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January 08, 2005

New York Stories

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

A few articles have recently appeared to provide cautionary tales, with New York in the 1970s providing the action. There's Daniel Henninger at the WSJ (here) and E. J. McMahon and Fred Siegel (here) in The Public Interest.

I think Daniel Henninger at the Journal was a little too hard on New York's creative class, don't you? You don't have to buy into the complete Richard Florida "creative class as savior of cities" routine to recognize that art and design are not simply parasitic. Sure, some artists are free riders, from an economic point of view. But the business world has its own inefficiencies in terms of return to society, and artists as a class are surely no more parasitic than, say, the tax department at Shearman and Sterling. Probably less so, this this day and age.

The story underneath is a little more complicated, though. I think Henninger is really saying this: look, it was not that long ago when things were falling apart in this city and elites (heavily influenced by fashionable cultural thinking) too often failed to notice or were complicit in the deterioration. Yes, things have gotten better--we are less inclined to celebrate graffiti on subways and are more attuned to the subtle effects of broken windows--but let's be ever vigilant about the return of values destructive to the polis under the guise of some spurious aesthetisicm or another. It's an old story. I suppose traditional Romans worried about Hellenization, too.

The fact that it's an old story suggests also that there is no correct side, but rather a tension that plays itself out in different ways.

I am not as worried as Henninger about these things in the current moment. You can make a pretty good argument that the creative class has been defanged (take a look at this blatant pitch to the "creative class" for the Apple Power Mac G5), and that what remains of its sans-culottes impulses has morphed into harmless nostalgie de la boue.

On the other hand, 1970s New York does give grounds for caution on a slightly different tangent, according to McMahon and Siegel. Their history is more directly related to the lessons of the New York City fiscal crisis, and to the need to be vigilant at the intersection of politics and finance.

I suspect some who read this site are either a little young to remember much of the New York City fiscal crisis, or for one reason or another don't make much of it. I'm the reverse: I make a lot of it and am old enough to remember it--indeed to have worked as a fiscal type in city government in its immediate aftermath.

Generationally speaking, while my dad's formative years were molded by depression and war, mine were molded by two bookends separated by less than a decade: the cultural shifts of the late 1960s (made manifest most clearly by Woodstock) and the return-to-reality shocks of the mid-1970s. The latter was made manifest in my life via a series of awakenings that reminded me that, irrespective of many deeply satisfying Aquarian yearnings, the world-as-it-is is also important. And that world consists of many seemingly prosaic things, like municipal water systems and debt burdens. Thus it was that I was greatly influenced by evereything from Polanski's Chinatown to Caro's The Power Broker in an end-of-an-era kind of way.

Ditto the fiscal crisis, and then some, since I saw some of its aftermath up-close, from the point of view of the city budget. To my mind, McMahon and Siegal do a good job in summarizing a complex chain of events in a few short pages, and I certainly commend it to any readers here with an interest (those with a more sustained interest should go on to the aforementioned Caro book, which says a lot about the development of New York from a physical and financial point of view, as well as two other accounts of the fiscal crisis: Siegel's The Future Once Happened Here and Charles R. Morris's The Cost of Good Intentions).

Of the two cautionary accounts, I am a little more persuaded by McMahon and Siegel's warnings on the intractability of bad politics than I am by Henninger on the need to beat back the art sans-culottes.



posted by Fenster at January 8, 2005


I thought I read that in the aftermath of 9/11, NYC was broke again. I thought that's why they denied the firefighters pay raises. Pretty much every city government seems to be broke right now. I understand that the age of acquarius may not have been good for the responsibility front, but the dot-com revolution wasn't particularly either. "The Cost of Good Intentions" could be "The Cost of Get Rich Quick Intentions" or "The Cost of Bureaucratic Intentions" couldn't it? Is there something I'm missing? (It's perfectly possible that there is, by the way, I claim no expertise on this...).

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2005 12:40 PM

Actually, Henninger was, if anything, pulling his punches on these Times quote factories.

I live in New York from 1974-1979, from 1981-1983, and from 1992- 2002, and there is not question that the crappiest part of all of it was the 70s. Mind you I, like the rest of the boho bobos quoted here, was young, affluent, and happening during that time and I guess you could say I had a good time -- In fact, it you were young, artsy, media-hooked, and had some spare change you always could have a very good time. What these bozos fail to mention is that the good time was had on the backs of others. They fail to mention the endless coke and quaaludes that convinced so many that it was a hot time in the old town every night, that jump started a lot of screwing around every night which, need I remind them, jump started AIDS (Don't see the survivors mentioning that little problem, do you?)

But if you had money you had insulation so you could avoid those bums defecating at the ends of the subways, you could look at the homeless and the lunatic as angel headed hipsters of prophecy, you could do all that and tell yourself that gritty was good because it was, hey, authentic.

But it wasn't really. It was a brutal, selfish, addicted, and diseased time. Nostalgia for misspent youth may be okay from Fran (I'm a bail judge on Law & Order who used to be a writer) Leibowitz, but I'll pass.

The best time? The Rudy years, right up until 9/10. After that, train wreck and the nanny mayor.

Posted by: Van der Leun on January 9, 2005 2:17 PM

You wrote: Generationally speaking, while my dad's formative years were molded by depression and war, mine were molded by two bookends separated by less than a decade: the cultural shifts of the late 1960s (made manifest most clearly by Woodstock) and the return-to-reality shocks of the mid-1970s.

You got me thinking about my own bookends …

I remember eating in a big hall at Yale Divinity School in the mid-1980s, under the blank gaze of long-dead-Yalies whose portraits hung on every wall, when Gary Hart(pence) walked in with his goddaughter, a student a couple years older than me. Hart had grown up in some strict, Midwestern sect, and still fancied himself Christian enough to revisit the Divinity School at Yale, from which he had graduated. I think he even preached at the little chapel while there, though I’m not sure. I recall his furtive glances around the Refrectory, watching for people to recognize him, waiting for his “buzz.” His young goddaughter, obviously pleased to have the public coup of eating with a Senator, preened and tried to look bored, as if she ate with Senators every day, which she emphatically did not. She was a typical Yalie – hard left, strangely named (I can’t recall her name but I remember it reminded me of a moon), full of herself and sexually loose. I think she was studying religion to be a liberal Protestant minister, but ended up teaching there instead. So fitting.

I remember grasping the extent to which the political and religious left were intertwined, and I intuited that somehow, the prestige academy was aligned with them. At the same time, I was viscerally, repulsed by their preening and obvious need for attention … no, power.

And then came Monkey Business. To me, it was a sudden confirmation that power corrupted both religion and politics. Hart’s hypocrisy and willingness to use religion to further his political ambitions made me shiver with anger. And to think I had seen it all coming, a couple of years ago, in the Yale Refrectory, when I had seen his character so plainly, as well as that of the girl who ate with him.

Vietnam, Woodstock and other 1960s/70s events may have been turning points of your generation -- although I think most of your generation looked at these events with lenses ground closer to those of, say, the Swift Boat Veterans – but I was shaped by those who were shaped by the 1960s and 1970s, (a second-order shaping?) I was shaped by ever-present Woodstocky culture.

Strangely, my other “bookend,” was Reagan’s last years in office. To me, Republicans seemed lame and ineffective compared to the ruthless, preening left. Reagan was a story-telling grandfather, simple and principled in the way of generations past. He seemed anchored to a past that no longer existed. Children, like me, born in the 1960s to parents immersed in the ideas of their own generation – my mom was a hippy shrink and my father a dour physicist from crazed San Fransisco – looked at Reagan longingly, not for his politics but for his demeanor. He oozed authenticity and stability with his soft-spoken voice and seeming disinterest in power. I didn’t care about his politics. I wanted his simple platitudes … the one’s Woodstockers mocked.

So Michael, if your bookends were within the 1960s counterculture, epitomized by Woodstock, mine were within the 1980s counter-counterculture, epitomized by Reagan. Strange, huh?

This post is out of hand. I must go feed my little sons a late lunch. Sorry for the meandering. No time to edit.

Posted by: Kris on January 9, 2005 4:32 PM

Oops ... I meant Fenster, not Michael, above. My bad.

Posted by: Kris on January 9, 2005 4:38 PM

This may have little to do with Fenster's original post, but Hart's "outing" was actually a kind of a "bookend" for our whole political culture, at least in retrospect. It seemed to crystallize further suspicions we had, born in Vietnam and Watergate, that all these guys were corrupt one way or another. Initially, the right, through Nixon, got demonized. Then, through Hart, it appeared they all--left and right--had feet of clay. It's when the Christian coalition got rocking on the political scene, and "character" got discussed, and simultaneously everybody got rooted in cement politically. Who's worse---the womanizer or the guy who abuses people through the IRS? And the contempt and cynicism about all of them taints the debate. We don't really like any of them, or trust that any of them are really about what they say they are, so its almost like we don't care what they say they plan to do in office, because we feel like we're somehow getting duped one way or another anyway. It's how an issue like swift boat veterans gets to be a big deal. Once upon a time they would have been seen as horrific to attack a decorated officer. Now people act like: Of COURSE he cheated to get his medals, there's something corrupt about all of them, isn't there? So its just easier to boil it all down to a few litmus test issues: where do stand on abortion? Taxes? Are you a wimp or will you swagger when the US is challenged? Who really cares if Cheney did business with Iraq when he ran Halliburton? They all cheat, don't they? And if Johnson/Nixon was the first shot over the bow, Hart was, kind of, the last nail in that coffin.

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2005 5:03 PM

I read somewhere recently -- I wonder if I'll be able to remember where -- that crime and welfare rates both rose300% during the 1960s. Oh, I do remember: I read that in the NYTimes' obit of John Lindsay, who presided as mayor over a number of those years. He had a Camelot glamor, he was handsome, he was "progressive." He seems to have done about as much damage to NYC as any single individual, ever.

I was a pretty clueless kid when I moved the city in 1978, and I was doing my best at the time to buy into the art-vision of life. And I was having a good time hanging out with friends, running to punk clubs, and imagining I was in the midst of something happening and fun. Porno palaces in the old Times Square, the punk scene on St. Marks and Bowery, etc. The city was visibly faling apart, but if you were young it was a neato "Blade Runner" setting for whatever you were determined to act out.

But even dimwit I looked around and thought, Whoa, this can't go on forever. Money was fleeing the city. Crime was soaring -- in my first years here, I was pickpocketed twice, mugged once, and attacked once. Of course, to the Village Voice crowd, this was a great era, and what the city needs is more of it. Cities need to attract people, and at that point NYC was scaring almost everyone away.

I remember getting into a few minor tiffs with "progressive" friends about the new Times Square. I'm not a fan or an advocate. On the other hand, it works, and it's contributed to the city's viability. My progressive friends though see no upside to it at all. They mourn the seedy days. I do too, a little. But I know it's silly nostalgia, and I know it couldn't go on.

OK, I'll go read the articles you linked to now...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2005 12:55 AM

300% rise in crime in the 60s: I believe it was an interview with James Wilson which you linked to a while back.

Posted by: JT on January 10, 2005 12:14 PM

Interesting that several of you above considered Gary Hart in this context. I was probably too jaded by the apex of his career to think of him in that fashion. Hope springs eternal, as does disappointment, I guess.

By contrast, 9/11 struck this old fogey as a turning point event of the first magnitude, so I'd think it would resonate ever more so with people considerably younger than I am--college kids in particular. This theme is picked up in an article in the new City Journal, on-line.

Posted by: fenster on January 11, 2005 11:56 AM

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