The Bad Old Days

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For today’s nouveau New Yorker—the kind who has just moved to Manhattan with dreams of dinner at Per Se and dancing at Bungalow 8—it’s almost impossible to understand the difference between
the city as it is now and how it was 30 years ago: the summer of Sam, Annie Hall, disco and the July 13th blackout. The dirt has been Dustbusted from the sidewalks, the oddballs sand-blasted from the streets, the sky filled with deluxe penthouses. A million more people have joined the metropolis, but New York County now has the widest income gap in the country. Mazel tov, Manhattan!

New York, of course, wasn’t exactly the Paris Commune back then, either. Nonetheless, certain facts held true. In the Wast Village, an unemployed musician could get a gig playing cello in McDonald’s—and McDonald’s was still so rare that it seemed “exotic,” Mr. Conley recalled. Straight couples swung at Plato’s Retreat, in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, while gay men got frisky at the New St. Marks baths. And, on the Lower East Side, a couple named Adam and Eve Purple roamed the streets in purple clothes on purple bicycles.

“The people who used to come to New York were freaks of nature,” said Ruby Lawrence, 34, a bar owner who was born on Manhattan’s West Side and lives in Brooklyn. “Before, looking different was the fun part of living here, whereas now it’s about looking the same.”

Ms. Lawrence has a long list of things gone and missed from her days growing up in Manhattan’s West 70’s. Back then, the Upper West Side was a shabby, motley place, where interracial couples went to live in peace, intellectuals and S.R.O. dwellers shared the same blocks, and jazz great Miles Davis could live without feeling, as he doubtless would now, like he stumbled into Romper Room. Then, as now, parts of the area were ritzy, but other parts were downright scary, like Columbus Avenue, where the junkies hung out, or the 72nd Street traffic island known as “needle park.” Among the local highlights were John Lennon sightings, McGovern’s bar (they’d serve anyone a drink), Lichtman’s bakery (for the bubbe in all of us), the Loews 83rd Street theater (where half the Upper West Side learned to smoke), and a certain folksy neighborhood feeling.

“It certainly wasn’t as clean, but there was a big sense of community,” said Ms. Lawrence, echoing a theme heard throughout the nostalgics’ chorus. “The first time I crossed Broadway myself, I had the guys from the garage watching out for me …. My parents would send me to the store and I could get stuff on credit. But now that’s totally gone. Now there’s a Barneys on my corner.”

There was, of course, a flip side to all this fuzziness, a grim part that explains why every Mike and Carol Brady didn’t just hightail it from the ’burbs to join this new utopia. There was crime and racial tension and drugs and, eventually, AIDS. It was bleak. And everyone had their story.

In the realm of bad New York happenings, the events of this era ran the gamut from disturbing but relatively harmless to scarring but not life-threatening to outright crushing (in a directly personal or, at least, psychic way). In the first category fell phenomena like, say, the guy who lit his pubic hair on fire on the subway. In the second, things like the 86th Street gang, which beat up a classmate on his way to a Bar Mitzvah reception, or the boys who got mugged time and time again (girls had it easier in that respect). And in the third? All the names that any 70’s or 80’s kid can recite like the catechism: kidnapping victim Etan Patz, the Central Park jogger, the Diana Ross concert riot, preppie murderer Robert Chambers, slashed model Marla Hanson, subway shooter Bernard Goetz, and the boy who was eaten by polar bears at the Prospect Park Zoo.

There were also, always, a few personal stories that lodged in one’s mind, stuck there for years—like the kid who got killed by a blow from a baseball bat at the local video parlor (on East 78th Street), or the bullet that came through one of your apartment windows.

And these were just the stories of the privileged types.

“I remember, there was just this fear,” Alison said. “I remember having to carry mugging money—$5. I remember having to know where all the Safe Haven stuff was. I remember all the bus ads with Etan Patz. There was just this fear, this fear of home, and I remember being really scared of the city.”

And yet, for many New Nostalgics, the memory of all this old fear is also a kind of badge of survivorship, a sign that you have earned your New Yorker’s stripes. Sure, you may have quaked and hated it way back when, but at the safe distance of 20 years, it just makes you tough, particularly compared to the neophyte New Yorker.

“I feel like I not only have a thicker skin, but a better appreciation for the city. I can handle a lot more,” said Ms. Lawrence, who had less kind words for the arrivistes.

Still, much as an old-timer might denounce the newbies who flash their Rolexes on the subway or prance through Central Park at night—what are they, crazy?—bravado, like nostalgia, is ultimately an unscathed person’s game.

Way back in high school, a 35-year-old St. Ann’s graduate named Greg Clayman knew a girl who was pushed in front of a subway. She was rescued right before the train came, and lived to make it onto the evening news. Years later, Mr. Clayman and his friends still marvel at the incident, still gape and gawk over it from time to time. But he doubts that she is about to whip the story out over borscht at Veselka.

“She is not about to romanticize the experience of being on the track while the train is coming barreling towards you,” he said. “She lives in Vermont, I think.”

The Bad Old Days