What was New York City like in 1977?

by David Serlin

© David Serlin 2011

For many people, 1977 will be remembered as the year that Reggie Jackson won the World Series for the New York Yankees. For others, it will be the year John Travolta put disco on the map with his starring role in the film Saturday Night Fever. But in order to understand the world of Wonderstruck that Ben and Rose and Jamie inhabit in 1977, it is important to understand what New York City was like before 1977. And in order to do that, we have to go back in time to the year 1898, about twenty years before Rose was born.

What people call New York City now was not always the same city. The founding of parts of New York goes back five hundred years, but the city itself was invented in 1898 through a process called consolidation by bringing together five independent smaller cities: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. After these five cities were consolidated to form one of the largest, most vibrant, and most dynamic cities in the world, they became known as the boroughs of the City of New York.

Until the late 1950s, people in all five boroughs enjoyed many of the advantages of living in such a robust and exciting city, many of which revolved around different forms of work. Because New York City is surrounded by water and is connected by many bridges and tunnels, many people who worked in shipping, manufacturing, transportation, and storage were able to make a comfortable living and provide for their families. Beginning in the 1960s, however, there was a shift away from manufacturing and other so-called “blue-collar work” in New York City and an emphasis was placed on financial centers like Wall Street. If you were not a banker, there was no place for you.

At the same time that these changes were happening in New York City, the United States had become involved in two very expensive national projects. The first was the War in Vietnam, which was launched in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The second project was what President Johnson called his “Great Society” programs, which he launched in 1966 as part of an effort to fight poverty and create new opportunities for minorities and poor people throughout the United States.

To add to the country’s woes from the cost of the War in Vietnam, the oil crisis of 1973, during which countries in the Middle East stopped exporting oil to the US, showed us that nothing was stable. Gasoline, which we always believed would be cheap and in endless supply, had suddenly become a rare commodity, resulting in a confusing, uncertain future.

The combined costs of war and the oil crisis had begun to take their toll on New York City, too. In 1975, New York City’s Mayor Abraham D. Beame declared that the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and appealed to President Gerald Ford for federal assistance. Ford declined. The anger at the president for abandoning New Yorkers was expressed by an infamous 1975 headline by the New York Post, which declared “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” By 1977, many residents of New York City had begun to think about leaving the city. Crime had reached an all-time high. 1977 was also the year that New Yorkers were terrorized by a serial killer known of Son of Sam.

The event that plays such an important role in the plot of Wonderstruck, the Blackout of July 13-14, 1977, was distinguished for bringing out some of the worst instincts in a city that was already frustrated, angry, and agitated. On the evening of July 13, lightning struck a power station in the Bronx, which shut down electricity throughout all five boroughs, plunging the city into darkness and high temperatures for approximately twenty-four hours. Many stories told about the blackout involved anger and desperation. In some parts of Brooklyn, for instance, whole neighborhoods became sites of looting and arson; by one estimate, almost 4,000 people were arrested, the largest mass arrest in the history of the city. But the blackout also became the setting for hundreds of stories that could only happen in New York City: some hilarious, some frightening, some heroic, and some strange. During the blackout, the famous New York subway came to a halt, resulting in many passengers trapped on subway cars hundreds of feet below ground. While many waited to be rescued, others took the initiative and tried to escape the subway tunnels by themselves—and without a flashlight!

The power was restored to New York City on July 14, and the 1977 Blackout quickly passed from an event to a memory. But it also became an opportunity for people to think creatively about how to not only survive but also thrive in a complicated world that did not offer many options. Many poor and often very young musicians and DJs, for example, were able to "acquire" their first audio equipment when large retail stores that sold electronics were plundered during the Blackout. They were among the first to use microphones, turntables, and mixers to create what we now think of as rap music. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, rap and hip-hop, including graffiti and fashion, were examples of the kind of creative expressions that showed that sometimes art could come out of difficult circumstances. Perhaps living with and among various contradictions is probably the closest to what it was like to live in New York City in 1977.

In Wonderstruck, what Ben and Rose and Jamie experience is by comparison peaceful and quiet and loving and safe, challenging the belief that New York City in 1977 was violent and terrible for every person who lived there. This does not mean that their experiences were out of sync with those of the general population. It simply means that there are as many versions of what New York City was like in 1977 as there are people who lived there.

David Serlin is a writer, historian, and a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, where he teaches courses on the history of museums and the culture of the 1970s. He has published many books and articles, and is currently completing a book about how people with disabilities experience city life entitled Window Shopping with Helen Keller.