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View latest article by Daniel Henninger

WONDER LAND

The Golden Age
Of New York City
Was . . . the 1970s?

The Times finds "artists" who miss the crime wave.

BY DANIEL HENNINGER
Friday, January 7, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

This past Sunday a New York Times feature in its City section asked famous New Yorkers to identify New York's golden age. At least four identified the 1970s as the golden age. This is worth notice because in the 1970s banks said New York had spun its credit rating into dross and refused to lend more money to a city whose accumulated deficit reached $8 billion. Today its budget office reports that starting in FY2006, per-annum deficits for three years will be $3.7 billion, $4.5 billion and $3.7 billion. There is a mayoral election this November when we'll get the opinion of all New Yorkers on the city's current alchemists. But perhaps we should regard the famous Times' commentators yearning for the 1970s as canaries in the gold-plated mine shaft.

The actor John Leguizamo: New York in the '70s "was funky and gritty and showed the world how a metropolis could be dark and apocalyptic and yet fecund." Fran Lebowitz, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair: The city "was a wreck; it was going bankrupt. And it was pretty lawless; everything was illegal, but no laws were enforced. It was a city for city-dwellers, not tourists, the way it is now." Laurie Anderson, a well-known New York artist and performer, admits the '70s were considered "the dark ages" but "there was great music and everyone was broke."

One of the better-known artifacts in the archaeology of New York is the movie "Death Wish." Released in 1974, it stars Charles Bronson as a Manhattan liberal who snaps under the burden of New York's violence and goes into the subways to mow down thugs the cops can't or won't catch. Back then the city's audiences cheered and screamed as Bronson smashed one civil-liberties platitude after another.

Peter Hall, in his magisterial study of history's great urban centers, "Cities in Civilization," remarks offhandedly that "not for nothing did New York develop so rapidly after the first subways . . . brought their trains into the center of Manhattan." The subways, of course, aren't for the tourists but for unwealthy city-dwellers. Starting in 1970, fires, collisions and derailments routinely wrecked New York's subways, injuring and even killing passengers. In August 1973, a chunk of concrete fell from the roof of the IRT Steinway tunnel and killed a passenger. A 1975 fire trapped 12,000 evening rush-hour passengers. But the cars were colorful. They were covered with graffiti, celebrated by Norman Mailer in a famously provocative paean to the graffiti painters.

The '70s golden-agers in the Times story don't deny what was going on then--but they kind of miss it. The photographer Mary Ellen Mark remembers "it was a time of costume and excitement, a time of youth and great energy." Caleb Carr, the novelist of old-time New York, thinks the city has been "sterilized by the Giuliani years." He says that "like a troublesome child taking Ritalin, New York may be more manageable now, but it has also sacrificed its personality."

These comments raise the question of just what liberalism believes makes a city great or even golden, rather than just . . . interesting.

New York is famous for many things, and the reason the whole world knows this is because New York is a city of artists and writers. Though genius may find its muse anywhere, the Times' commentators are correctly saying that most artists need to have personal flint chipping at social steel to spark the furnace within. But could it be that New York's great weakness--beyond the public employee unions, beyond the economic obtuseness--is that its leadership elites are fatally enthralled by a reputation for creative fecundity that has been conjured and kept afloat by the city's artists and writers? At the center of this New York myth is the belief that everyone here is clever, and so "anything is possible."

But it isn't. Everyone here isn't clever.

Over eight years in the 1970s, New York lost more than a half-million private-sector jobs, according to E.J. McMahon and Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute, whose essential travel guide to these years and their aftermath may be found in the current Winter issue of the Public Interest. During the 1970s the real New York nightmare wasn't lived in the SoHo funkytown, but in the funkless outer boroughs.

Many of the city's most creative people in the 1970s (as now) were high IQ boys and girls from Smalltown who fled to the Apple and had the smarts to survive and thrive in a city beset with drugs, welfare dependency and housing stock distorted by World War II rent controls. Hell has always seized over-developed imaginations. But what attractions hath hell for average Joes who can't cop a "life" in SoHo or Williamsburg? Then as now, they just took hell's hits in the neck, or left. In economic terms, much of creative Manhattan simply "free-rides" on the backs of the workers whose tax payments constrain the bankruptcy sheriff.

The cities in Peter Hall's book all still exist, but he brackets their greatness with endpoints (Berlin, 1840-1930; London, 1570-1620; and undeniably Memphis, Tenn., 1948-1956). Every New Yorker believes its moment hasn't passed. The city is indeed vibrant, but so is Paris, another artist-conjured place whose golden age won't be back. Some say the new immigrants will keep the thrill alive, but within a generation they'll likely emigrate again to Long Island, New Jersey or Charlotte.

It might not end if the city's best and brightest would use some of their "creative" brainpower to blow the whistle on the city's irredeemably corrupt and destructive Democratic politics. But they won't. Over the holidays, I saw the film that supplants "Death Wish" as the perfect New York movie. It's "Finding Neverland," the story of Peter Pan.

Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.

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