Page Turners

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: A Fascinating and Scatterbrained Tale


So something a little out of the ordinary is going to happen on the site today. Because it just so happened that I experienced two pieces of media in the last two weeks that were incredibly similar, even being identical in some aspects. I didn’t plan on it, but it just worked out that I was finishing the terrific book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning at the same time that my wife and I were watching the new Netflix series the Get down. It wasn’t intentional, but both works hope to examine what the city of New York was like during the summer of 1977, looking at changing culture and music, the strife in the Bronx, the great New York blackout, and the political strife going on at the time. And they actually made pretty great companion pieces to one another. They obviously aren’t the sae story or anything, but they both take place in the same time period and world, and really complimented each other in a great way, which is leading me to discuss both of them at the same time. I thought about writing one article examining them together, but that felt like a bit of a disservice to the two works, so I’m splitting them up and just making this Sunday a bit of a theme-day. So let’s learn about how insane 1977 was for the Big Apple.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning is a history book, not a novel, that tries to give an accurate feeling of what life was like at the time. And it does so without landing on any central premise. I suppose it’s favorite topic is that of the New York Yankees and the run-up to their inevitable World Series win, but it does give equal measure to several different aspects of the city. We learn about the Yankees, and the internal struggle between Reggie Jackson, owner George Steinbrenner, and manager Billy Martin. We hear about the contentious mayoral race and the in-fighting between the slew of Democratic nominees such as Ed Koch, Bela Abzug, Mario Cuomo, and incumbent Abraham Beame. We also peaked in on the changing musical tides of the city, investigating the rise of disco and clubs such as Studio 54 while also juxtaposing the rise of the punk movement at CBGB’s. We hear about the city’s financial woes as it begins spiraling deeper and deeper into a fiscal depression that the federal government seems insistent on ignoring. We get the facts of the infamous Son of  Sam serial killer who was targeting women with long brown hair throughout the boroughs, starting off an insane man-hunt through the entire city. There’s the tale of Rupert Murdoch coming to the city, buying the New York Post and forever changing journalism in America from a dignified profession to a sensationalist tabloid culture that was craving to find the bottom of the barrel. And of course, at the heart of the book, is the great blackout, which helped tear the already fractured city apart with a night of looting and chaos. Really the only thing the book didn’t talk about what the blackout’s role in the formation of hip hop, but that’s essentially what the Get Down is all about, so we’ll get to that later today.

New York is a pretty mythic city in America. Hell, probably in the whole world. We hear about it as this magical fairyland where anything is possible. And yet, when you watch movies from the 70s, particularly the films from the New Hollywood movie the general feeling you get from the city is one of defeat. The streets a dirty, the buildings are crumbling, the subways are covered in graffiti, and the people all looked depressed. It was a bleak time. And I guess I never realized just how dark 1977 was. It’s kind of insane when you look at that list up there. There was a lot of immensely important, culture-changing events all happening to the city in that one summer. It’s monumental. I can’t imagine that it isn’t considered one of the most important years in the cities history, and one that forever shaped the path that the city would go down. And author Jonathan Mahler does the impossible and tells all of those stories with equal interest. You wouldn’t think that a book could juggle the stories of David Berkowitz with Reggie Jackson and make them both see to fit the same narrative. But he does. I’ve made it pretty clear on my Lifetime of Simpsons articles that baseball is one subject that usually can bore me to tears, but he even made the drama the Yankees were feeling interesting. If you have any interest in New York or the 70s in general, I highly recommend picking this books up. It’s a fascinaintg read that somehow manages to keep all the various plates spinning, and really served as a tremendous companion to the Get Down.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning was written by Jonathan Mahler, 2006.

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