March 13, 2014

"It’s a testament to how constrained and inert the city has become that the 1970s, the most unloved decade of the recent past..."

"... now seems to so many young New Yorkers like a golden age."
You can understand, sitting or more likely standing on a NYC subway train today, why many of us born after 1980 and now stuck in this unaffordable city might mythologize the 1970s, which for all its danger at least felt alive.
Nostalgia for a time you didn't live in. It's a particular sort of nostalgia, especially absurd when what you feel was so much more "alive" in the time when you yourself were not alive was how much more painful it was. Find your own pain. Or better yet, figure out a way to live that isn't about longing for pain.

And I'm saying this as someone who lived in New York City from 1973 to 1984.

And here, reread that 1970 essay by Tom Wolfe, "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s," that paragraph about nostalgie de la boue:
Very nice! In fact, this sort of nostalgie de la boue, or romanticizing of primitive souls, was one of the things that brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society. Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Within New York Society nostalgie de la boue was a great motif throughout the 1960s, from the moment two socialites, Susan Stein and Christina Paolozzi, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and the twist and two of the era’s first pet primitives, Joey Dee and Killer Joe Piro. Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own—even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence—nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz. Such affectations were meant to convey the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances. During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres, and innumerable dress fashions summed up in the recurrent image of the wealthy young man with his turtleneck jersey meeting his muttonchops at mid-jowl, à la the 1962 Sixth Avenue Automat bohemian, bidding good night to an aging doorman dressed in the mode of an 1870 Austrian army colonel.


YoungHegelian said...

...might mythologize the 1970s, which for all its danger at least felt alive.

Part of that frisson was that everyone --- right, left & center -- actually believed in and practiced free speech. There's danger & liberation in free speech, but the pretty little consciences of the PC police have done their very best to quash it since the mid-80's.

n.n said...

This reminds of The Matrix, where it was objectively (i.e. rationally) resolved that human life stagnates and becomes progressively dysfunctional in a utopian environment. Perhaps the regression can be attributed to a "spoiled child" syndrome.

Scott said...

Anyone using the word "frisson" should be shot.

rhhardin said...

I'd occasionally spend a Saturday riding the subways in NYC, since I liked trains, as a kid.

A single 15 cent token worked for all day.

DC bus tokens fit the turnstiles as well, incidentally.

Scott said...

@rhhardin: I wish they still used tokens. Wouldn't it be cool if US coins had the same kind of cut-out logos that subway tokens had?

Seeing Red said...

"For all it's danger, felt alive."

I must feel "alive" all the time. I am entitled to be entertained 24/7.

Seriously, wayyy too much navel-gazing.

I will ask again, what is it with progs, danger & grit?

If you don't like it, move. The world has what you want.

richard mcenroe said...

At three o'clock in the morning on the IRT line NYC might have felt alive.

YOU might not...

YoungHegelian said...


Anyone using the word "frisson" should be shot.

Well, aren't we Mr. Fuckin' Judgmental today?

TosaGuy said...

I guarantee most of the young folks nostalgic for urban grit prefer faux urban grit, rather than the actual thing where they would experience the misery rather than be entertained by it.

Alex said...

Where can a person go to live the bohemian lifestyle with no danger?

Alex said...

Tosa - "Taxi Driver" is a good example of how "gritty" the middle 1970s New York was. Not pleasant at all. Not Woody Allen's New York.

Henry said...

If you think the '70s felt alive, you should have been there in the 1870s.

1882 to be exact:

I think riding to the moon would be almost dull in comparison to what you may just possibly have a chance to do. It is the greatest possible adventure. I would give anything I own or will ever have just to be in your shoes; I'd give years of my life just for a chance at this. And that's it, friend Morley. I can go on talking, and will, but that's really all I have to say. Except this: through no virtue or merit of your own, just plain dumb luck, you are invited to join the project.

Shouting Thomas said...

If you want to see NYC degenerate back to the ruin, violence and debauchery of the era of the crack and AIDS epidemics, just wait it out.

The new mayor seems happy to oblige you.

Every generation of kids new to the city bitches that the cards are stacked against them. In some ways, they are always right.

The opportunity to work your ass off, make big bucks and engage in every kind of sexual excess still exists in NYC. If you search diligently, you'll find the whole shebang.

Edmund said...

Nostalgia for a time you didn't live in. It's a particular sort of nostalgia, especially absurd when what you feel was so much more "alive" in the time when you yourself were not alive was how much more painful it was.

Which is the theme of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

Revenant said...

Nostalgia for a time you didn't live in.

That seems too be the kind of nostalgia I most commonly hear about.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Single most liberal thing in the article: the backhanded admission that those guys Giuliani sent to jail were, in fact, criminals-- while calling it "overincarceration" just the same.

"These cats—if I wasn’t here to see it—"

Alex said...

I have to admit that I get nostalgic for places I've never been when I watch certain movies that show the upside of a particular point in time.

Shouting Thomas said...

I noticed the nostalgia phenomenon for the wickedness of the 70s when the gay guys, heavily indoctrinated by the colleges that they were persecuted, started flooding the offices in the mid 90s.

They wanted dirty action... like the old days when the piers were crawling on hot summer nights with boys searching for an anonymous, faceless blow job... you know, the kind of stuff Althouse assures us that those monogamous homebodies would eschew if only we'd quit persecuting them and let them get married.

What was particularly bizarre about the flood of the indoctrinated gay boys was that they insisted they were there to school us dumb, unsophisticated homophobes about the proper way to be debauched.

My office mates and I often scratched our heads in wonder at these fresh faced morons who imagined that we had never dabbled in debauchery. What they thought we'd been doing, who in the hell knows?

I lived through the 60s and 70s in San Francisco and NYC. Puzzling, isn't it, how the young always imagine that they have something to teach the middle aged about debauchery?

Joe said...

Locations quite often do have a genuine golden age. New York City in the 1970s wasn't one.

Bob R said...

Detroit is pretty gritty right now.

Robert Cook said...

"'Taxi Driver' is a good example of how "gritty" the middle 1970s New York was. Not pleasant at all. Not Woody Allen's New York."

And yet, TAXI DRIVER and ANNIE HALL (and MANHATTAN) are pretty much contemporaneous. They show the same city at the same time...from different perspectives.

I first visited NYC in 1979 and 1980, and moved here in 1981. While there are things about the "improved" city I enjoy, I do miss many of the things that have vanished. It's not just the grit and "danger," (I mostly never felt in danger), but the qualities that made NYC so unlike the rest of America. Today, it has become more like the rest of the country.

Two other things that are grievous losses are the former cornucopia of bookstores and movie houses. We endure a relative desert of good bookstores or independent theaters as compared to 20 and 30 years ago.

Shouting Thomas said...

Locations quite often do have a genuine golden age. New York City in the 1970s wasn't one.

Depends on your level of interest in rough, dirty, anonymous sex.

Pogo is Dead said...

See also:
* Marie Antoinette's fake farm, the Hameau de la Rein
* Disney's Main Street
* The movie Westworld.

The romanticized past as a consumer item.

If they don't feel alive, are complaining of boredom, or filled with ennui, they can blame anomie. Lacking purpose and ideals, their lives feel empty, pointless.

Then, they muse, 'then' being any other time, surely then there was life.

But it was that very era that led inexorably to this one.

Henry said...

In Time and Again, the book I linked upstream, the present day is 1970. The narrator, despite living in a Mad Men environment (illustrator for an advertising company) is utterly bored with his life, with New York, with his time.

There's a passage in the book that I wish I could locate, in which the narrator describes the visceral feeling of excitement and opportunity he experiences in 1880s New York. It could have come straight out of a Horatio Alger novel.

In 1970 whatever grit and cool there might have been was covered in a blanket of economic stagnation.

Shouting Thomas said...

In 1970 whatever grit and cool there might have been was covered in a blanket of economic stagnation.

For some.

For a white, college educated college boy who wasn't afraid of the tough guys on the street, there was opportunity aplenty.

First, it was correctly assumed that any minority graduate of the NYC schools was illiterate and incompetent. And, the quota system hadn't kicked in to force employers to hire the useless baggage. The welfare system was being ripped off relentlessly by the underclass, so they didn't want to work.

So, every employer was searching for literature white guys with a decent work ethic.

Second, only the brave ventured out in the wee hours after midnight. So, shift work was quite remunerative.

cokaygne said...

Funny we didn't meet, Ann. I graduated from NYU's then Wagner School in 1982.

I think i saw you in Washington Square once, ha ha.

Used to buy hash from a Puerto Rican guy who lived with a fox lock on his door. Then there was the hot and humid summers, the Son of Sam murders, and the blackout with its riots and looting. Fun City they used to call NYC in those days.

DiBlasio looks like a Lindsay for the 21st century. Those who are nostalgic for NYC in the 1970s may soon get their wish. After DiBlasio comes who - Al Sharpton?

Paul Zrimsek said...

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Longed for crime and vandals gritty;
He missed the muggings in the streets
Of New York City.

Mark said...

Yep, I doubt anyone feels real nostalgia for watching out for discarded junkie's needles on the steps of your fourth-floor walk-up.

If they did they'd move to the seedier parts of Brooklyn, and Spike Lee could get all pissy about it from his hovel in Manhattan.

wildswan said...

If you try to excel you get all the gritty experiences anyone could ever want, no matter the year or place, no matter whether rich or poor. If you coast, you fend off excitement and you wouldn't notice the gunfight at OK corral if the bullets were going by you.

William said...

Nostalgia, as the saying goes, ain't what it used to be. Give Koch some credit. He's the one who got the graffiti out of the subway and made the trains run on time. Such was my life in the seventies that I had to travel off hours by subway. It wasn't a pleasant experience. The trains were frequently taken out of service. The graffiti artists didn't paint over the cars but rather over each other's graffiti. The only honest people on the cars were poor, working people who absolutely had to take the train to get to work. Clumps of young hoods would wander through the cars looking for a chance to do some social work on those less fortunate......A midnight ride on the subway was an exercise in failure and dread.

Shouting Thomas said...


My clients paid for a limo to pick me up and take me home. Made me feel like a tycoon!

gerry said...

If the trains are now so safe and so clean that you feel comfortable renting a $3,000-a-month apartment nine stops into Brooklyn on the L train, that’s in large part thanks to the massive overincarceration of New Yorkers, mostly black men, since Rudy Giuliani came to power in 1993—the prison population increased by 4 percent a year during his time in office.

Let's see. Law enforcement efforts increase and convictions increase, and, as a result, prison populations increase and crime goes down. What about the connection do progressives not understand?

Alex said...

I wonder if 20-somethings in the 2030-2040s will look back at now as a time before augmented reality(think Google Glass) became ubiquitous along with other technological horrors.

2014 = a golden age from a 2034 perspective.

Alex said...

increased incarceration for violent offenses is obviously racist. said...

It's time to really put the hipsters and Upper West-siders together with some folks fresh from upstate who were unfairly imprisoned.

Equality and justice for all, now.

Anthony said...

I sometimes feel similarly about the 1960s even though I was alive aalbeit an infant. Also the 1930s. I realise it's mostly mythical and I'd Hate The reality.

SJ said...


I was about to ask whether Kitty Genovese had thought the city needed to be more constrained/inert. Except I realize that she was murdered in the 60s, not the 70s.

In the realm of fiction, we could ask the same about the characters portrayed in the novel/film Death Wish. Did they want the City to be more constrained/inert?

Bruce Hayden said...

I would take the train up from DC to NYC to watch a friend of mine dance at her loft studio in SoHo in the late 1970s. It looked like WW III there, and couldn't figure out why a nice girl who grew up in an exclusive suburb, with manicured lawns, etc., could handle it. Their door was thick metal, probably bullet proof, and had multiple locks. Took the subway back at midnight or so to the train station, until her parents showed up one time, and insisted that I take a cab with them, due to the danger.

Then, a couple years later, a friend had to flee NYC because of a jealous, mob connected, boyfriend/husband. She worked primarily all over Manhattan, and would tell us of her travails there. The thing that sticks in my mind is that she had accepted that being mugged once a year, on average, was normal. Some years, it was more often. We are both now in our early 60s, and I have yet to be mugged. Not once a year, but never. And, have lived in some not-so-great neighborhoods in various cities around the country. Never.

Still don't understand the allure of living someplace just because it is trendy, if it is that depressing, dirty, dangerous, and violent.

Seeing Red said...

Via Insty:

CDC warns that gonorrhea on verge of being untreatable
by Bob Yirka

Monogamy's looking better all the time.

Ironic, no sex to keep health care costs down.

Seeing Red said...

Via Insty:

CDC warns that gonorrhea on verge of being untreatable
by Bob Yirka

Monogamy's looking better all the time.

Ironic, no sex to keep health care costs down.

CatherineM said...

Oh, the joys of having your car broken into for it's radio, or for prostitutes to have sex in it and leave their condoms behind! OH, GOD do I miss those days. To be cornered for 30 minutes just outside your home by someone out of their mind on crack (or just out of their mind). Oh, the days when you would find a stranger sleeping in your vestibule leaving butts and feces behind for your to step through on your way to work! OH! Halcyon. All of this safety for my body and property isn't "real" enough.

I showed some kids in my office a clip from Beat Street because they didn't know what break dancing is. They were shocked by the condition of the city (in this case mostly the Bronx) and the subway.

Michael K said...

I hated New York in the 60s and 70s and still do.

I am nostalgic for Los Angeles in the late 50s when it was beautiful and traffic was mild. It was smoggy but that was tolerable. I was young and had my life ahead of me. We could drive to the beach in January and lie there talking. That's where I decided to go to medical school

Now, I avoid LA almost as firmly as I avoid New York.

San Francisco was fun in the 50s. They didn't have stop signs. The first car in the intersection had right of way. It was a constant adventure. Sort of like the Bullet car chase.

Robert Cook said...

"2014 = a golden age from a 2034 perspective."

Of course, because everything is going to get far worse and more hellish in the next 20 years. Right now we can pretend things are going to continue as they are.

paul a'barge said...

Victim of a mugging in the East Village by two heroin addicts with linoleum knives at my throat.

My response: bugger off, you hipster morons.

Clear enough for you?

Michael K said...

"Of course, because everything is going to get far worse and more hellish in the next 20 years."

Probably, unless Romney runs again and wins this time. Maybe Rand Paul can do some good but the catastrophic economy of Obama will require someone who really knows how to fix disasters.

The guys who wrote America 3.0 think "a big haircut" is coming after which we can restore the country. I wish I were as optimistic.

SOJO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SOJO said...

I went through a phase of getting nostalgic for the 90s. The only thing interesting about that is that I vastly preferred them to my teen years in the 80s; typically, the younger you are the fonder your memories.

Probably because I was not in the cultural eye of the storm as of yet, but gestating in a cultural womb. The fun part is when your secret labors of love suddenly explode into the culture one after the other. It's sad, too, because it heralds the end of your tight little community. It then becomes a matter of who was better able to convert the wave to $$$, which is a degraded echo, but still vastly preferable to stillborn ideas never getting the chance to surface.

I would not have enjoyed being female in the '60s or earlier, so economic and cultural boom notwithstanding, they don't make my personal A-list. Actually, include the 70s and 80s in that. Even though I was alive then, I vastly preferred the post-90s take on all things female. I was young enough to be teflon, but god, it really was archaic. And it felt archaic *at the time* which was frustrating. My own peers weren't insufferable, but they weren't old enough to call the shots. Sometimes when I look back at what my mom had to deal with, I can't believe I existed.

J Lee said...

Many of those who wax nostalgically for the 1966-93 period of New York, including many who lived through it, also either have the money to, or simply assume they will be able to 'observe' the edgy grit of the times like some tourist going though a safari park.

For those who have the money not to take the subways if they choose, or to live in high-income neighborhoods with ground floor security, if they choose, the edgy, 'alive' city of the 1970s was a sort of street theater -- they could drive by in their cars, cabs or limos and observe the edginess, but they had the ability to opt out. On the other hand, for those born after the worst of those years but who are now settling into the lower costs of some of New York's gentrifying neighborhoods need to understand that if the city were to slip back into its old ways, their neighborhoods would be on the front lines of the decline, and unlike the rich, sheltered nostalgics of Manhattan, the new 'vibrancy' would be just outside their apartment doors 24 hours a day.

David said...

CDC warns that gonorrhea on verge of being untreatable
by Bob Yirka

Bob's a chiropractor. You need to get someone else to take a look.

The Godfather said...

I arrived in NYC in the fall of 1965 to start law school at Columbia. While I was taking a load of clothes and stuff from my car to a friend's apartment where I was going to stay for a couple of weeks, somebody broke into my car and stole most of my clothes. For weeks I kept my eyes open for hoods wearing Brooks Brothers suits, but to no avail.

Lindsay was elected Mayor a couple of months later, which was celebrated by all the subway workers going on strike. To keep the fares down, Lindsay cut the subway police force, starting a slide into lawlessness that continued until the Koch Administration.

Many of my friends had multiple locks on their doors, although this was at least in part to keep the police out, as they were attracted by the odor of cannabis. I didn't have more than two locks because I lived in a 5th floor walk-up and never smoked pot at home.

There was a gang that prowled the Upper West Side that (according to reports) would stop a lone pedestrian and asked him for a match. If he complied, he was sent on his way unmolested; if not, they killed him. I always carried matches, but I never met that gang.

Yet, I really loved living in The City in those days. I would never think of reliving it, but I remember it fondly. I think that your job when you're young is to create memories for when you're old -- that and not getting killed.

Robert Cook said...

"'Of course, because everything is going to get far worse and more hellish in the next 20 years.'

"Probably, unless Romney runs again and wins this time. Maybe Rand Paul can do some good but the catastrophic economy of Obama will require someone who really knows how to fix disasters."

Oy vey!

Michael K:

First, Romney is not going to save anything or anybody from the fire: he is an exemplar of the forces destroying our planet right now.

Second, the "catastrophic economy of Obama" is just a continuation of the economy of Bush, and a result of trends that started back during Reagan's day and were accelerated by Clinton. Obama didn't destroy it all by himself.

And third, you're thinking too provincially: I'm not just talking about America getting worse--the world is going to become more hellish over the next 20 years. Global financial ruin, despoiled environment, poisoned air and water, shortages of drinking water and arable land (leading to food shortages and starvation), rising sea levels driving coastal dwellers inland, taxing even further the areas where people flee to, continuing global conflict....

We're going to experience a time of global catastrophe.

Robert Cook said...

Another reason to miss 70s New York: it was a time and place of incredible creative ferment in all the arts, helped not a little by the ready availability of cheap rent, drawing aspiring young artists and writers and musicians and actors flocking to the city.

The vanishing of that place in time and the conditions that fertilized that creative fecundity is very much to be lamented.

mishu said...

Cookie, you honestly think the air and water quality is now worse than it was in the '70s? Not to mention farm productivity? Delusional!

There's bridge that runs over a creek from the parking lot to Miller Park. Next to it is a sign that's quite illuminating. I strongly recommend you head over there and take a look.