The Bad Old Days

Phil Casseus, a 33-year-old producer and high-school sports coach, was walking down West 97th Street on a recent flawless Monday

Phil Casseus, a 33-year-old producer and high-school sports coach, was walking down West 97th Street on a recent flawless Monday afternoon when he was hit by a sudden, overwhelming wave of nostalgia. Maybe it was caused by that sterile Duane Reade where the endearingly ragamuffin clothing store Fo Wad used to be. Maybe it was the sight of contented toddlers playing at the Happy Warrior playground, formerly known as the Goat, where Mr. Casseus used to watch the Rock Steady Crew break-dancing back when he was growing up in the middle-class housing development Park West Village. This was in the bad old days of New York—the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

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“I think a lot of the people that are moving into the city don’t have a full understanding of what is being paved over or forgotten about,” Mr. Casseus said. “It’s a hard thing to swallow sometimes.”

A lot has changed from a quarter-century ago or so, when our fair city was best known for graffiti-decorated subways, blasting boom boxes and the faint smell of urine rising from the summer pavement. There were no Tinsley Mortimers, no hedge-fund gods. No $1,000 pizzas or latte factories, no $50 million mansions or elliptical trainers at Equinox. Indeed, in 1975, the city’s government declared bankruptcy. “Ford to City: Drop Dead” blasted the Daily News, after the President refused to bail us out, and, two years later, it seemed like a serial murderer named Son of Sam was determined to deliver the sentence.

The rest of the country thought we were goners, collapsed in a sputter of crime, crack and fiscal disaster. There were landlords burning down their buildings—you couldn’t give ‘em away! Hookers hanging out on 83rd and Broadway—right near Zabar’s!

But you know what? We liked it.

The dog shit was piled so high in the streets you needed a mountain ax just to traverse the sidewalk—but we liked it. The buildings were so blackened by grime you could barely see them in the dark—but we liked it. The subways were so dangerous you felt you were descending into Hell—and we liked it, we loved it, hallelujah!

For a certain generation of New Yorker—a generation that came of age at the city’s economic nadir, but also in the glory days of Bella Abzug, checker cabs and CBGB—this city of yore seems as perversely lovable as some long-lost episode of The Magic Garden.

“It seems kind of weird to say that one would be nostalgic for times when you were scared to get mugged going out at night and riding the subways was taking your life on your hands,” said Dalton Conley, 37, an Alphabet City kid turned New York University sociology professor, who memorialized his childhood in the book Honky. “Yet I think there is something that’s lost.

“The old New York is kind of like an old spouse that you just complained about the whole time,” he said, “but then, when it’s gone, you realize you loved him or her.”

The Bad Old Days