Bad Old Days of Urban Crisis Fuel a Bonfire of Nostalgia

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City, by Jonathan Mahler. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $25.

In New York, we tend to confuse our Golden Ages with our Dark Ages.

This is at least as true in baseball as in anything else. Today’s Yankees, who opened their season against the Red Sox this week, are ending a run as one of the best teams ever: six World Series in nine years, four victories.

But it’s hard to like these Yankees, who at their best have the quiet class of Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, and at their worst are harder to cheer for than Royal Dutch Shell. I found myself rooting for the Sox in a Brooklyn sports bar last summer, and I know I wasn’t alone.

The twisted, destructive, classless 1977 Yankees are, perversely, a lot easier to like, at least as Jonathan Mahler portrays them in his love letter to a year that ranks with 1863 and 1929 as among the worst in the city’s history. It was the Summer of Sam, the summer of the blackout, the dog days of the fiscal crisis. Mr. Mahler’s The Bronx Is Burning looks with affection on the city through several narrow lenses, one of which points at Yankee Stadium.

The team was divided and defined by the conflict between its self-loathing white manager, Billy Martin, and the man Mr. Mahler identifies as New York’s “first black superstar,” Reggie Jackson. The two men tortured each other through the long season.

“I ought to kick your fucking ass,” said the manager after he’d pulled Mr. Jackson in the middle of an inning, in a bit of reconstructed dialogue. “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to, old man?” Mr. Jackson replied.

Mr. Mahler is a reporter, and his history is at its best when he’s unearthing the details that explain and complicate the era. Here’s a scrap from a now-defunct gay newspaper: “It is getting exceedingly difficult to tell a homosexual from a longshoreman.” In this telling, the larger-than-life types, like Messrs. Jackson and Martin, and politicians like Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo, are more interesting than our hazy memories of them.

Mr. Jackson, for instance, became a racial symbol despite living a thoroughly integrated life-something I learned from this book. He grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood that gave him, he later said, “aspirations.” In New York, his best friend was a Cartier executive, Ralph Destino.

Mr. Mahler writes in his prologue that he began The Bronx Is Burning as a book about baseball, and that original intent still shows through. Other threads include the transformation of the New York Post from a boring liberal sheet to a vicious, lively right-wing tab; the blackout; Son of Sam’s serial killings; and, most vividly, that other favorite sport, the race for Mayor of New York.

In 1977, the contest featured two figures who would dominate the city’s future, Messrs. Koch and Cuomo, and some great minor players: Bella Abzug, Percy Sutton and Abe Beame. (Beame was the incumbent and the only one of the bunch who comes off as dull.)

Again, Mr. Mahler is at his best when he’s portraying these figures against type. Mr. Cuomo, it appears, was pure Cuomo: eloquent, indecisive, intensely competitive. But Mr. Mahler manages to find a rawer figure than the genial, slightly cranky grandfather Ed Koch has become, unearthing an oral history the former Mayor recorded before he started writing his series of quickie autobiographies.

“She’s not well-liked by the members of the [New York Congressional] delegation,” Mr. Koch says of Abzug, for example, “but I’m the only one who goes out and seeks the public opportunity to say something nasty about her, because I don’t like her-I don’t believe she’s good for the country.”

In his prologue, Mr. Mahler pleads guilty to nostalgia, but I think he’s being hard on himself. He grew up in California, nursed on his Bronx-born father’s tales of the city, and though he cherishes a childhood memory of a trip to Yankee Stadium, his eyes are remarkably clear. The Bronx Is Burning marks, among other things, how thoroughly the ideological war over what happened in urban America in the 1970’s has been won by the right. Abzug’s once-trendy view of crime as a symptom of poor government services, and Herbert Gutman’s interpretation of riot as a “pained message,” are cited by Mr. Mahler only as curious relics. Instead, he accepts the Manhattan Institute consensus, also reflected in Vincent Cannato’s biography of John Lindsay, The Ungovernable City (2001), that New York’s government had simply tried to do too much for its poor.

“The truth was, for most New Yorkers, regardless of ethnicity or political persuasion, it was hard to square the images of marauding mobs … with some abstract notion of social protest,” Mr. Mahler writes of the blackout. But unlike the folk at the Manhattan Institute, he has a true New Yorker’s perverse affection for the bad old days. He writes with interest about the dirty cops, the looters and the crooked politicians, as well as about the neighborhood heroes and priests.

As another Mayoral race begins, I find it easy to pine for the drama of politics in a time of urban crisis. This year’s battles-over a West Side Stadium, over vaguely stated visions of “inclusion,” over minor differences in how to levy taxes-aren’t life and death; and the death threats to New York come from sources no Mayor can control.

Even today, when a politician wants to silence a room, he starts talking about the 1970’s. That’s what Fernando Ferrer, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, did in a Soho loft one recent evening, speaking to a few dozen downtown liberals about his record in the Bronx: He told the old story of Game 2 of the 1977 World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers, when Howard Cosell looked past Yankee Stadium and saw the flames. “It was burned in the imagination of everybody who saw the World Series and all the world,” Mr. Ferrer said. “‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.'”

Ben Smith is a reporter at The Observer.