Aug 7, 2011

Hugh Carey and the Gotham comeback

Former Governor Carey dies

From the Rotten Apple to the New Big Apple

New York City was an absolute mess in the mid-70's. As a kid who would make those rare treks into the Big Apple for social calls, rock & roll concerts or sporting events, I would mentally prepare for the journey with a mix of fear and excitement. You never knew what you were about to see down there, but you weren't really surprised by anything, either.

As hard as it is to imagine now, given its current gentrified and mass-commercialized state, even midtown was a scary proposition back then. Shady characters roamed like wild dogs, searching for prey and a followup mugging, rip-off or any of the various scams of the day. Pimps, hookers, dealers, junkies, con men, runaways, crazies -- they were everywhere. The Village, often our final destination, was relatively cool, but we'd never dare roam it in anything less than a pack of four and the exits were carefully planned to get us back to our car or Port Authority bus ride.

The outer boroughs were a definite no-no. On the rare occasions when that rule was broken, we would encounter scenes that reminded me of photos of 1945 Berlin that my father brought home from WWII: dilapidated and crumbling buildings as far as the eye could see, abandoned and often ablaze. Violence reigned the streets and the thought that you could be fighting for your life at any moment's drop was a constant mental image.

A legitimate, working economy seemed to be non-existent -- unless you considered the street-level wheeling & dealing to be legitimate. Manufacturing was heading to the air-conditioned south, and the retail and service sectors were fleeing to Long Island and other regional suburban wastelands.

Gotham looked dead in the water. Movies like Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver and (the later) The Bronx is Burning were what the rest of the nation was shown as being the state of the city; and they were all dead-on in those representations.

The shit really hit the fan when it went broke, literally, in '75. The city's balance sheet was so upside down that no lending institution would cover it. The anti-liberal, anti-urban and anti-northeast sentiments of the Nixon and post-Nixon national era made for a perfect storm that gave a big "fuck off and die" to NYC. All bets were off as to what would happen next, and the sequel of Escape From New York could have been shot with live remote cameras situated at random locations throughout the boroughs. Paid actors and designed sets were not needed.

Into the scrum came Governor Hugh Carey. In one of the greatest political acts in the Empire State's history, the aloof and quirky Carey somehow bitch-slapped, cajoled, bullied and hard balled all of the major players in this drama -- bankers, unions, private businesses, state & city legislatures and federal officials -- into putting into place a sensible operating plan coupled with a sensible financial program.

Carey's selling point was pretty simple, while at the same time oh-so-compelling: if this shitshow runs its course and the city goes down, none of you are going to come out on the other side in anything remotely resembling whatever your warm & fuzzy vision of being warm & fuzzy might be all about. It worked, the numbers were made to jive and it got done. Problem solved.

From that point on, New York got a little less spooky on each trip down. When Part One of the desktop computing revolution and other tech-focused industries kicked-in circa 1980, Wall Street was in renaissance mode and the thrill was on. The Big Apple was back from the edge of darkness, and the momentum built upon itself throughout the decade and into the next.

Trips to the Apple for this lad -- who by this time was now firmly entrenched in the biz-ness world -- were now walks in the park and a whole lot of fun to boot. I'd find myself looking for excuses to go down, not just for the ever-present dollar opportunities that were the proverbial hanging fruits, but also for the so-called city fix that rejuvenated one's spirit, soul and ambition. It was because of this that New York became my favorite city in the world. As a bonus, living in the state capital of Albany as I did at that time was also a real good party.

History books tend to simplify the realities of any particular event or era. So, yes, it is too simplistic and intellectually lazy to join the chorus and say "Hugh Carey saved New York city in the 70's." We all know that it was messier and more complex than that.

But as we hear today of Mr Carey's passing, it does make us salute the role he did play in the Great Urban Turnaround.

Furthermore, such reflection gives hope that Upstate New York can someday benefit from the same type of leadership and success story.



Will.I.Was said...

The Port Auth. was the dumping ground for every wasted human life in a 200 mile radius. I once saw a family living in a tent there,

E said...

I used to shoot hoops with his son. You're right about Albany being a great town in the 80's. It sucks now. Albany needs the city comeback.

Anonymous said...

ur right, e.

Raining Iguanas said...

Not surprised the piece got some interest. Honest perspective and interesting look back. Good luck with it.

Bill @ Maine said...

This was good. I didn't pay much attention back in this day. Now I am smarter. Or not as stupid, at least.