An upcoming visit to Athens as Atlantis Host’s chaperone puts Koutofrangos in a nostalgic frame of mind as he casts back to his formative teen years in New York City and environs. On a late June weekend, we will have to toss a coin to decide whether we go to see Laurie Anderson curate an evening of multimedia performance, or Patti Smith give a track-by-track concert performance of her classic 1975 album “Horses”. During the many extended trips to Athens in recent years to visit AH’s Aunt Cassandra and tour the family estates aboard the late Uncle Aristo’s yacht, the Bucephalas, I have been struck, squinting through the privacy glass onto litter-strewn streets, by the apparent similarities between Athens of the Crisis Era (2009 – present) and the New York of the 1970s. I often ponder on this, as the marina’s brand new courtesy Porsche Cayenne whisks us through the smog-choked air of central Athens south to leafy Vouliagmeni and a simpler way of life.
The timing is apt for such a comparison as 1970s New York City is having “a moment”. People too young to have experienced it, and others too old or brain-damaged by their youthful habits to actually remember it, have come together in a celebration of the “City” (as anyone raised within a fifty-mile radius of the place refers to NYC) and its iconic age of collapse, filth, graffiti, dank, fetid subways crawling with gangs of muggers, Bowery panhandlers, Con-Ed summer “brown-outs”, and abandoned tenements.
So let’s set the scene. In the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was president (“Who?” I hear you ask) and Abe Beame the height-challenged mayor, New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and default. So dire was the state of the City’s finances that many (including, famously and misquotingly, President Ford himself) pronounced it doomed, a decaying, corrupt heap of poverty, crime and filth that was beyond salvation. The classic New York Daily News article “Ford to City: Drop Dead”, is worth reading in full to appreciate the depth of the center-periphery animus (for extra thrills, try replacing “Ford” with “Schäuble”, and”Beame” with the name of any recent Greek Prime Minister). Those businesses that didn’t go broke, fled, as did almost one in eight residents. Entire office buildings and tenements, not to mention storefronts, sat vacant. Whole blocks were commandeered by squatters. By the end of the decade, the streets teemed with the homeless. Buildings were abandoned by their owners because of high taxes and low rents. Many burned to the ground. The problem was compounded by misguided efforts to rationalize fire-fighting resources confronted with shrinking budgets. Building-by-building, the Bronx disappeared.
Police, firefighters and sanitation workers walked off their jobs with Swiss train-like regularity. Indeed strikes by the the sanitation department stand as bookends to the decade, commencing with a nine-day strike in February 1968 that left the City buried under tons of rubbish, to be repeated again in December of 1981 ending only days before Christmas. The intervening decade was dotted with wildcat work stoppages whenever the City attempted to freeze or cut wages and pensions. In places the uncollected refuse climbed to the second floor of buildings, swirling down streets in the winter winds. In January 1971, 20,000 NYC police officers phoned in sick with a case of what was dubbed “blue flu”. On 6 November 1973, 10,900 NYC firefighters refused to leave their stations for five and a half hours while 80 fires burned in the city, chanting “Scab! Scab!” at volunteer crews of trainees and administrators hastily drafted in to respond to alarms. A coalition of police, firefighters and others went so far as to print a scaremongering handout for distribution to tourists entitled “Welcome to Fear City”.
My senior year of high school, living on the Queens – Nassau border (I am part of what Manhattanites derisively refer to as the “bridge and tunnel crowd”) , neatly coincided with the Son of Sam murders of 1976 and 1977 that paralyzed New York and the ‘outer boroughs’ as every part of the City that isn’t Manhattan is known – amplified through the now-classic prose of Daily News columnist and poet – hack laureate of those same outer boroughs Jimmy Breslin. David Berkowitz, the psychopath convicted of the murders, was eventually arrested at his home in the Bronx.
On 13 July 1977, in the midst of a heatwave of historic proportions where temperatures approached 100° F, the worst blackout to hit the City since 1965 plunged the entire region into darkness for 24 hours. Looting and arson began almost immediately, and the chaos and wanton destruction wrought in those few hours – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods like now-fashionable Bed-Stuy – was plainly visible the next day. More than 3,000 were arrested and the prisons were bursting at the seams. Inmates set mattresses alight.
In the midst of all this, the fabled New York Yankees played in a near-empty baseball stadium in the smoldering Bronx , where pieces of concrete routinely fell into the stands during games while long-suffering New Yorkers were being attacked by packs of rats within sight of City Hall. No one was thinking, much less talking, regeneration. Even so, that summer marked a turning point, at least in hindsight. The Yankees went on to win the World Series. A complete unknown, Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in late 1976, the liberal tabloid rival to the New York Daily News, and proceeded to reinvent it as a right wing New York spin on a British red top with its screaming, hysterical headlines (the most famous came in 1983, “Headless Body in Topless Bar”). In many ways, the aggrieved, polarized, violent and dysfunctional public discourse that is today the hallmark of American politics – leading inexorably to our current Trump moment – was born in the violence and destruction of that year.
Let’s be clear about something that New York had that Athens does not (yet) possess in anywhere near equal measure: fear. NYC of the the ’70s was a place of palpable anxiety and paranoia. No lesser a personage than composer Philip Glass, recently recalled in an interview for the BBC how the City in the 1970s was a scary place (he drove a cab to earn extra money, at a time when cabbies were routinely robbed, or worse still, murdered). In hindsight, there could not have been a more apt soundtrack to the decade than the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever hit Stayin’ Alive. Random murders and muggings were the norm, and the print, radio and television news of the day gave it wall-to-wall coverage (though thankfully, back then we didn’t have rolling 24-hour news or the internet). Violent crime rates hit a plateau in the ’70s and stayed there until the late ’90s, when nation-wide demographic changes already at work combined with more intelligent policing (not supposedly ‘get-tough on crime’ policies as former mayor and self-mythologizer extraordinaire Rudy Giuliani would have you believe) finally resulted in a startling decline. The appallingly-awful Death Wish was released in 1974, a cartoon-ish celebration of urban vigilantism that made Charles Bronson’s career, and confirmed everyone’s suspicions that New York should be left to go to Hell on its own.
And yet every trip into the City as my teenage self felt akin to boarding Apollo 11 and heading to the moon. It was scary, edgy, but exciting. I attended poetry readings in the Village and bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares at the long-closed Eighth Street Bookshop. I searched out obscure classical recordings at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets (’42nd Street’ itself a shorthand for sleaze and debauchery) . Beer was cheap at the White Horse Tavern, a favorite watering hole of Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas during his reading tours in the US. The myth is that he downed a large number of whiskey shots (18? 36?) at the bar and died the following day at St. Vincent’s Hospital down the block, more likely of misdiagnosis than alcohol poisoning per se. The hospital, a more than century old Catholic institution dedicated to serving the poor, who no longer [can afford to] live in this part of Manhattan, has closed and now is home to luxury high-rise condos that were selling last year for $3500/sq ft. This was a heady environment in which to engage in discreet underage drinking, a dog-eared copy of the Collected Poems in hand.
The beauty of all this decay was that notwithstanding the sleaze and grime, New York City became a magnet for creativity. As Glass points out, the City had something that made it a beacon for artists: cheap housing.Thanks to affordable housing (or simply sleeping rough in Central Park), the result was a critical mass of talent and cross-fertilization between the disciplines: performance art at The Kitchen, The Wooster Group’s Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe, A R Gurney and Christopher Durang at Playwrights Horizons, La Mama, PS1, Mary Boone and Julian Schnable, Arto Lindsey, Elliot Sharpe, John Zorn, the aforementioned Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kool Herc and Hip Hop’s emergence in the South Bronx, CBGB, the Mudd Club, the Talking Heads (and of course the short-lived palaces of cocaine-fueled sexual ambiguity, flammable fashion and disco glamour that were Studio 54 and its dry ice fog-filled rival Xenon …but we don’t really want talk about that). All of this was made possible because rent was cheap (or better, free) and performance spaces plentiful. Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee were cutting their teeth at NYU Film School. French avant garde composer Pierre Boulez was at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. The city was broke, falling apart at the seams, rife with crime and social problems, and had never been more culturally vibrant, perhaps because as one recent commentator observed, “there was no need to pretend that everything was all right.”
In the midst of all of this, savvy investors like William Ponsoldt (late of Panama Papers fame) and the well-connected (a certain scion of property development wealth named Trump comes to mind) snapped up empty well-located, future landmark properties for next to nothing, fixed them up and flipped them for a fortune in the ensuing, more prosperous decades. With hindsight, this was a bet that you couldn’t lose. At the time, as you stepped over piles of rotting garbage, avoided newspapers swirling at eye-level in the wind and rats nipping at ankles, dodged junkies in the doorways of empty storefronts and vainly tried to shake off panhandlers who would follow you for blocks haranguing you for a handout, such an investment looked pretty foolhardy. Insane even. But who knew?
All that has transpired in New York since the ’70s has its roots in this fantastically fertile soil. First SoHo was colonized, then the East Village. By the early ’80s even distant outposts like Park Slope in Brooklyn were becoming desirable and as a result, unaffordable. As the economy improved, the City recovered. By the ’80s, when prime rates began their gradual, stuttering climb-down from a staggering 21.5% in December 1980, there seemed like there was a Gap on nearly every corner. Money was now visible, just like the homeless. Wall Street chancers like the Boeskys and the Milkens became the models for Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe”. An artist or performer arriving in the City had to seek shelter in obscure, freaky and quite frankly dangerous corners of the outer boroughs like Williamsburg.
Now, a mere decade after the terror attacks of 9/11 and barely pausing for breath in the latest recession, the City is largely a museum to these lost times while Williamsburg’s property market outpaces Manhattan’s. The City remains a draw for the creative class, but mostly for wannabes with money from expensive private universities, subsidized by their double-income professional parents. They are overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, happy to drop thirteen bucks on a jar of artisan pickles.
In other words, be careful what you wish for. Behind all the nostalgia surrounding 1970s NYC is the simple truth that no one can afford to live there anymore who doesn’t work for a hedge fund, a law firm with a healthy client list of, er, hedge funds, or is a rich kid aching to open the next artisanal mayonnaise cum yarn-and-saketini-bar in Bed-Stuy where Uma Thurman’s brother can’t even afford a home. Or perhaps a porridge restaurant in less-hip Park Slope. Although there is hope for the “old” New York, as the homeless return. Today’s NYC is cleaner, safer, more prosperous and desirable, but also much more unequal and unaffordable for the vast majority of working people, let alone the creative revolutionaries who still flock there to starve, even as their ’70s pioneers like Patti Smith are leaving.
In conservative circles, the resurgent NYC has become the poster child for the view that, in today’s parlance, “austerity works”, and the blueprint for the “tough love” remedies applied more recently to cities like Detroit and countries like Greece. In truth, it was the gravitational pull of the world’s then financial capital combined with the global economic pendulum swinging the other way. There floated in the air a general Reagan-era perception that things were getting better (perception, mind you, not reality for most people). In the late ’80s and ’90s Wall Street and the investment banks came back in a big way. And at least when the good times returned and the tax coffers recovered, money was ploughed back into infrastructure, policing, and the scrubbing clean of those subway cars. New York was no longer the city of the Ramones; it now was the metropolis of Bright Lights, Big City and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Yes, New York was pulled back from the brink, but the underlying changes wrought tilted the board heavily in favor of wealth. This wasn’t the result of bootstrapping capitalism so much as it was a willingness to hand the city over to the finance industry and turn its housing stock into, in the words of my midtown dentist whose office looks out at one of the more egregious examples of oligarch chic, “a safe deposit box for the world’s super rich“. Most of the time these billionaire warehouses sit empty. The economic and cultural contributions to the City of these peripatetic plutocrats, like their counterparts in central London, is almost zero.
Flicking through the complimentary glossies as I peer out the Cayenne’s windows at the gritty urban homesteaders in Gazi, Psyri and Metaxourgeio (our driver is lost), I nearly choke on my freddo to see that already, according to this month’s Vogue, “Downtown Athens is Basically Brooklyn by the Sea”. According to the guide, “you’ll find local brews, grain bowls, flea markets, brunches, fine delicatessens, and beard balms.” They are of course referring to Brooklyn, circa 2016. The city, and the country, are already colonized by the artisan-mayonnaise-and-thirteen-buck-jar-of-pickles crowd. They’ve been here all along, dancing into the wee hours on the ashes of the 2004 Olympic dream.
Athens and Greece remain in a state of decline unparalleled since the Great Depression; real unemployment rates for the population as a whole remain suspended at a gravity-defying 24.1% and the rate of unemployment for 15 – 24 year olds currently a jaw-slackening 51.4%. Unemployment in NYC in 1975 stood at 10.7%. To put that in perspective, the UK unemployment rate for January – March of this year stands at 5.1% for the population overall; in the US, it was a mere 4.7% in May. Even allowing for the undercounting of the long-term unemployed in the US, the picture in Greece is profoundly troubling.
Yet throughout the crisis the dense cluster of craft cocktail lounges, hip cafes, trendy wine bars and bleeding edge foodie havens around places such as Agia Irini and elsewhere in downtown Athens are heaving with a crowd of local hipsters seemingly flush with cash. Even as the whiff of tear gas lingers in the air above the wide boulevard of Panepistimiou from the latest dust-up between koukolofori and the batsi, the party barely skipped a beat. Businesses close and soup kitchens proliferate, and through it all a disconnected population of shallow trendsters stare unblinking at their shiny new iPhones. It’s urban blight, Jim, but not as we know it.
Long time observers will note that many of these symptoms predate the crisis and were there even below the gleaming facade of noughties prosperity. There is no doubt that homelessness has got worse over the past five years, swelled by the newly jobless and evicted; but as the Greek crisis meme took hold many a lazy European photo editor eager to sate the appetite for crisis porn used more easily obtainable photos of marginal groups that have unfortunately inhabited the darker corners of the city for years: Roma scrap metal collectors and intravenous drug users labelled as newly impoverished Athenians. The riots? Some of the worst took place in 2008, when the coming crisis was barely a glimmer in a doom-merchant’s eye. Similarly, urban blight-as-opportunity was already blossoming nicely in downtown Athens when the crisis hit, in the hangover of the half-assed Olympic regeneration.
Relaxing over an artisanal raki and obscure regional delicacies with Athenians, one often hears the rumour repeated of prominent Greek families and politicians snapping up pieces of the neglected “historic centre” for a song, even busing in illegal migrants and drug dealers to drive out long-time residents and drive down real estate prices. Some sizeable property deals have been transacted more transparently. And you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why. Middle class Athenians started moving to the suburbs in droves as soon as the new metro, suburban railway and tram system made commuting feasible; the economic migrants who provided cheap labour in the pre-crisis years also left when jobs dried up, leaving a hollowed-out city centre. If anything, the first years of the crisis brought a mini-regeneration of sorts, increasing the density of hipster bars and trendy food joints, as the first wave of redundancy packages and early retirement bonuses was re-deployed as seed capital for small-scale gastronomical entrepreneurship in cheap storefronts.
Contrast this with New York in the 1970s. Having experienced Manhattan and New York up close in that decade, I can assure you even the “nice” bits of the City were grim. It beggars belief nowadays if you tell a visitor that festive, manicured Bryant Park behind the grand and lustrously-restored New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, in the shadow of the gleaming glass and steel Bank of America tower, was an absolute, you-gotta-be-kidding-me no-go area in its day, the inspiration for the 1971 Pacino crime-and-drug terror vehicle, “The Panic in Needle Park”.
These days, when New Yorkers gather to overcome collective trauma, there is one song that keeps recurring on the playlist. It’s not the self congratulatory “New York, New York” or the schmaltzy “New York State of Mind” (although they are also part of the cannon); it is Billy Joel’s eerily titled “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway”, written in 1976. The lyrics describe residents fleeing an apocalyptic New York (“They burned the churches up in Harlem/Like in the Spanish civil war/The flames were ev’rywhere/But no one really cared/It always burned up there before”), told from the perspective of a survivor in Florida forty years later. It was sung at the memorial for the victims of 9/11 and at the relief concerts after Hurricane Sandy, as a reminder of the City’s collective near-death experience and triumphant rebound. It is a reminder that the City didn’t die in the ’70s, like everyone expected. Indeed, the city described in the song bears little resemblance to the City that emerged from the ashes a mere decade later, and the re-make of Escape From New York will be pure science fiction as compared to the only slightly heightened reality of the City-as-prison-camp ’80s quasi-documentary original. That is, unless the new version features corporate lawyers and private equity types fleeing the unspeakable horrors of the insane housing market for Buffalo. In many ways, the post-’70s recovery puts the City’s post-9/11 resurrection in the shade. New Yorkers in 2001 had already stared down the dark barrel of the gun and knew at once that there was not going to be any return to those days. And there hasn’t.
For better or worse, despite the deprivation, Athens hasn’t had this kind of collective near-death experience (yet). Even without the courtesy Cayenne, it is still possible to live in a bubble where the worst thing that can happen is your posh hairdresser strategically defaulting; it is certainly possible as a visitor to avoid any contact with anything more terrifying than a long line at an ATM, and thank goodness for that, given the city’s heavy reliance on tourism. Athens, and perhaps Greece as a whole, have managed to muddle along. With each day, week and month that passes of half-hearted reform, blatant cronyism, and political dysfunction from every quarter, a certain comfort has been found in misery. Indeed, in all of this, some see the only glimmer of hope for urban renewal in another crisis, that which has left a new wave of migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other troubled regions trapped in Greece in the past year.
I do wonder what Patti and Laurie will make of it, if they get a chance to hang out in Athens, 2016. Our choice of concert venues next weekend are the recently opened Piraeus Academy which models itself on London’s Brixton Academy, and the Metamorphosis gala opening weekend at the new Renzo Piano-designed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Faliro. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Athens spirits away the city’s public art for safekeeping from theft and vandalism, and the world continues to turn. Indeed, in all of this, some see the only glimmer of hope for renewal in another crisis, that which has led refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other troubled regions trapped in Greece.
Image credits: NEW YORK: New York subway photo: Danny Lyon via ohbythewayblog.blogspot.com; “SKIPPED, 1977″ photo: Susan Lorkid Katz, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York via 6sqft.com; photo of CBGB by David Godlis via medium.com; photo of Xenon by Bill Burnstein via midcenturymodernmag.com. ATHENS: New Hotel via Vogue.com; “Hipstorical” by @atlantis_host (artful blur, photographer’s own); Metaxourgeio owl/elephant graffiti by Koutofrangos; Baba au Rum via iefimerida.com; homeless graffiti via metaxourgeio.wordpress.com.