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The New York Times
February 1, 2000, Tuesday

The Seventies Give Nostalgia A Bad Name 

By CLYDE HABERMAN

OF all the decades to get nostalgic about, why the 1970’s? You could pick a better era out of a hat.

How can anyone get misty over a decade that gave us Watergate, Kent State, gas lines, economic recession, double-digit inflation, soaring crime rates, Pol Pot, Son of Sam and American hostages in Iran—not to mention leisure suits, men’s ties wider than the Lincoln Tunnel, some of the worst hairstyles since scissors were invented and—hold your angry letters—disco?

Yet the 70’s have slammed into our millennial consciousness with all the subtlety of Charles Bronson blasting his way through "Death Wish," that 1974 Hollywood vision of urban hell.

A stage version of "Saturday Night Fever" is playing on Broadway. Studio 54 is back from the dead. So are lava lamps and bell-bottoms. (Can fondue sets as wedding gifts be far behind?)

Recent movies have explored the 70’s in ways satiric and straight. We have had "The Ice Storm," "Boogie Nights," "Summer of Sam," "Man on the Moon" and, for those who wish they still had Nixon to kick around, "Dick." Television has chimed in with "That 70’s Show," a Fox sitcom.

Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign trades on his fame from his championship seasons with the New York Knicks in the 70’s. Even 70’s crime is back, now that Michael C. Skakel has been charged in Connecticut with bludgeoning Martha Moxley to death 25 years ago. 

Topping all that off—the glitter ball above the dance floor, so to speak—the New-York Historical Society opens an exhibition today on one of the lowest points in New York history: the fiscal crisis of the mid-70’s, which almost tipped the city government into bankruptcy.

The three-month show at the society, on West 77th Street, includes photographs, posters and artifacts from those dark days. Not the least of them is a blowup of the front page of The Daily News from Oct. 30, 1975. Its headline remains one of the greats:

Ford to City: 

Drop Dead 

In fact, President Gerald R. Ford never quite said that. What he said was that he was prepared to veto any bill that included a federal bailout to keep New York from default. Pretty dry stuff. The News got to the point with more pop than a wad of bubble gum, so much so that millions thought the president had actually uttered those nasty words. Some believe the headline contributed to his political demise a year later, when the voters told him to drop dead. 

All right, what gives? Why all this looking back? 

"There’s a spotlight always focused on the period that is 25 or 30 years before the present," said David Frum, who examines the 70’s in a new book, "How We Got Here" (Basic Books). Many find it especially painless to return to the 70’s, he suggested, because they now enjoy good times. "We went through a process and came out the other end, and it turned out O.K.," he said. 

MR. FRUM, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the conservative research center, is himself no 70’s fan. To him, they were worse than the 60’s in transforming America into a less responsible, more hedonistic, less law-abiding and more illiterate society. But he understands why young people may be fascinated with that era. 

"If you’re 20 now, you must feel like you live in a police state," he said. "The drinking age has been raised. It’s harder to buy cigarettes. Drugs are treated savagely, and you’re told sex will kill you. Abstinence is in. Schools have metal detectors. So they look back on that time as the golden age of teenage liberty." 

For Betsy Gotbaum, president of the historical society, one reason for the fiscal-crisis show is the ticking clock. Those who helped rescue the city then are not exactly kids, including her husband, Victor Gotbaum, the labor leader. The former mayor, Edward I. Koch, she said, had proposed that "we do this while we’re all still alive." 

That sounds reasonable. Still, it means returning, if briefly, to a time when New York hit bottom—to the brutal blackout of 1977, garbage strikes, exposes of systemic police corruption and the nightmarish Times Square of "Taxi Driver." Let’s not even discuss the Bee Gees. 

Those days were not all bad, said Kathleen Hulser, the exhibition’s curator. Artists flourished in a city that was far more affordable, she pointed out. Also, Ms. Hulser said, "the 70’s were when the idea of public and private partnerships took off."

Quite right. All in all, though, you get the feeling that nostalgia is not what it used to be.

© 2000 The New York Times

Visit the How We Got Here webpage

 

 


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