New York City
in the 1970s
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 7/31/14

New York City was a mess during the 1970s. Under Mayor Abe Beame’s inept watch, graffiti bloomed on subway trains, violent crime skyrocketed, and gangs ruled the burned-out Bronx. The city was near bankruptcy, and when austerity measures prompted a wildcat sanitation strike in 1975, the situation stank quite literally. But even as crisis followed crisis, the city was creatively ablaze. Its music, photography and films provide a useful lens for viewing this intense time.

Summer of Sam  (Spike Lee (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  NYC Blackout  (July 13–14, 1977)

Introducing Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, longtime New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin—who had received and published a letter from the serial killer known as Son of Sam during the lengthy police manhunt—describes New York as the “city that I love and hate, both equally.” But there wasn’t much to love about NYC in the summer of 1977. New Yorkers’ nerves were frayed by the Son of Sam murders (which had begun a year earlier), as well as a record-breaking heat wave and a power blackout that lasted more than a day and affected most of the five boroughs. Unlike the massive power failures of 1965 and 2003, when residents mostly remained calm, the blackout of July 13 to 14, 1977, spawned widespread looting and arson, especially in poor neighborhoods. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed and thousands of looters arrested—the largest mass arrest in NYC history. The blackout occupies a central episode in Lee’s film, in which the director plays a reporter covering the “Christmas in July” looting frenzy. Some have speculated that the large amount of DJ equipment stolen from electronics stores during the blackout spurred the spread and development of hip-hop in the late 1970s.

Summer of Sam  (Spike Lee (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  Dog Day Afternoon  (Sidney Lumet (dir.) | film | 1975)

Dumpy, demented David Berkowitz, who confessed to six Son of Sam murders after police apprehended him in August 1977, won no admirers among the populace he terrorized. John Wojtowicz, the bank robber Al Pacino immortalized in Dog Day Afternoon, was a crook with charisma. Although the “true story” told in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 movie differs from what actually happened in a Chase Manhattan bank branch in Brooklyn on August 22, 1972, the portrait of Wojtowicz (Sonny Wortzik in the film) is basically accurate. According to the Life magazine story Dog Day is based on, Wojtowicz had the “broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino.” He did charm and befriend the bank workers he took hostage. And, yes, his motive was to get money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. But Wojtowicz didn’t really work the crowd the way Pacino does in his most memorable scenes—tossing fistfuls of stolen bills at delirious onlookers and catcalling the cops with cries of “Attica! Attica!” (referencing the deadly 1971 uprising at that prison). The real-life crowd reacted with “boos and hoots” when it learned Wojtowicz was gay, and no impromptu gay-rights parade materialized (as in the film) to cheer him on.

Dog Day Afternoon  (Sidney Lumet (dir.) | film | 1975)
to  Saturday Night Fever  (John Badham (dir.) | film | 1977)

When Tony Manero (John Travolta), the self-centered protagonist of Saturday Night Fever, kisses a young woman on the dance floor of the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, disco he frequents, she exclaims, “I just kissed Al Pacino!” Next morning, examining himself in the mirror in his bedroom (whose wall sports a poster for the 1973 Pacino film Serpico), Tony decides he does look like Pacino and, stepping into the hallway wearing only his abbreviated underpants, he raises his fists and chants, “Attica! Attica!” at his appalled grandmother. That moment—of überstraight Tony channeling the homosexual semihero of Dog Day Afternoon with his most electrifying line—isn’t the only surprising thing about director John Badham’s paean to the disco era. More unexpected is that Fever holds up so well nearly four decades after its making. The music, especially the bevy of number-one hits contributed by the Bee Gees, still sounds fresh; the dancing captivates; and the story lines of Tony’s falling in love and coming of age retain their emotional power. Moreover, the film’s gritty look at New York’s ethnic and class divides appears genuine; you can truly “feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’,” as Fever’s anthem, “Stayin’ Alive,” puts it.

Saturday Night Fever  (John Badham (dir.) | film | 1977)
to  Summer of Sam  (Spike Lee (dir.) | film | 1999)

Just after the Vietnam War ended, another conflict began riving America—that between disco and punk rock. Born around the beginning of the decade in New York City’s black and gay dance clubs, disco music dominated pop by 1977, the year of Saturday Night Fever’s release and the year documented in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. But disco was simultaneously inspiring a backlash among some rock musicians who found its lush, synthesizer-enhanced sound phony—a betrayal of rock’s primitive ethos. Along with London, New York was a center of the punk rebellion against the mainstream, and the battle waged on the city’s late-night streets between disco and punk styles—not just musical, but sartorial and attitudinal—is one focus of Summer of Sam. The film’s two protagonists are longtime friends who choose opposite sides of this pop-cultural divide. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a polyester-clad fixture at his local Bronx disco; Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a wannabe guitarist who affects a British accent and outrageous hairstyles, can’t wait to launch his punk career and move to the Lower East Side. Ritchie’s debut at iconic punk club CBGB (to which he invites Vinny) lets Lee examine the disco-punk square-off from uncomfortably close up.

Summer of Sam  (Spike Lee (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  Meatpacking District

Like the emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned, New Yorkers distracted themselves throughout the crisis-ridden 1970s by fiddling around. Among other things, Summer of Sam is a gimlet-eyed study of sex in the pre-AIDS city. John Leguizamo’s character, Vinny, is a guilt-ridden womanizer convinced that serial killer Son of Sam will gun him down as God’s just punishment for his perpetual cheating on his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Adrien Brody’s Ritchie has an equally conflicted sex life. Ostensibly straight, although he has trouble connecting sexually with the girl who falls for him, Ritchie secretly earns his scant living by dancing at a gay male strip joint and turning tricks with its patrons. Lee’s depiction of heterosexual sex is raunchy and graphic, especially when Vinny and Dionna visit the straight (real-life) sex club Plato’s Retreat, where Vinny forces his reluctant wife to participate in the public goings-on. But Lee’s camera pulls its punches on the gay liaisons. Not only do Ritchie’s down-low hookups happen behind closed doors, but the venue he works at seems a leftover from an earlier, more discreet era—nothing like the in flagrante delicto gay sex clubs then flourishing in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Saturday Night Fever  (John Badham (dir.) | film | 1977)
to  New York Dolls  (American glam-rock band | 1971–1977, re-formed 2004)

John Travolta’s feathered hairdo and the ensembles he wears while hustling through Saturday Night Fever—including the signature white polyester three-piece suit donned for the final dance number—look peacockish and almost feminine by today’s menswear standards. But they’re staid, even butch, compared with the glam rock–inspired men’s hairstyles and fashions of just a few years earlier. Glam musicians such as David Bowie and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan from the U.K. and, from the U.S., Lou Reed and the New York Dolls, among others, leapt right through androgyny and into highly theatrical drag: glitter, exaggerated makeup, tall platform shoes, cigarette pants, flouncy blouses, and sashes, scarves and bows.

Todd Haynes’s 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, set in London in the early 1970s, revels in the sublime ridiculousness of glam-rock garb. Stateside, the New York Dolls, fronted by Mick Jagger look-alike David Johansen, adopted a style rather less kempt than their British counterparts, and the Dolls’ songs were anything but tidy: tuneless, driving, carelessly played, with repetitive (sometimes downright stupid) lyrics Johansen hollered rather than sang. This music ain’t no disco; it’s a prototype for the punk that, by decade’s close, so viciously stabbed disco to death.

New York Dolls  (American glam-rock band | 1971–1977, re-formed 2004)
to  CBGB  (Manhattan music club | 1973–2006)

The New York Dolls didn’t play CBGB until 2006, when the re-formed band (the Dolls had split in 1977) headlined at the club six months before its much-lamented closing. But for plenty of the Dolls’ punk progeny—including bands the Heartbreakers and Sylvain Sylvain & the Criminals, both formed by former Dolls—CBGB was home base. The full name of the club, founded at 315 Bowery in 1973, was CBGB & OMFUG, an awkward acronym for “Country Bluegrass Blues & Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers,” but from 1974 on, little besides punk (and, later, punk-related music such as New Wave and hardcore) was heard within CBGB’s narrow, crowded, noisy, dirty, smoky, smelly confines. Other New York clubs (Max’s Kansas City, Kenny’s Castaways) featured punk acts, but CBGB was notable for the sheer number of bands, some of which went on to international fame, that got their start there or appeared on its stage very early in their careers. During the 1970s those included the B-52s, Blondie, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Mink DeVille, the Patti Smith Group, the Plasmatics, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Television.

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe  (b. 1946 | American poet and musician; 1946–1989 | American photographer)
to  CBGB  (Manhattan music club | 1973–2006)

Robert Mapplethorpe, a Queens native, met Patti Smith soon after she dropped out of college in South Jersey and moved to New York in 1967. They became lovers, living together off and on for several years until Mapplethorpe’s growing awareness of his homosexuality caused them to part. As the title of Smith’s 2010 memoir puts it, he and she were “just kids”—naive, poor, ambitious, intent on exploring whatever the city threw their way. Both knew they were artists, but neither had a definite direction until Mapplethorpe discovered photography and Smith discovered poetry and rock music. Though he also made elegantly staged photographs of flowers and celebrities, Mapplethorpe gained notoriety for his homoerotic pictures, and an NEA-supported show of his work (mounted after his 1989 death) occasioned a landmark obscenity trial in the early 1990s. Smith, the “grandmother of punk,” formed the Patti Smith Group in 1974, gathering a following in downtown clubs such as Max’s Kansas City and the storied Bowery venue CBGB, where the group played a legendary seven-week gig in spring 1975. Mapplethorpe’s stark photo of Smith that appears on her group’s first album, Horses (1975), is one of rock’s iconic images.

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe  (b. 1946 | American poet and musician; 1946–1989 | American photographer)
to  Meatpacking District

The crème de la crème of NYC gay society might have gone dancing at Studio 54—the West 54th Street disco palace opened by impresarios Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager in 1977—but their late-late-night escapades sometimes took them to an altogether different part of town: the industrial Meatpacking District on Manhattan’s far west side, along and just south of 14th Street. At Studio, they might have rubbed elbows with the likes of singer Liza Minnelli, fashion designer Halston, model Bianca Jagger and writer Truman Capote. At the Anvil (500 W. 14th Street) and the Mineshaft (835 Washington Street)—gay sex clubs in the Meatpacking District—they rubbed other body parts with any and all comers. Of the two, the Mineshaft was more notorious. The Anvil at least had a stage where drag queens and go-go boys performed (as well as a warren of backrooms downstairs), but the Mineshaft, where clothing was checked at the door, served one purpose. It was a venue for public sex, including sundry BDSM activities then coming into vogue: the kinds of man-on-man naughtiness photographer Robert Mapplethorpe began documenting at the time. Mapplethorpe met several subjects for these pictures at the club.