No Words Wasted Sale

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City


The Good Old Bad Days

A review by Anna Godbersen

Perhaps because New York figures so prominently in the public imagination, the real New York (whatever that means) always seems to be somewhere in the past; in the '20s, somewhere in Greenwich Village, or, more likely, in the '70s, in some very downtown loft. For anyone who has ever felt this way, here comes Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is Burning, a book as lively and wry as its Howard Cossell-inspired title.

Mahler recreates the city as it was in 1977, giving only what background information is necessary and sparing us an over-lengthy analysis of anything after that year's World Series. This story happens, for the most part, over one hot summer, when New York was still dirty. (Really dirty, and in more than one sense of the word.) As in any summer there is baseball, and the racially-charged enmity between Yankees manager Billy Martin and Yankees superstar Reggie Jackson forms the core narrative of this book. Mahler builds a parallel narrative from the '77 mayoral race, in which wonkish mayor Abe Beame went head to head with doublewide personality Bella Abzug and the then unknowns, fumbling idealist Mario Cuomo and successful pragmatist Ed Koch. Baseball and politics are usurped by two frightening interludes: the July blackout that led to devastating looting in the city's poorest neighborhoods, and the Son of Sam serial killings, which put all disco-dancing brunettes on guard. Other giants walking the asphalt include George Steinbrenner, still the new owner of the Yankees, and Rupert Murdoch, still the new owner of the New York Post (the latter feeding, naturally, on this brewing pot of race, sex, and class).

As these are the early days of Kochs and Steinbrenners and Murdochs, they are bound to be (in hindsight) pivotal moments in an ever-changing city. Mahler knows this, of course, but mostly he just lets us imagine what it looked like from the bottom looking up, when the city was still poor and full of a certain, irrecoverable energy.

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