Tag Archives: 1970s

How American Newspapers Reported the New York Blackout of 1977

Forty years ago today, New York City was plunged into darkness. The city has certainly seen longer blackouts in its history but none as violent or as deadly in its effects than the Blackout of 1977. The deteriorating city, in the midst of a withering heat wave, was ill-equipped for such emergencies. Hundreds of stores were looted and  fires ravaged many neighborhoods.

For more details on the blackout, we have a couple podcasts which explore certain aspects of the event. The third part of our Bronx Trilogy — The Bronx Was Burning — focuses on that particular borough during the Blackout of 1977. And believe it or not, our fifth-ever Bowery Boys podcast was also about the Blackout, recorded on the 30th anniversary:

Here’s how the blackout and subsequent riots were reported in newspapers across the country in the days that followed.

While the first day’s reports focused on the basic facts, most naturally chose to zero in on the looting by the second and third days. These images of the blackout would linger in the minds of Americans far longer than images of the darkened skyline.

Fort Myers, Florida

The Press Democrat — Santa Rosa, California

Pittsburgh Post Gazette — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Baltimore Sun — Baltimore, Maryland 


Fort Lauderdale News — Fort Lauderdale, Florida


Fairbanks Daily News-Miner — Fairbanks, Alaska

Honolulu Star-Advertiser — Honolulu, Hawaii

The Clarion-Ledger — Jackson, Mississippi

St. Louis Post-Dispatch — St. Louis, Missouri

Idaho State Journal — Pocatello, Idaho


Surveying a number of newspapers from across the country, I observed that the three wire-service photographs that appeared to be most frequently published were:



The PBS American Experience documentary on the Blackout of 1977 is streaming for free on their website.

‘Fear City’: The unthinkable tale how New York City almost went bankrupt

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, the title of Kim Phillips-Fein’s riveting new book on the 1970s financial catastrophe, isn’t wantonly comparing New York City to the devilish landscape of a horror film.

It’s the actual title of a grim pamphlet the New York Police Department distributed to tourists in 1975, providing insights into staying safe during this period of high crime and government cut-backs. Today it does read a bit like promotional material for an actual horror film The Purge, a fear-mongering document meant to embarrass city officials and galvanize communities.

Its advice included:

  1. Stay off the streets after 6 P.M.
  2. Do not walk.
  3. Avoid public transportation.
  4. Remain in Manhattan.
  5. Protect your property.
  6. Safeguard your handbag.
  7. Conceal property in handbags.
  8. Do not leave valuables in your hotel room and do not deposit them in the hotel vault.
  9. Be aware of fire hazards.

The flyers enraged Mayor Abe Beame, who was scrambling to come up with money to save New York, and he even slapped a restraining order upon the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association who was attempting to distribute the flyers. “Abandoning the notion of leafleting the airports,” writes Phillips-Fein, “police officers instead drove around trucks decked with American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting around the city, blasting out warnings about the threats to public safety.”

How did New York City get itself into this weakened, paralyzing situation? And just as impossibly — how did the city manage to get out of it?

Metropolitan Books
New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
By Kim Phillips-Fein
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.

In Fear City, Phillips-Fein manages to sift through this complicated and seemingly indecipherable story and recount even the most gloomy late-night board meetings with a vital urgency.

In essence, it does have a horror-film quality, as we watch a festering monster grow in size within the corridors of government. New York’s financial woes began in the late 1950s, as the city began taking out large, virtually unchecked loans, playing elaborate games on spreadsheets in order to pay the bills. They were assisted by state government (who at first facilitated such borrowing and even changed laws to allow it) and the eager ratings agencies who considered New York a safe A-rating bet as late as 1973.

Mayor Beame, besieged by reporters outside of Gracie Mansion

Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

To be fair, under prior mayors, coffers began aching under increased funding of social services, expanded to combat growing threats such as the depopulation of some neighborhoods (due to the growth of suburbs) and the spectre of deteriorating infrastructure.

But by the mid 1970s, the city and its new mayor Abe Beame faced the terrifying possibility of bankruptcy. This would not only be bad for the city, but for the nation as a whole, destabilizing the country’s banking networks. Indeed New York threatened to fall into a hole and pull the entire country in with it.

“Over time,” writes Phillips-Fein, “the fear of bankruptcy took on a life of its own.”

The one person with certain power to bail out the city chose not to. President Gerald Ford would eventually butt heads with his own vice president Nelson Rockefeller over the country’s involvement with New York. “Most of Ford’s advisers believed New York was shamelessly begging for help to prop up its welfare state. The cold light of default … might be the only thing that could compel the city to change its ways.”

We know how that ended up turning out.

But if Ford wouldn’t come to the table to offer assistance, Beame often had a problem admitting there was a problem at all. At times he sounds like an addict, frantically coming up with excuses for his own behavior. “He claimed the city was just running low on cash while it waited for revenues to arrive.”

You may know portions of this story quite well — some of you lived through it — but you may not know the varying and even opposing ways that the city got out of this mess.

On one level, it did so with the help of financiers and CEOs, leading task forces  of great and questionable power.

Empowered by a late-night act hurriedly passed by the state senate, the ominous-sounding Emergency Financial Control Board oversaw all city expenditures, “wrest[ing] control over the city’s finances out of the hands of the mayor and the City Council.” Among those on the board were the CEOs of New York Telephone Company, American Airlines and Colt Industries (the gun manufacturer).

Below: Anger at the EFCB’s actions to close Hostos Community College inspired vigorous protests. Such community action helped save the college.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

But the real bailout came from the citizens of New York themselves who weathered the horrifying notion of “planned shrinkage,” the drastic and detrimental cutbacks to hospitals, schools and public transit, generally speaking, with great resolve. (Events like the Blackout of 1977 notwithstanding.)

But they did not weather them quietly.

Communities were not afraid to push back against aggressive cuts that would have endangered them, such as the efforts by one Greenpoint community to save their fire house from closure and another by a South Bronx residents to stop the shuttering of a unique educational institution — Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York — aimed at the community’s bilingual residents.

Phillips-Fein, an associate professor at New York University, has crafted one of the best history books of the year out of one of the ugliest periods in New York City history. Aspects of this story reverberate into present dilemmas — on the local, state and national levels — as austerity measures take center stage as possible solutions to deficits and shortfalls. Let’s not hope for any sequels.

Below: New York City 1976

Photo/John VanderHaagen


New York City 1977

Photography by Derzsi Elekes Andor

HBO’s Vinyl: Getting Into The Groove

The music industry is the focus of Martin Scorsese’s new HBO show Vinyl just as the mob-run liquor business was the focus of his last show Boardwalk Empire, but in many ways, the two are pretty much the same.

Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) runs his record label American Century Records out of the Brill Building with the same amount of wild swagger that Nucky Thompson ran his Atlantic City operation. By the end of the first episode, there was even a bloody murder.

My interest, of course, is the history, and Vinyl compacts historical events in vivid, fairly unrealistic but very enjoyable way. (A glacially paced romp through 1970s New York City history wouldn’t make good television.) In the first episode alone, Finestra magically predicts the success of ABBA, stumbles into the first hip hop party in the Bronx, then witness the collapse of the Mercer Arts Center from the inside.

If you happen to be watching live on Sunday nights (9pm EST), follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) where I’ll be watching alongside and throwing out some interesting trivia bits. It’s the 1970s in Times Square so the potential for some scandalous history is high!



‘Days of Rage’ and Nights of Terror

Right before noon on March 6, 1970, an explosion tore open a lovely Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street and awoke New York City to a violent new threat.

The remains of three bodies were discovered in the smoking debris but they weren’t residents of this quiet neighborhood. They were members of The Weather Underground, a radical underground unit absorbing the counter-culture spirit of the 1960s and unleashing it — oftentimes randomly and irrationally —  onto a new decade.

Below: Oddly enough, the townhouse explosion occurred next door to the home of Dustin Hoffman and his wife.

Courtesy AP file photo
Courtesy AP file photo

Less than two years later, two New York police officers were brutally assassinated in the East Village, among the most brutal and shocking crimes against the NYPD in its history.  This wasn’t a random crime but a hit placed upon the officers by members of the Black Liberation Army, wielding some of the philosophies of the Black Panthers to dangerous ends.

Almost three years later, a bomb exploded inside the historic Fraunces Tavern during in the middle of a busy weekday lunch. Four men were killed in the sudden attack, made by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (or FALN).

Below: Aftermath of the explosion at Fraunces Tavern (courtesy New York Daily News)


In between these terrible disasters were several other bombings of other significant buildings, here in New York and in other cities through the United States.  All of them indicative of a violent (and ultimately failed) form of protest, as turbulently described by Bryan Burrough in his new book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

This is probably one of the most frightening non-fiction books I’ve read in recent memory, a broad and exquisitely told tale that loosely links together a variety of American revolutionary action groups from the 1970s.

Some of the principal players of these groups are recognizable (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn,  Patty Hearst), but the breadths of their actions has been seldom studied. Through interviews with members who’ve never spoken, Burroughs patches together connections among these disparate groups — even if those connections are more philosophical than physical.

Below: The mugshot of Bernadine Dohrn, 1970



Most shared the belief that violence, disruption and chaos would lead America to a new revolutionary age. As Burrough points out, most were inspired by civil rights movement and the plight of black Americans, taking their anger and frustration into far more radical directions than the mainstream leaders who advocated non-violence and change through the law.

While the vulgar and gut-wrenching violence was often doused with machismo, many of these groups were led or operated by women.

The title comes from a series of demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in the fall of 1969, seen as a sort of kick off to this festering revolutionary movement.  Much of the book details the ‘underground’ hideouts and escape routes of these organization, whether holed up in Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco (as the Weathermen were, often dressed in silly disguises) or running from capture through rural Georgia.

Burrough does not flinch from the horror, graphically describing the aftermath of many of the more loathsome crimes.  The 1972 deaths of two NYPD officers in the East Village is especially grim. (You can read news of the original account here.)


In particular, I found the tale of the Symbionese Liberation Army especially gripping, notable less for their violent actions (although there certainly was some) than for the somewhat random notion to kidnap the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.  Many of these stories will replay in your memory as a reel of black-and-white news footage or a set of iconic photographs (such as the one above of Hearst).  Days of Rage offers a vivid and refreshing new context.

Burrough — a Vanity Fair writer perhaps best known for Barbarians At The Gate — is a thorough story-teller, conjuring fully blown narratives from the sometimes untrustworthy recollections of the surviving participants.  He’s often too thorough, sometimes including superfluous details because they’ve “never before been told.”

Chaos was an organizing principal for these groups which is partially way they were ultimately unsuccessful. As shocking as some of these horrifying attacks seem today, it’s a wonder many of them were successful orchestrated at all, given the tentative organizational structure and often incompetent leadership of these groups.




Top photograph courtesy Marty Lederhandler/AP Images.

The grand opening of the World Trade Center on April 4, 1973; Richard Nixon, labor strikes and “General Motors Gothic”

Photography on this page, from various periods, by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.  Check out their online gallery for some more beautiful black-and-white shots. 

Let me take you back to a simpler time, back to a time where it might have been okay to hate the actual World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center was originally seen as a representation of New York’s own dreams and failures.  The buildings represented progress to some, disruption to others.

An entire business district — Radio Row — was eliminated in its construction.  Another neighborhood — Battery Park City — sprang up in its shadow.  The monumental design by Minoru Yamasaki radically altered (distorted?) the skyline. Some of New York’s oldest streets were now blocked from sunlight. On the other hand, an area of Manhattan that would have been susceptible to rising blight was now renewed.  It was the apotheosis of post-modern design, the apex of New York City construction.

Everything grand and intolerable about New York City in the late 1960s/early 1970s was embodied here in these two impossibly tall shafts of metal.

Many saw a waste of resources and state governments with skewered priorities.  Business interests were hopeful the buildings would reinvigorate the Financial District.  They would, eventually.  But back in 1973 many openly wondered how its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were even going to attract tenants.

Below: The view of downtown Manhattan from a New Jersey marina

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon

After years of construction that transformed lower Manhattan, the buildings were officially opened in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 4, 1973.  Far from a rapturous embrace, the opening of the world’s tallest buildings was met with relief, resignation and turmoil.  Few were in a mood to celebrate two shiny new symbols of wealth in a city slowly nearing bankruptcy.

Here are a few more details from its opening day and its aftermath:

People were already over it:  The opening was occasioned by severe rain. (It’s in good company; the opening of the Statue of Liberty was also met with a downpour.)  Even without it, however, the celebration would have been heavily muted.  The ground was broken on the World Trade Center site almost seven years before, and New Yorkers had plenty of time to get used to the rising towers. The first tower had been completed by 1970, but by then, the city had become rather jaded to the expensive buildings.  As it was, lower levels of the second building were still not even completed.

Disagreements: The top luminaries at the opening were New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and New Jersey governor William T. Cahill.  The World Trade Center was a Port Authority project;  PATH trains to New Jersey were rumbling underneath (or were supposed to be, see below).

While the two governors seemed in playful spirits, Cahill openly resented the backseat his state took in the finished product.  According to author Eric Darton:  “Cahill implies that New Jersey’s commuter rail needs have taken second place to the trade center, and Rockefeller, still grinning, points towards the Jersey shore. ‘You see all those magnificent container ports,’ he says, ‘that took all those jobs away from New York.’ ”

2013_3_2_ 365

In Absentia: Gone were the days when U.S. presidents showed up at the opening of New York landmarks, but President Richard Nixon did send a statement, hailing WTC as “a major factor for the expansion of the nation’s international trade.”  That very same month, the Watergate cover-up erupted into the scandal that would eventually lead to his resignation the following year.

STRIKE! Not only was Nixon not there, but the man he designated to read the speech — Peter J. Brennan — was not even there.  Three days earlier, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen union began a strike against Port Authority.  Because of the strike, the PATH train — that glorious feature of the new World Trade Center — was closed for a total of 63 days.  Brennan was Nixon’s new Secretary of Labor, so it would hardly seem proper to break the picket line.  Nixon’s speech was delivered instead by a Port Authority chairman.


Critics, Part One:  Noted labor leader and powerful mediator Theodore W. Kheel was violently against the states’ interest in the World Trade Center.  Calling it “socialism at its worst,” he demanded the governors take the podium on ribbon-cutting day and sell the building to private investors “at the earliest possible date.”

Others were perhaps understandably concerned that the buildings, given special tax status, were now a quarter-filled with state offices and certainly destined to empty and bankrupt office buildings with no such tax breaks in the surrounding area.  Luckily, Kheel did live to see the building sold to private concerns in 1998.

Critics, Part Two: Somebody else was saving up some vitriol for opening day — noted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable.  Having years to craft some well-worded jabs, she did so in a column in the New York Times the following day. “These are big buildings, but they are not great architecture…..The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster.  It is General Motors Gothic.”

Critics, Part Three:  Labor leaders were disgruntled. Critics dismissed it.  But many New Yorkers outright loathed it. It’s a bit disturbing to read such outright disgust over structures that we have very different feelings about today.  From the Village Voice a week after the opening:  “The ecology-minded and those who are concerned with the energy crisis are fond of predicting that the building will have to be torn down — or at the very least abandoned — on that not-to-distant day when the power it consumes puts an intolerable strain on our already-diminishing power reserves.”


Nowhere to Eat:  The World Trade Center could facilitate thousands of employees, but, on opening day, it had one restaurant, called “Eat and Drink,” where “the waitresses wear hard hats and its busboys wear vests inscribed “Ecologist” on the back.” [source]  In the second building, a makeshift sandwich shop opened on the unfinished 44th floor.  Needless to say, outside food vendors in the area were not displeased.

Subversion The ribbon-cutting ceremony also marked the end of One World Trade Center’s dominance as the world’s tallest building.  Chicago trumped it when Sears Tower topped out at 1,454-feet less than one month later.

In New York, the buildings quickly became a totem of excess, of something that could be symbolically overcome.  You may be familiar with the daredevil Philippe Petit and his insane and unbelievably majestic (and illegal) tightrope walk between the towers.  But you may not remember that it took place just sixteen months after the opening, on August 6, 1974.  Two years later, King Kong performed a similar sort of feat in the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange.

But there was magic in the air.  On the very same day as the ribbon-cutting, in a hospital across the water in Brooklyn, a woman went into labor and gave birth to a child who would later become the nightclub-loving illusionist David Blaine.  The World Trade Center and David Blaine — born on the same day!


New York City’s “stripped and abandoned” car crisis

The fate of an automobile at Breezy Point, 1973 (Courtesy US National Archives)

The abandoned car, that most dramatic symbol of urban blight, is a sight that has pretty much vanished from most New York City streets. (Most, not all.)  In a city refitted for the automobile by the mid 20th century, people just began leaving their cars everywhere, either vandalized beyond repair or too expensive to tow when their vehicles became unusable. These husks of metal were scavenged for parts, then left to rust, the city’s sanitation crews unable to keep pace of the growing problem.

I recently found an intriguing article in New York Magazine from 45 years ago, titled “Stripped and Abandoned,” outlining the causes of the city’s sudden population of vehicular remains:

“Last year, by Department of Sanitation records, 31,578 cars were abandoned in New York City.  Some were wrecks; some were stolen, then stripped; some were involved … in minor highway mishaps which caused their owners to leave them — to expert instant strippers, who evidently abound.”

By 1969, the problem had grown so unwieldy that the city hired third-party contractors to take care of most of it, but its budget for such removal would only shrink as the city entered the hard-knock 1970s.  Within a few years, the city would not even bother to remove such blight from certain neighborhoods.

“At any one time,” wrote author Fred Ferretti in 1969, “there are about 2,000 cars strewn about the highways and local streets.”

Below: From the New York Magazine article, the fate of a vehicle in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side (photos by Robert D’Alessandro):

In 1970, standing in stark contrast to a city of polluted, automotive remains, one artist at the very first Earth Day celebration in Union Square attempted to address the problem.  A crushed sedan sat alongside the environmental merriment with a sign: “57,742 Cars Removed in 1969; 21,635 Removed in 1970, as of April 21.”  The New York Times would later note a total of 72,961 abandoned cars in 1970. [source] [source]

They weren’t just eye sores.  What wasn’t pilfered or siphoned out was left to rot in the elements, leaking oil, attracting vermin.

New York City was only one problem spot within a new American crisis, with millions and millions of cars across the country already overfilling scrap yards.  Here, however, it was a harbinger of hard times on the way.

“Everywhere you look, there are abandoned cars, stripped and junked,” said one resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, returning to his deteriorating neighborhood in 1970.

A car almost completed ingested by Jamaica Bay, 1973  (Courtesy US National Archives)

Abandoned vehicles became the New York Sanitation Department’s biggest issue in the 1970s, although by the new decade, there was some improvement.  According to a New York Times article from 1981:

“Total abandoned-car collections declined from more than 79,000 in 1978 to 33,112 last year and to 14,900 in the first half of this year, officials said. Robert Hennelly, chief of cleaning operations, said he thought the drop was ”perhaps because the cost of cars has gotten so high that people are holding on to them longer.”

Some cynically still considered the abandoned vehicle to be a recognizable mark of New York City, even in the 1980s, a sort of native animal.

Not that an abandoned car couldn’t have some useful purpose, as this picture by Camily Jose Vergara illustrates. (Click here for more of his terrific photography)

With the general infrastructural improvement of the city during the 1990s, the beast had receded somewhat from view in most neighborhoods.  There are still abandoned cars galore — here’s the city’s current policy for reporting derelict vehicles — but few are so unscrupulously picked clean or left to decay into a rusty shell.

Below: As with the others above, Jamaica Bay 1973, near JFK Airport (US National Archives)

Movin’ On Up: A skewed history of New York City as depicted by the opening themes of 1970s TV shows

The camera zooms over the New York City skyline as an earnest pop tune — usually devoid of any rhythm or edginess, but insanely catchy — descends as though sent from outer space.

The next shot focuses on one particular landmark, a bridge or a park, letting you know, see we’re not in some television studio in L.A., we’re really here, the Big Apple!

Then the scene abruptly changes to an interior of an office or a flat, uninteresting living room, the cheerful face of a person about to embark into a series of adventures in that very city.  We meet the rest of the cast, a wacky bunch of people, urban people, who find themselves in comedic situations.  The city appears again in the background, but we’re already off with our new friends — the stars of 1970s prime time.

That’s how a great many television programs began during the 1970s. New York City was heavily represented on television during the decade, an easily identified setting that could be depicted in two or three establishing shots before moving on to introduce the stars.

It popped up in no-nonsense crime dramas and sitcoms alike, an almost singular destination for television characters. (After the ‘rural purge‘ of folksy TV shows, there was little room for small-town America;  places like Cincinnati,  MilwaukeeChicago and of course Los Angeles filled out the schedule.)

In reality, New York was entering a dark period of deteriorating public services, high crime and financial woes. While television news would often dramatically reflect this image out to America, television entertainment would do the opposite.  Few TV series of the period accurately reflected New York’s troubles outside of a few occasional crime dramas and action shows (like 1977’s Amazing Spiderman, at right).

Of course, most television shows about New York City in the 1970s were actually filmed in Los Angeles. And you couldn’t fault sitcom creators for wanting to eschew real-life troubles that would distract from their clean and cheerful worlds of comic misunderstandings.  Even great detective shows like Kojak pulled their punches, largely because reality was often too graphic to present in prime time.

But an alternate world emerges from watching a series of television intros from the 1970s, pulled from top sitcom and dramas of the period.  New York City is essentially Midtown and Central Park (but for the few shows that ventured into the other boroughs), glamorous and utterly harmless, without edge.

And in those few shows that did exploit the city’s dangerous side, the intros made clear — through artistically rendered graphics — that the danger was merely of the pulp variety.

A Woman’s Playground
Many shows of the decade presented Manhattan as an aspirational destination, especially for women, even as thousands of people in real life fled the city.  Television was finally focusing on the adventures of single women, but to do so, New York had to be depicted as nearly flawless.

The iconic example of this is ‘That Girl’ starring Marlo Thomas.  In this 1970 opener, New York is nothing but glamour, shopping, Lincoln Center and Broadway.

The lousy sitcom On Our Own, New York’s variant of Laverne & Shirley, opens with a couple of crazy gals heading to their job at an advertising agency.  The intro actually features a bit of physical violence against one woman, played up for laughs!

Not every show was so blind to the rough edges of New York.  But it required a tough lady like Rhoda, a native New Yorker, to maneuver all those sliding locks and tough-talking cabbies. (The third season intro is below, but the first season intro is probably the more memorable one.)

The Hustle-and-Bustle
As with the On Our Own intro, many workplace comedies chose to contrast their wacky interior antics with the frenetic urban rhythms of New York City.  It’s as though the comedy you were about to see generates from walking through the crazy, chaotic streets of Midtown.

The intro to the Garment District comedy Needles and Pins ratchets the enthusiasm of That Girl‘s intro down to a quiet, confident strut. Yeah, I work here.

A variation of the buzzing energy of New York City being a impetus for comedy is seen in the intros for Saturday Night Live, even to this day.

The Taxi City
One identifying symbol of New York is the taxicab or, more specifically, the cabbie. While films like Taxi Driver were putting an ominous spin on this image, television still relied on the cab as shorthand for the modern urban experience.

And if you could somehow combine it with a basketball court — as with Busting Loose — then you know it’s really, really New York.

The taxi is a vehicle of love in the romantic comedy Bridget Loves Bernie.  There’s no way to see this today as anything other than slightly creepy.  This extended intro ticks off all the boxes — cabs, school yards, the Queensboro Bridge, Central Park….

Taxis were so representative of the New York experience that one of the era’s greatest sitcoms was centered around the industry. Taxi survived well into the 1980s showing a more realistic version of New York than other shows of the day.

It also features the Queensboro Bridge, a heavily used symbol for the expanse of the city.  Since shows of the period rarely went downtown, the Queensboro could sit in for the Brooklyn Bridge when long vistas of the East River were required.  (Taxi actually did go downtown; it was set in a garage at Charles and Hudson Streets.)

The Outer Borough
Television shows often went to the other boroughs when they wanted to express the clashes of modern life, contrasted against a more suburban backdrop which many Americans could more easily identify.

Most everybody knows the iconic theme song from All In The Family as delivered by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton.  What you may not remember is yet another establishing shot of Manhattan, used to contrast with the rows of Queens homes.  In these few seconds, the intro excellently sets up the conflicts of modernity, a quiet residential present, and a duo that seem stuck in a sheltered past.

The same sort of pull-away from Manhattan is used in O’Connor’s follow-up series, Archie Bunker’s Place, which yanks the viewer away from the skyline, back over the Queensboro Bridge and down Northern Boulevard.  Archie has changed since those years at the piano, and so have his surroundings.  The blocks of uniform homes have been replaced with subway graffiti and bustling street life.

13 Queens Blvd went even deeper into Queens but still relied on the establishing shot of Manhattan to let viewers know how far we are from real urban issues. The show’s situations were driven by the comic misunderstandings within an apartment complex, a little like One Day At A Time (set in Indianapolis) or Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) perhaps. The show didn’t last long.

Brooklyn was represented in the 1970s by Welcome Back Kotter.  Set in a fictional high school, it is New Utrecht High School that’s used in the opening.  While other sitcoms used a Manhattan establishing shot, Kotter prefers a beat-up sign that announces Brooklyn as the 4th largest city in America.  With its painted trains and lines of laundry, this might be the grittiest depiction of New York in a sitcom, even as its high school students (the Sweathogs) were incredibly unrealistic.

Movin’ On Up
Mostly though, sitcoms preferred the fantasy, Manhattan as an Emerald City. (It was literally depicted as such in the 1970s musical The Wiz.)  No amount of deterioration seemed to supplant the image of Manhattan as having ‘made it’, especially when dealing with African-American television characters.

Taxis are again the vehicle of transformation in The Jeffersons, plucking George and Louise Jefferson from the land of Archie Bunker — again, using the Queensboro Bridge — and putting them in a luxury accommodation on the Upper East Side.

Two African-American boys are saved by a wealthy white man in Diff’rent Strokes.  For emphasis in the intro, Arnold and Willis are playing basketball, the de facto symbol in 1970s television of the inner city.

I don’t know if the show was any good, but the intro to the 1970 sitcom Barefoot In The Park seems refreshing in retrospect.  The show, based on the Broadway show, features a young black couple trying to make it though the first years of marriage in Manhattan.  It seems to handle the subject with the same euphoria used in ‘That Girl’.

They’re riding a horse-and-carriage drinking champagne!  It literally does not get cheesier.

De-Glamorized New York
There were a few shows that felt embedded within the actual New York experience. Their intros reflect a certain melancholy, a feeling that perhaps the city was not always a whirlwind of breezy excitement. The champagne remains corked.

Barney Miller is one of the few shows actually set in Greenwich Village. Perhaps as a result, its establishing shot of Manhattan is moody, even dreary, a perfect backdrop for a comedy television show about criminal behavior.

In the opening to The Odd Couple, New York is an embodiment of its characters’ anxieties and differences.  There is no establishing shot of Manhattan, no attempt to glamorize the big city.  These two are actually at odds with the city, not each other, as presented here.  The intro ends with a rare pan-up of the two characters with the city looming behind them.


The Wild East
In an opposite reaction to rural shows like Green Acres (where people fled New York), a maverick sensibility came to New York in the 1970s, especially in the detective genre, with iconoclastic characters bringing foreign forms of justice to an ungoverned city.

On McCloud, a New Mexico detective wrangles up a few pimps and car thieves, bringing fun but clumsy cowboy tropes to Times Square.  Unlike sitcoms, detective dramas actually went to 70s Times Square all the time for obvious reasons.  Although most did not bring stagecoaches with them.

Another bizarre crime-fighter to the New York skyline was the Amazing Spider-Man. We get a Manhattan establishing shot here, comically interrupted by Spiderman’s awful costume.  They spend a great amount of time with Spidey on the Empire State Building; in fact most of the show was filmed in L.A.

You didn’t even need a reason to bring in a cowboy. In the 1970 sitcom Mr Deeds Goes To Town, a folksy newspaper editor takes on the big city. The intro lays it on thick.

Groovy 70s Noir
A few crime dramas of the 1970s were actually filmed in New York City and thus could highlight the city a bit more fully in their intros.

The short-lived television version of Serpico features numerous places throughout the city, from the Battery to Times Square. And, yes, the Queensboro Bridge is again represented here via its subway stop.

New York’s greatest television crime fighter of the 1970s was Kojak, so cool that the city is given a trippy noir vibe, peeking from the nooks of swirling graphics.  Of course most of Kojak was filmed in Los Angeles, but, according to writer Burton Armus, the production crew went to New York on occasion for “surrounding shots, background shots, one or two scenes.”

Taking its cue from Kojak in its tone, Eischied was also a bit of a cowboy, bringing some Southern swagger to the mean streets of Manhattan. Its credit sequence is a confused mess.


And finally, check out this opening sequence from the 1973 television movie Brock’s Last Case.  It doesn’t really tie in to anything above, but it’s a pretty amazing view of the Brooklyn waterfront.  This is what we lose when we put up things like Brooklyn Bridge Park. Proper places to chase down criminals!