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Was New York of the 1970s the shithole movies make it out to be?(r/AskHistorians)
In the 1970s, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and a huge amount of city services suffered from disinvestment, which also plagued the subways well into the 1980s. A recession began in 1969 that did not begin to lift until 1977, which negatively impacted many of the city’s industries (trucking had all but destroyed South Street Seaport, the fish markets and the freight railroads). A lot of people felt unsafe, and many folks left, sometimes leaving entire blocks of buildings abandoned (there are still a few partially-abandoned blocks in Hell’s Kitchen); by the end of the decade more than a million people had left the city. That said, the city was taking in a large amount of immigrants, which added to the already growing ethnic tensions and started to change the demographics of certain neighborhoods.
Midway through the decade, New York State took over most of the city’s finances, and immediately those in charge fired 60,000 municipal employees, cut a quarter of teachers, put an end to free tuition at CUNY and marked a significant policy change whereby the private interests of the city trumped the public ones. This coincided with the aforementioned policy of disinvestment, prompting numerous strikes by the Sanitation Department, who at certain points refused to pick up trash at all, letting it rot on the streets for days, prompting the nickname “stink city.” By the middle of the decade, most of the fires in the city were arson, and there were yearly riots; some building owners paid teenagers to set their buildings on fire so they could collect the insurance money. The most famous riot, the 1977 Blackout, saw looting in 31 neighborhoods and caused over $300 million in damages in less than 25 hours, with more than 3,700 people arrested. At the same time, the city was turning its attention towards revitalizing Times Square, which was an indicator of the “dual city” that would be crafted through the “Disneyfication” of certain areas, contrasted with the seedy underbelly that was more often than not right around the corner (i.e. the monolithic Marriot Hotel with sex shops lining nearby 8th Avenue); I get a little more into it here, where I also talk about the growth and revitalization of the tourism industry and the impact of Milton Glaser’s famous I <3 NY logo.
Ultimately, a lot of the problems that we complain about today have their roots in the tumultuous decade of the 1970s (i.e. rampant homelessness, vast income disparity). Crime rates continued to rise throughout the 1980s, and only began to drop in the early 1990s, partially the result of initiatives on the part of Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani. That said, it was not nearly as gloomy as people often portray it to be. The World Trade Center complex opened in 1973 and while it did destroy the famous Radio Row, it became an important icon for the city and served as a significant economic center during the 1980s. I would also argue that the 1970s saw the emergence and flourishing of several important subcultures, including the gay community, the punk rock culture and the hip-hop movement (which was furthered by the 1977 blackout, where young MCs got access to more advanced equipment).
I’m heading to bed right now so I apologize for any of my tired sentences. I will answer any replies or questions in the morning and clarify anything if need be. If you are interested in learning more about this period in New York City history, I highly recommend the following works: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics and the Battle for the Soul of a City, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis was Sold to the World, The Restless City (particularly Chapters 9 and 10, but it is a great book overall), and The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control (this last book takes a look at declining crime rates since the 1990s but is nevertheless a fascinating read).