Monday, April 25, 2005

Bronx Bombshells

This review appeared in the Boston Globe on Sunday, April 17, 2005:

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. By Jonathan Mahler. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pp., illustrated, $25.

When Jonathan Mahler, the author of this problematic portrait of a once-great city, was 8 and visited the New York of his father's childhood for the first time, ''it didn't take long to figure out that this wasn't the place I had imagined." Fun City had become Fear City, and the liberal vision that had once opened the golden door to millions now looked like a dead end. Nothing seemed to work any longer: not the government, the schools, the hospitals, or even union labor. Ethnic, class, and racial tensions simmered. The Bronx in particular, home to baseball's greatest franchise and the city's most bitterly disenfranchised, had become the poster child for urban blight.

In 1977, everything in New York seemed to come to a full boil, including a July power blackout that triggered looting and arson. The spectacle of shirtless young men walking the streets carrying televisions and sofas atop their heads horrified the nation yet in retrospect appears to have been a cleansing event, marking the bottom that the city had seemed intent on hitting after decades of lofty vision and abysmal governance. Truly an annus horribilis for New York, 1977 nonetheless provides Mahler with a gold mine of great settings, players, and themes. Was it the city's worst year ever? Though a historian might argue for 1835, 1863, or 1911, the logic of Mahler's choice is compelling.

The rich backdrops include a fiscal crisis, a deliciously dirty mayoral campaign, and bell-jar subcultures from socialite disco at Studio 54 to punk rebellion at CBGB to gay cruising at the West Side piers before the long shadow of AIDS. And as hinted at in the title of the book, there is Yankee Stadium. The tale's players? Oh, so many: Ed Koch, Billy Martin, David Berkowitz (''Son of Sam"), Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner, Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, Reggie Jackson.

Still, the presence of the baseball boys, through contiguity with players in other spheres, hints at an interdisciplinary resonance that fails to materialize through most of the book. While Mahler's intent is for the portraits of the individuals who epitomized New York to create a portrait of the city in its special madness, the author's impressionistic aggregation of points shimmers from afar but disintegrates up close.

What the New York of 1977 wants is a Bosch, not a Seurat. And Mahler is sometimes that infernal sort of landscapist, grabbing a reader's attention and admiration. This is a maddening book, pleasing in its parts, delightful in its evident craft, yet ill conceived and constructed. Viewed from afar, at the proposal stage, this Lego construction -- all edges, neither curves nor sinew -- may have appealed because all the stories took place not only in the same city but in the same year. This approach works for almanacs. But for those who come to the book for its baseball there is too much on mayoral politics; indeed, there is no baseball at all for long stretches, including a long, brilliant section on the anatomy of the blackout but a blackout for the reader who is looking for Thurman Munson. For those who come to the book to learn about mayoral politics and the behind-the-scenes power plays of banking institutions and state and federal governments, there is too much here about baseball.

Although the book is organized chronologically, it still echoes a shoebox of index cards or its computerized equivalent. With no chapter titles, no table of contents, and stunningly no index, the designer was reduced to placing the author's name on every verso page, as if we would forget. Even the photo insert -- with its plethora of grainy, splotchy, thumbnail images -- mirrors the drive to shoehorn in everything of seeming worth.

As one who came to this book with lifelong passions for baseball and the history of New York, I must say that the political portions of the book are superior to the well-trod tales about the Yankees of 1977. In this year when Treasury Secretary William Simon lectured New York on the perils of civic liberalism and President Gerald Ford turned his back on the city's financial plight --the 144-point Daily News headline was ''Ford to City: Drop Dead" -- Mahler depicts the struggles of Koch, Beame, and Cuomo in a tone that is thoughtful, affecting, and sweetly sad. Treated less sympathetically is Abzug, a politician who is remembered today principally for her ability to antagonize: ''Abzug, pure product of old New York that she was, clung stubbornly to her utopianism, convinced that if she shook her broken snow globe hard enough, she could make the flakes fall again." Yet read from this June 1977 campaign speech, as depicted in the book, and say that you don't wish her voice could soar today:

''Almost every day we can read editorials in our leading newspapers telling us not to expect much from City Hall. . . . The people with this outlook say we will continue to lose jobs and population. They say let's encourage the poor to get out of town and let's tear down their neighborhoods. Let's continue to attack the unions because we have to drive down wages. . . . They say let's get rid of free tuition and the municipal hospital system, shut down child care centers, senior centers, libraries and fire stations. . . . That's not my vision, and I know it's not yours. You have invested too much of yourselves, too much sweat, time and thought into our city to settle for a spiral of further cutbacks and reduced services that will only hasten the decline of New York."

New York has rebounded since its nadir of 1977, but as what? As a glittering international city, obsessed with money and celebrity as never before. The Gotham that I love, the one transformed from the underside of the Gilded Age to a ''paradigm of New Deal plenty," in Mahler's phrase, left town not long after the Dodgers and the Giants, in 1958. So ''Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning" is something of a bittersweet celebration of the new New York, in which liberal icons like Abzug and Cuomo seem losers while the heroes are a formerly liberal mayor, a carpetbagger from Cleveland, and ballplayers and bankers in pinstripes. Some rebound.

--John Thorn


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