There are two certainties in life: New Year’s Eve will never live up to the hype and you will constantly be surrounded by people waxing nostalgic about the good old days. Unfortunately for the good old days, they weren’t all that good. No matter what era you pick in New York City’s history, it has never been an urban utopia.
If someone pines for anytime before the 20th Century, quickly find the nearest exit and run until this person is out of your life forever.
From the moment the Dutch West India Company purchased the island of Manhattan from the Lenape in 1626 to the days of the Tammany Hall political machine in the late 1800’s, New York City was, to put it very delicately, a work in progress. Oppressive British rule, riots, war, cholera, racism, corruption, and slavery played major roles in this nearly 400 year stretch. Plus, life expectancy was around 42 years old.
It’s fun to romanticize the first half of the 20th Century. It was a time of titans like Rockefeller and Carnegie. Architecture, music, and fashion were booming. The Roaring Twenties and the Harlem Renaissance brought a time of cultural freedom and fun.
Circa 1905. “The close of a career in New York.” Photo by Byron, Detroit Publishing Company (Image: Shorpy)
The reality was that even the rich in the early 1900’s were unable to escape the ailments of the less-fortunate. Affluent families that made the mistake of hiring typhoid-infected personal chefs like Mary Mallon were treated to a plateful of illness or death.
Working conditions for immigrants lucky enough to find employment were abysmal. To prevent stealing, factory owners routinely locked exit doors until the end of the day. This led to one of the deadliest industrial disasters in US history when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory caught fire in 1911, killing 145.
The Roaring Twenties also coincided with Prohibition. The illegal trafficking of alcohol led to a spike in violent crimes. Plus, if you wanted to unwind with a cocktail after work, you had to remember a secret knock or password just to get into a speakeasy.
The Roaring Twenties transitioned to the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce and homelessness reached epic levels. Shantytowns or “Hoovervilles” sprang up on Central Park’s Great Lawn and along the East and Hudson Rivers.
Hooverville of shacks in the emptied Central Park Reservoir in 1931-1933. (Image: Reddit)
Even after the end of the depression, racism still ruled the day. Schools were segregated. Leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. led boycotts across the city in response to unfair hiring practices.
One look at the famous Life Magazine picture of a sailor kissing a girl in Times Square on V-J day and its fun to long for the days of rubbing elbows with “The Greatest Generation.” Bob Dylan was kicking off the folk music scene in the Village. The Beatles invaded America. Richard Pryor and Woody Allen were performing standup around town.
A closer look at “The Greatest Generation” and it becomes clear not everything was great after the war heroes returned home. The Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a predominantly black community, was largely ignored by the sanitation department.
If a woman wanted to file for divorce, she needed to prove adultery. Prior to the New York Divorce Reform Law of 1966, verbal or physical abuse got her a pat on the head and she was forced to return to her marriage. The end of this era was punctuated by thousands of young men being drafted to fight in Vietnam.
The 1970s were a period of sexual freedom, great music, and cinema. Clubs like CBGB ushered in a new era of punk and new wave music like the Ramones and Blondie. Studio 54 was an endless party.
The 1970s also were a period of gloom and doom for the city. Frank Serpico exposed a completely corrupt police force in 1971. A financial crisis in 1975 crippled the city. As a result, the police force was drastically reduced. Crime rates skyrocketed. The Lexington Avenue Express was known as the “Muggers Express.” Teenaged prostitutes roamed the city en masse. From 1976-1977, serial killer David Berkowitz terrorized an entire city. To make matters worse, there was a 25-hour blackout right in the middle of the manhunt for the Son of Sam. Plus, all that rayon clothing must’ve meant some overwhelming body odor.
The 1980s brought a new optimism for New York and America. The economy was recovering. The United States dominated in the 1984 Olympics. New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen had everybody singing his “Born in the USA” (even though nobody actually listened to the words). Madonna sung about being “A Material Girl.” A new genre of music, rap, was exploding across the city.
The improving economy didn’t exactly transform the quality of life in New York City. In 1981, the holiday season was overshadowed by a 17-day garbage strike.
Anderson Ave, garbage strike, 1968. (Image: Dennis Harper)
It was impossible to drive through town without being shaken down by homeless men brandishing filthy squeegees at every stoplight. Pay money or get mysterious brown water squirted on your windshield.
All that sexual freedom from the 1970’s came to a crashing halt as the AIDS epidemic hit the city in 1981. By 1985, New York City had more cases of the deadly disease (4,133) than any other city in the world.
Crime was rampant in the subways. Subway muggings were so prevalent that Bernard Goetz, a man who opened fire on the subway at four teenagers, was hailed as a folk hero.
Drugs were out of control. Places like Grand Central Terminal and Bryant Park were overrun with drug pushers and prostitutes. In the second half of the 1980’s, crack took off. As result, so did a rise in violent crimes.
Vial of crack cocaine. (Image: Misha Erwitt/NY Daily News Archive via Aljazeera)
Racial tensions were higher than ever with deadly hate crimes committed in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst. And, quite unfortunately, these incidents gave a visible profile to the blowhard known as Al Sharpton.
It’s hard to believe too many people would be nostalgic for the David Dinkins era at the start of the 1990s. Crime was out of control. The murder rate reached an all-time high – 2245 people were killed in 1990 alone, well over five times today’s murder rate.
The grunge music craze turned into grunge fashion which, unfortunately, featured men and women dressing like lumberjacks for a solid five year stretch. Most horrifying of all, the grunge era gave way to the unforgivable electronic music era. These were dark times, people.
These days, New York is one of America’s safest cities. As long as you didn’t listen to Jenny McCarthy’s vaccination views, disease is under control. Everyone walks around with pocket-sized computers that allow them to listen to any song ever recorded and share pictures of that beautiful/funny/interesting thing. If you run out of cash, there is an ATM on every block. Everyone accepts credit cards. Evenings are no longer dictated by whether or not you read the arts and leisure section in the morning paper. The dating scene is no longer constricted to sleazy singles bars. You no longer have to endure some way-too-pleased-with-himself guy blowing cigar smoke in your face while trying to enjoy a meal at a restaurant. Time Square should still be avoided at all costs, though. The rampant crime has been replaced by Guy Fieri’s restaurant and Elmo mascots.
Times Square, 2012. (Image: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
So, if some insufferable person refers to the “good old days,” make sure you fire back with an equally insufferable response – a quote from Proust.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”