the rage. Over the July 4th weekend the Fire Department decided to take a holiday and ignored 1,000 Brooklyn alarms (all but two were false). The department’s statement that this was not the usual procedure did not reassure many.

Conspiracy enthusiasts were not alone in thinking that the biggest criminals in New York City in 1977 were not deranged serial killers or Con Ed management, but city officials themselves. It was no secret that the city had cut services to select neighborhoods, those that politicians would never live in themselves. An amazing local government policy of “planned shrinkage” was the product of a famous Daniel Patrick Moynihan memo suggesting that something called “benign neglect” would be an effective way to downsize big bad cities. But New York City was way ahead of the Senator. In the sixties, the city had a plan to clear slums all over town. Slum clearance might sounds worse than planed shrinkage, but that program was incredibly thoughtful compared to what elected officials cooked up in the seventies. In 1977 voters were amazed to discover who they had elected right there at home, and what the gang was up to.

The Federal government, too, had plenty of tricks up its sleeves. The Labor Department botched a memo to employers reminding them that they must consider hiring alcoholics and drug addicts, just as they must employ “blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.”
Washington had New York City in mind when they issued that flattering directive. New Yorkers wished the goverment would put the city back on the pay-no-mind list. In 1975, President Ford famously told New York City to drop dead: by 1977 it seemed to New Yorkers and rest of America that, indeed, the city would be lucky to see 1978.

The big stories of 1977 were really big. Son of Sam and the blackout had staying power. Other, lesser known disasters came and went.


High above Grand Central a helicopter faltered on its landing gear causing a spinning rotor to break off – hacking through a crowd of waiting passengers before flying down to Madison Avenue and slicing an unlucky pedestrian to death.

A hijacked bus slammed through a fence at JFK and closed down the airport for 4 hours as it crisscrossed the tarmac followed by a convoy of police cars. Two of the victims thrown from the bus were a woman, shot in the back of the head, and the driver. In a bad year for bus companies, another incident involved the theft of a Greyhound bus by two 14-year-olds who took it on a joy ride through New York City streets. Later, in a feeble effort to defend themselves from ridicule, the company protested that they didn’t know the bus had been stolen from a parking lot, watched by a security guard, until getting a call from the cops.

Studio 54 opened in midtown without a real liquor license. When Son of Sam’s capture was announced there hysterically by Steve Rubell, he joked that Berkowitz "would have never gotten in here."


Saturday Night Fever (and Nunzio) were filmed in Brooklyn. Diane Keaton followed up her role in Annie Hall with another movie that might as well have been set in New York, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Rocky was finishing up its long run when George Lucas released Star Wars. Roots drew the largest television audience in history. And a long list of great bands made stops at Madison Square Garden and elsewhere in New York during a once-in-a-lifetime year for music fans.

One guy who probably didn’t make it to a lot of shows was a famous cult leader whose followers included Carole Burnett and Bernadette Peters. He spent two months trying to revive a dead body in his Upper West Side apartment before jumping from his 10th floor window.

Joe Torre took over early in the season as manager of the New York......Mets. The Yankees, staring Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, surprised everyone and won the World Series for the first time since 1962. A classic, although ultimately anticlimactic, pennant race also featured the Red Sox and the Orioles. Earlier in the summer baseball's All-Star game came to New York and fans were treated to one of the largest gatherings of Hall-of-Famers in history. And in his final season, Pele starred in soccer’s best year ever in the U.S., as the Cosmos drew huge crowds to Giants Stadium enroute to the title. The world’s other best known athlete, Muhammad Ali’s performance at Madison Square Garden made it clear that he should follow the Brazilian legend’s example and retire. Seattle Slew became the second triple crown winner of the seventies. A two-year-old named Affirmed was also in town that year dueling with Alydar at the Futurity. (Affirmed made it back-to-back triple crown winners in 1978).

NYC 1977 will take a perverse look back at the year and the city. In 1977, there was no time to talk about the crazy weather. No one could believe what New York City and its inhabitants had concocted for themselves. NYC 1977 tells the whole story, from January 1st through December 31st, with all the bloody details left in.

2 comments:

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Lira said...

This is an AMAZING blog. I don't know if you're still working on it, but I'd love to see more. 20th century NYC history deserves the kind of attention you've given to it here. Thanks! A real online gem.