"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Shook Ones Part II

There was an interesting piece not too long ago in the New York Times by David Brooks about the Upper West Side in the 1970s:

We’re familiar with talk about how Vietnam permanently shaped the baby boomers. But if you grew up in or near an American city in the 1970s, you grew up with crime (and divorce), and this disorder was bound to leave a permanent mark. It was bound to shape the people, now in their 40s and early-50s, reaching the pinnacles of power.

It has clearly influenced parenting. The people who grew up afraid to go in parks at night now supervise their own children with fanatical attention, even though crime rates have plummeted. It’s as if they’re responding to the sense of menace they felt while young, not the actual conditions of today.

The crime wave killed off the hippie movement. The hippies celebrated disorder, mayhem and the whole Dionysian personal agenda. By the 1970s, the menacing results of that agenda were all around. The crime wave made it hard to think that social problems would be solved strictly by changing the material circumstances. Shiny new public housing blocks replaced rancid old tenements, but in some cases the disorder actually got worse.

Growing up in and around the Upper West Side in the ’70s and 1980s, I remember being afraid all the time of getting jumped. Getting mugged was something that happened to everyone, just like getting your car broken into if you parked it…well, anywhere, but especially Riverside Drive. I was taught to have my keys out, in my hand, a block away from home, and I was used to getting half-crazed, hard looks from people on the street…on every block, every day.

When I walked from my grandparents apartment on 81st street (between Central Park West and Columbus) and Broadway, I knew which blocks to stay on, and which sides of the blocks too. Amsterdam Avenue was not to be taken lightly.

Brooks references two other pieces in his column. The first, Life in New York, Then and Now, was written by John Podhoretz (son of Norman Podhoretz) in Commentary:

Nostalgia can be a treacherous mistress, because she glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable. Since I live only a mile from where I was born and raised, with only slight changes to the visual landscape, I find myself constantly under nostalgia’s threat. An indifferent French restaurant occupies the space that once housed the record store where I bought my first 45 rpm disc of the Cowsills singing the title song from Hair, and standing in front of it I split into two, the 49-year-old in the present and the seven-year-old in the past crossing its portal with a little brown paper bag in hand, excited beyond measure to get its contents home to place the needle on the 45’s ridge and watch it slide into the first groove, the sound of the scratches giving way to the opening blast of the Cowsills’ five-part harmony. In the same way, standing on a Thursday evening in front of the building in which I was born and raised, I am suddenly in the hazy light of an early Sunday morning at the age of six and managing for the first time to right the bicycle from which the training wheels had lately been removed and then wobbling my way down the block and around the corner and around the second corner and then around the third—and slamming the bike into a toddler who was wobbling his way forward in front of his building.

That memory is itself almost certainly a conflation of two moments that occurred months apart, but in retrospect, they blend high exhilaration and low shame, an almost perfect distillation of the bipolarity of childhood feeling. That is the ambiguous power of nostalgia, as the jagged recollection of hitting a tiny child with a bicycle still has the power to catch like a rusted nail four decades later and open a fresh wound.

The second piece, Gentrification and Its Discontents by Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic, is also worth checking out. It’ s not about the Upper West Side, but it is about old New York vs. contemporary New York.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Barone]


1 RagingTartabull   ~  May 25, 2010 10:34 am

Brooks' assertion that the Hippie movement somehow celebrated "mayhem" reeks of a kind of willingly revisionist reading of history. You wanna tell me the Yippies celebrated mayhem and disorder then I'm right there with you...but Hippies weren't Yippies, and Brooks knows that.

I agree with Podhoretz's classification of UWS Liberalism as "a lived-in leftism, a legacy leftism, dull and humorless and orthodox, inherited from parents and grandparents." And I'm saying that as an UES Liberal.

These are the types of people who went to Bella Abzug fundraisers and probably really enjoy Jules Feiffer cartoons....and thats cool, its just a very specific kind of liberalism (urbane, ethnic, Jewish in the sense of "all New Yorkers are at least a little bit Jewish").

Of course these are also the types of people who eventually rejected that liberalism and went way the hell out the other way and became Neo-Cons. A philosophy that combines the irrational romanticism of old-line liberalism with the utterly terrifying world view of 21st century conservatism. YAY PROGRESS!!

Really I guess all I'm trying to say is that post-Giuliani crime stats are juked to within an inch of their life and Robert Moses was out of his mind.

/end rant.

2 Shaun P.   ~  May 25, 2010 11:13 am

I remember reading, about a year ago, a piece about how kidnapping numbers are ridiculously down from the 60s and 70s, yet huge numbers of suburban parents accompany their pre-teen kids to the bus stop, often to the point of driving them there and having them wait in the car for the bus - even if they live just a couple of houses from the bus stop (!).

On a very rational level, I think that kind of behavior is absurd in the face of the numbers. As a parent, though, I completely understand it.

I've lived on a small street in a small town for over 4 years, and I don't know all my neighbors - there are some I've never even seen. I don't feel comfortable relying on strangers, even if they are my neighbors, to keep an eye out on my minds. Contrast that with, say, my grandparents, who knew everyone for 20 houses in any direction on their street very well, and never had any worries about me and my brother walking to the corner store by ourselves.

When I came to Boston for law school, one of the first things I learned was what parts of the city you could safely go through at night alone - and what parts you couldn't (or shouldn't).

3 Dimelo   ~  May 25, 2010 2:34 pm

I remember being afraid all the time of getting jumped.

I know!!!

I was just talking about that a week or so ago with a friend of mine that didn't grow up in NY. Getting jumped was something that caused you to always watch your back. You always kept your head in a swivel, especially if you were walking through "foreign lands" - a neighborhood where you didn't know anyone.

It's weird, now you go to neighborhoods you aren't familiar with and you don't have the same uneasiness you had back in 80s and 90s.

4 Yankee Mama   ~  May 25, 2010 3:59 pm

The weird thing is that I still get tense in certain areas that are now completely gentrified as if I'm conjuring up past anxieties. For example, my parents would let me go almost anywhere, but I could not go to Broadway from Central Park West. Columbus and Amsterday were off limits and with good reason.

I remember keeping my head at a slight angle down while occassionally looking back, so as to not make eye contact.

Speaking of kidnappings, when I was a kid in the '60s and '70s, I was not allowed to tell anyone what work my parents did, for fear of kidnapping. It was so rampant in those days.

I grew up on the block of Alex's grandparents and I am guilty of being the Upper West Side jewish liberal intelligentsia that Woody Allen makes fun of in Annie Hall. I'm still close by even if we're infiltrated by observant religious types, whose political affiliation are not known to me.

The kinds of friends I have now are not that different from the ones I grew up with. So not that much has changed.

As for the yippies and subsequently the hippies, i think they were in response to the rigidity and conformity of the '50s. The hippies, I don't think affected the crime rate so much as they affected the lawlessness of the '70s. the pendulum having swung in such a far direction. Those of us in the '70s were sucked into the aftermath. We were all so under-parented for instance.

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