Book Review: Burnt Apple
May 1, 2005
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
THE BRONX IS BURNING:
1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City
By Jonathan Mahler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pages, $25
UNLIKE any other world city, New York has always been peculiarly contentious, noisy, messy and rude — even during its most glamorous eras. Cole Porter, in his urbane 1930 song, "Take Me Back to Manhattan," pines for New York from Paris, but calls it "that dear old dirty town."
Yet in 1977, the city's aggression went very wrong in some new and terrible way. No longer did New York inspire "utterly baseless optimism," in Kurt Vonnegut's phrase, but something closer to fear and loathing.
Journalist Jonathan Mahler concentrates on that dreadful summer, when serial killer Son of Sam terrorized young lovers in Queens, a blackout in record heat plunged all five boroughs into darkness but several neighborhoods into hell, Studio 54 opened as a defiant Sodom and Gomorrah in Manhattan and the Yankees fought their opponents and their own demons to the October World Series that produced the title of this book.
While Americans watched the Yankees beat the Dodgers, they also saw the Yankees' home borough burn, as ABC television cameras wandered a few blocks away from the stadium, focusing on an arson-fueled fire in an abandoned school.
Mahler has the sense to tell his riveting story straight, letting the metaphors speak for themselves. His argument is that 1977 was a year of transition, as the "emerging titans" of George Steinbrenner, Mayor Edward Koch and New York Post owner Rupert Murdoch replaced insecure, undisciplined, individualistic stars like Yankee manager Billy Martin and over-the-top politicians like Bella Abzug.
He's at his best writing about baseball, centering the story on Martin — brilliant, volatile, almost psychotically devoted to the game and to winning. "If you play for me, you play the game like you play life." Martin told the players just after being hired by Steinbrenner at a humiliatingly low salary of $72,000, the same as he'd been paid in Texas. His contract also contained onerous clauses that, among other things, prohibited him from criticizing the front office. "You play it to be successful, you play it with dignity, you play it with pride, and you play it aggressively."
Of course New Yorkers loved Martin. He was their kind of guy — he had told old-timer Ty Cobb that if they had played together, Cobb would have come sliding into him spikes high only once: "After that, you wouldn't have had any teeth." Like his city, he often lacked good judgment, expecting that external circumstances — or his own apparent merit — would bail him out any trouble he got himself into.
New York itself, which was only barely emerging from its nearly ruinous brush with bankruptcy, expected great things from the new president, Jimmy Carter, whose victory had been secured by the state's 41 electoral votes and the city's huge turn-out.
But Carter proved to be just one more bitter disappointment for a city that was learning it had few friends. "The city that had once dared to fly in the face of capitalism," writes Mahler, "could no longer aspire to be all things to all its people. New York's future belonged not to labor bosses, political power brokers or social visionaries but to entrepreneurs."
Today even the most devastated neighborhoods — like Bushwick, whose residents burned it nearly to the ground in 1977 — are coming back, strong and vital and desirable. The madness of 1977 is behind us. But every New Yorker who loves the city should keep this book as a reminder of just how close we came to the abyss.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2005 New York Post
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