Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning by Jonathan Mahler
Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City
by Jonathan Mahler
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 356 pp. $25.00
The summer and fall of 1977 were an extraordinary time in New York. Even as crime reached record highs and morale sank to new lows, the city amused itself by watching the Yankee manager Billy Martin scuffle in the dugout with slugger Reggie Jackson. While the Yankees were battling for the pennant, the larger-than-life political figures of Edward I. Koch, Mario Cuomo, and Bella Abzug duked it out for the mayoralty.
Covering this scene was a New York Post newly made over into a racy right-wing tabloid by Rupert Murdoch. Its staff had plenty of other things to write about, what with the arrival of disco, punk rock, Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat, and numerous gay bath houses. As for crime, if the commonplace variety was not enough, there were such lurid stories as the nearly systematic torching of dying neighborhoods, the Son of Sam serial murders, and widespread looting after a summer blackout. New York City, the New York Times columnist Vincent Can-by remarked, had “become a metaphor for what looks like the last days of American civilization.”
Jonathan Mahler, a young journalist, has vividly recaptured those months in an enjoyable, fast-paced account that, Hollywood-like, cuts back and forth among the different elements of the city’s ongoing soap opera. His title comes from the moment in the second game of the 1977 World Series when, with much of the nation watching, ABC’s cameras caught one of the periodic arson fires raging out of control in nearby areas. The sportscaster Howard Cosell commented, in his trademark nasal singsong: “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”
The political side of Mahler’s story begins with the frumpy, hapless mayoral incumbent, Abraham Beame, who had been warned repeatedly by banks that the bill was coming due for the spending spree in which the city had indulged under his two immediate predecessors, Robert Wagner and John Lindsay. Though he had served as comptroller under Lindsay, and was elected on the slogan, “he knows the buck,” Beame undertook some transparently foolish measures. Rather than cutting social services, he laid off 5,000 police officers—betting that the federal government would prefer stepping in to help out financially to facing the embarrassing prospect of rioting in the nation’s largest city. But President Gerald Ford saw no need to respond to this self-destructive logic.
Mostly, Beame stalled for time, hoping that a Democrat would win the White House in 1976 and ride to his rescue. Blaming the city’s fiscal problems on everyone from the banks and evil Republicans to a Washington “whispering campaign,” he was thus one of the first major figures to endorse the presidential candidacy of Jimmy Carter, and would play a key role in Carter’s victory. Publicly and privately, Carter promised to repay this favor with a “massive effort” in federal aid; at the start of his general election campaign, buses in New York were plastered with this solemn vow. But once in office, Carter turned his back on Beame; instead, there came from Washington a scathing report by the Securities and Exchange Commission that produced the Post headline, BEAME CONNED THE CITY.
In the meantime, and despite its economic woes—since 1969, New York had lost 570,000 private-sector jobs—the city’s own politics barely budged. The early front-runner against Beame in the 1977 mayoral race was Congresswoman Bella Abzug. A denizen of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she championed the right to strike of all public employees, including the police, and promised to rehire anyone who had been laid off. The other contenders included Cuomo, who had made a name for himself by mediating a nasty housing dispute in Forest Hills, Queens, and Koch, then a little-known liberal congressman who was making an issue of crime and moving to the political center.
Then, on a sweltering July day, lightning struck the Consolidated Edison generators and caused a blackout. Pandemonium followed—and the mayor’s race was transformed. Rioting and looting erupted in 31 neighborhoods. The area hardest hit was Bushwick in Brooklyn, already a place where truck drivers and firemen had to rely on police escorts in order to perform their jobs and where officers on patrol did not walk too close to buildings for fear of having bricks dropped on them from the rooftops. As the sun went down, the looting in Bushwick began. An emergency call for back-up forces went unanswered by 40 percent of the city’s off-duty cops. In the morning, the mob was even larger. Neighborhood stores, including those owned by blacks and Hispanics, were thoroughly gutted.
The city’s numerous civil libertarians responded to the rioting by focusing on the mistreatment of arrested looters; for her part, Abzug explained away the violence as a product of socio-economic forces and excessive military spending by Washington. Most New Yorkers, however, were shaken. New York magazine asked, “Can New York Survive?” Voters began to mock Abzug, and as the city slipped out of her familiar liberal orbit, she grew testy.
Koch, by campaigning against the police officers who had failed to show up and the “poverty pimps” and “hacks” who lived off the failing city government, now emerged from the pack. A self-described “liberal with sanity,” he also had the gift of shtick, of being genuinely entertaining. He invited voters to laugh at the absurd discrepancy between the utopian rhetoric of the Mario Cuomos and Bella Abzugs and the dystopian reality of day-to-day life in the city.
Mahler concludes his story on a positive note. Koch won his race; and so did the Yankees as the egomaniacal Reggie Jackson, the team’s first black superstar, cracked three home runs on three first pitches in the final game of the World Series. In politics as in sports, Mahler suggests, these twin victories signaled the rebirth of a plucky and ever-resilient city.
Mahler is at his best in describing memorable New York scenes like Jackson’s World Series heroics. In another fine vignette, he gives us the outsized Bella Abzug, arrayed in “white polka dots and a Calamity Jane hat” as she delivered a campaign speech at the Continental Baths. To the hundreds of men “wearing nothing but towels held together by Bella buttons,” she said: “I’m sorry I’m not quite dressed for the occasion.”
Unfortunately, Mahler does not do nearly so well in connecting the two main poles of his book, politics and baseball. Although he clearly means to suggest that both had been undone by the racial and social currents flowing out of the 1960’s, he never quite says so. This in turn may be connected with his wish to end on a more hopeful note, on a hint of tensions relieved and problems resolved. Arriving at such a conclusion, however, requires leaving out significant parts of the picture.
We learn from Mahler, for instance, that as soon as the Yankees won the World Series, the hometown crowd stormed the field. What he does not tell us is that the fans proceeded to tear up the turf and trash the stadium, while Jackson himself had to punch his way into the dugout.
Nor did 1977 mark much of a new beginning for the city as a whole. Indeed, it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy into the 1980’s. There were many things that could have been done to reverse this decline, but few were. Mayor Koch’s proposals to eliminate welfare fraud, trim the wildly overstaffed public hospitals, and reform the civil service went nowhere, shelved after confronting widespread liberal hostility and threats of further racial riots. What largely kept the city afloat in those gloomy days was the inflation of the late 1970’s, which reduced the cost of its debt, followed by Reagan’s deregulation of the financial industry, which set off a boom on Wall Street.
A virtue of Mahler’s account is its reliance on contemporary newspaper coverage to re-create the feel of the era. This, however, also proves a failing, since it leads him to recycle claims advanced by the press that were not only groundless but seriously misunderstood the sources of the city’s problems. Thus, Mahler accepts the argument of his favorite sources, the columnists Jack New-field, Pete Hamill, and Jimmy Breslin, that their hero Mario Cuomo was beaten in the 1977 mayoral race because Koch was able to exploit Cuomo’s opposition to the death penalty. It is true that Cuomo himself constantly harped on this theme, but Koch, who supported capital punishment, ran no radio or TV ads on the issue. He did not have to.
What the public liked most about Koch was his mockery of “nutty liberals.” His most successful ad began: “Abe Beame says he should be reelected to finish the job. Hasn’t he already done enough?!” Koch won because, in the wake of the blackout and the looting, he spoke for a middle class that had been regularly attacked as bigoted for daring to complain about paying the highest taxes in the country in order to support a municipal government unable to pick up the trash but responsible for a welfare system that had loosed anarchy on the city. Even the editorialists at the New York Times had begun asking whether the city might, after all, be “a failed urban experiment.”
The New York debacle gave the entire liberal establishment an opportunity to rethink its policies. Ted Kennedy was moved, briefly, to talk about the crushing effects of welfare dependency, while Jesse Jackson spoke out against black-on black crime. But the moment passed, the chance for a turn was missed, and Mario Cuomo gave the old liberal jalopy a fresh coat of paint. Having failed to win the mayoralty, he would go on to twelve years in the governor’s mansion in Albany. There he would deliver many memorable speeches but few significant accomplishments. In the meantime, the city had to languish another decade before tackling its problems.
Jonathan Mahler has no sense of the opportunity that presented itself and was lost in 1977, or why it was lost. For that reason, The Bronx Is Burning, although a good read, is a disappointing book.