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The Bronx Is Burning (continued)

Posted: Thursday April 28, 2005 4:23PM; Updated: Friday April 29, 2005 9:58AM
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When I first embarked on this book four years ago, my intention was to write about the '77 Yankees against the backdrop of New York during this infamous era of urban blight. As the months passed, though, the city slowly advanced into the foreground, and the two stories became one.

I might have anticipated this. I moved to New York after graduating from college in 1990, and while it was obviously a much cleaner, safer city than it had been in the late seventies, I nevertheless felt nostalgic for the New York that I had caught only in fleeting childhood glimpses, a New York that still felt wild, unsettled. And so, as my research progressed, I sought out people who had once roamed this urban frontier: disco devotees who frequented underground dance clubs; cops who patrolled the streets during this period of soaring crime; firemen who fought the epidemic of arson that swept through the city's ghettos; gays who cruised the abandoned West Side piers; artists and musicians who homesteaded in cheap, dingy lofts in the postindustrial wasteland of SoHo.


On September 11, 2001, I happened to be researching the orgy of looting and arson that had accompanied the twenty-five-hour city-wide power failure in July 1977. There are, of course, obvious differences between a localized blackout and a terrorist attack that killed thousands. Still, both were extraordinarily trying moments for the city, and I couldn't help pondering how different New York felt in their respective wakes. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a sense that our tallest towers had been felled but that our foundation was more secure than ever. We were able to identify (if not locate) our enemy, and the rest of the country, not to mention most of the free world, was on our side. During the days and weeks that followed the blackout, New York had felt shaken to its core, and America had been anything but sympathetic.

At the same time, though, as it sank to a new low in the summer of 1977, the city was also revealing its endless capacity for regeneration. I gradually came to regard '77 as a transformative moment for the city, a time of decay but of rehabilitation as well. New York was straddling eras. You could see it everywhere: in the mayoral race, which featured a hotheaded radical (Bella Abzug), an aging creature of the city's smoke-filled political clubhouses (Abe Beame), and a pair of unknowns who went on to play starring roles in the modern history of New York (Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo). You could see it in Rupert Murdoch's reinvention of the New York Post, formerly a dutiful liberal daily, as a celebrity-obsessed, right-wing scandal sheet and in the battle to stop the spread of porn shops and prostitutes across midtown.

You could see it in the Yankees too. The team's two biggest personalities, Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, were locked in a perpetual state of warfare, and it was hard not to see race, class, and the tug-of-war between past and future at the root of their dispute. Reggie Jackson was New York's first black superstar. He was also a perfect foil for the scrappy, forever embattled Martin, the hero of New York's fed-up working class and a powerful reminder of the team's-and the city's-less complicated past, the yellowing image of what New York had been and the still blurry image of what it was becoming.

This book is the story of that change.