“Stay away from New York City if you possibly can”
was the stark warning that greeted visitors
40 summers ago —
courtesy of a mysterious “survival guide” that
symbolizes one of the weirdest, most turbulent
eras in the city’s history
Travellers arriving at New York City’s airports in June 1975 were greeted with possibly the strangest object ever handed out at the portal to a great city: pamphlets with a hooded death’s head on the cover, warning them, “Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can.”
“Welcome to Fear City” read the stark headline on these pamphlets, which were subtitled “A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York.” Inside was a list of nine “guidelines” that might allow you to get out of the city alive, and with your personal property intact.
The guidelines painted a nightmarish vision of New York; one that made it sound barely a cut above Beirut, which then had just been engulfed in Lebanon’s civil war. Visitors were advised not to venture outside of midtown Manhattan, not to take the subways under any circumstances, and not to walk outside anywhereafter six in the evening.
They were also instructed to engrave their possessions with special metallic pens, to clutch their bags with both hands, to hide any property they might have in their cars, and not even to trust their valuables to hotel vaults. “Hotel robberies have become virtually uncontrollable, and there have been some spectacular recent cases in which thieves have broken into hotel vaults.” And oh, yes: visitors should try “to avoid buildings that are not completely fireproof” and “to obtain a room that is close by the fire stairs”.
Tourists must have been baffled, if not horrified. They might have been even more shaken had they known that the men in casual clothes handing them these strange, badly set little pamphlets – with their funereal black borders and another death’s head leering at them inside next to the smirking wish “Good luck” – were members of New York’s police forces.
“A new low in irresponsibility,” fumed New York’s embattled mayor at the time, Abe Beame, who sent the city’s lawyers into court to try to ban distribution of the pamphlet. They failed. Justice Frederick E Hammer agreed that the members of “New York’s Finest” distributing the pamphlet were violating “a public trust” – but ruled that this was a “reasonable dissemination of opinion” under the US constitution, even if it struck at the heart of public confidence.
Near panic ensued. The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau immediately dispatched emissaries armed with slideshow presentations to London, Paris, Frankfurt and Brussels, to “prove” to European travel agents just how attractive the Big Apple still was. Tourism was one of the city’s few remaining industries, still drawing 10.5 million visitors to the city each year, despite reports of massive city budget cuts.
“Those comments don’t get broadcast outside New York,” worried the bureau’s president Charles Gillett, as he announced the dispatch of his goodwill ambassadors. “But ‘Fear City’ – that went out to the whole world.”
Residents of South Bronx play cards in an abandoned cafe – the Bronx, bastion of upper-middle-class living until the mid-60s, burned regularly a decade later.
New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s is surely one of the weirdest moments in the history of the city – indeed, of the United States. It was a time when the wholesale disintegration of the largest city in the most powerful nation on earth seemed entirely possible. A time when the American president, Gerald Ford – egged on by his young chief of staff, one Donald Rumsfeld – sought not to succor New York but to deliberately shame and humble it, and perhaps even replace it as the world’s leading financial centre.
Reportedly one million Fear City pamphlets were printed for distribution, with a further million on order if those ran out. The pamphlets were to be followed up with a couple of equally alarmist tracts, entitled “If You Haven’t Been Mugged Yet” and “When It Happens to You …” aimed at New York residents. They were produced and to be distributed by something called the Council for Public Safety, an umbrella group of 28 unions of “the uniformed services”, representing some 80,000 police and corrections officers, plus the city’s firefighters – all infuriated by the city’s plans to lay off thousands of their members.
I remember the New York of that era well, having arrived to start college there in 1976 and never left. The city was compelling in its contradictions: a vibrant and very cheap place to live, it attracted talented young people in droves. It was also coming apart at the seams.
Many of the warnings in the Fear City pamphlet were, of course, ludicrous exaggerations or outright lies. The streets of midtown Manhattan weren’t “nearly deserted” after six in the evening, and they were perfectly safe to walk on. The city hadn’t “had to close off the rear half of each [subway] train in the evening so that the passengers could huddle together and be better protected”. There were still many safe and secure neighborhoods outside Manhattan, and there was neither a spate of “spectacular” robberies nor deadly fires in hotels.
The pamphlet read like one more piece of the dystopia porn then filling American cinemas; these were the years of Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Marathon Man, Escape from New York, Death Wish and The Warriors, to name a few. Jaded New Yorkers quickly turned the cover of Fear City into a tee-shirt, sold back to tourists in souvenir shops alongside other classics such as the “Welcome to New York” shirt – with its image of a .45 handgun and the charming instruction, “Now Hands Up, Motherfucker!”
Yet a frightening truth lurked beneath much of the pamphlet’s calamity howling. Crime, and violent crime, had been increasing rapidly for years. The number of murders in the city had more than doubled over the past decade, from 681 in 1965 to 1,690 in 1975. Car thefts and assaults had also more than doubled in the same period, rapes and burglaries had more than tripled, while robberies had gone up an astonishing tenfold.
It’s difficult to convey just how precarious, and paranoid, life in New York felt around that time. Signs everywhere warned you to mind your valuables, and to keep neck chains or other jewelry tucked away while on the subway. You became alert to where anyone else might be in relation to you, augmented by quick looks over your shoulder that came to seem entirely natural.
I knew few people who had been mugged or worse, but everyone I knew had suffered the violation of a home break-in. Worst was the idea that anything could happen, anywhere, at anytime. Female colleagues working in midtown routinely found their handbags had somehow been rifled during lunch hours, their credit cards and wallets gone.
While watching a movie once in an uncrowded theatre, my wife-to-be looked over to see her handbag moving on the seat beside her. A man had crawled down an aisle, crouched behind her chair, and was rummaging through her bag with his hand. Discovered, he simply ran out through the fire door. All the manager could do was shrug, and offer us two free tickets.
There was a pervasive sense that the social order was breaking down. Most subway trains were filthy, covered in graffiti inside and out. Often only one – and sometimes no – carriage door would open when they pulled into a station, and in summer they were “cooled” only by the methodical sweep of a begrimed metal fan that just pushed the sordid air about. The trains ran late, and were always crowded; their denizens included chain-snatchers, raggedy buskers and countless beggars, including at least two legless individuals, maneuvering with remarkable agility between the cars on their wheeled boards.
The roads were in no better condition. Public restrooms were almost non-existent; dangerous and dirty when they were available at all. Men could often be seen pissing in the gutter down side-streets. Times Square’s venerable old theatres and spectacular movie palaces were torn down for office buildings or allowed to slowly rot away, showing scratchy prints of cheesy second-run films or pornography, which any casual visitor might have thought was the city’s leading industry.
Countless storefronts advertised live sex acts, X-rated videos, books, costumery and assorted knick-knacks. There were porn theatres even in respectable neighborhoods, and corner newsstands routinely featured a vast array of pornographic magazines, with stunningly brazen acts depicted on their front covers.
Vandalism was incessant, with the expectation that anything not firmly bolted to the ground and covered in some protective coating would be stolen, broken, graffitied, spat on, pissed on, set on fire, used as a shelter, or tossed on to the subway tracks. Public mirrors (in reality, polished metal) were strategically placed by subway staircases so you could glimpse any lurking assailants.
Communities in each of the city’s boroughs were in advanced states of decay. Neighbourhoods, such as East New York or Brownsville in Brooklyn, were regularly compared to Dresden after the second world war. The Bronx, which had been a bastion of desirable upper-middle-class living until the mid-60s, was now burning nightly; once-magnificent apartment houses going up in flames lit by junkies or landlords looking to dispose of buildings they could no longer let or maintain.
Major pieces of infrastructure, such as the East River bridges, were allowed to rust until they were in serious danger of collapse. Grand Central Terminal was nearly lost to developers when Judge Irving Saypol – best known as the attorney who sent the Rosenbergs to the chair, and soon to be indicted on corruption charges himself – overturned the city’s landmark preservation law. Only Jackie Kennedy Onassis, in a handwritten letter, was able to convince Mayor Beame to risk scant city funds on an appeal, asking: “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?”
Beame found the money, and Grand Central was saved on appeal. But the first widow’s anguished words might have served as an epitaph for the era: was it not cruel to let our city die by degrees?
New York, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, had gone broke in the usual way: slowly at first, then all at once. The city was no worse run, nor more corrupt, than it had been through most of its history, but for 10 years it had relied on a disastrous policy of funding its operating budget with short-term debt: Rans (“Revenue Anticipation Notes”), Tans (“Tax Anticipation Notes”) and even Bans (“Bond Anticipation Notes” – that is, notes drawn against future notes). The city’s financing had become so slipshod and haphazard that it no longer even maintained an official set of books. “In New York State, we haven’t found only back-door financing, we’ve got side-door financing,” lamented Governor Hugh Carey.
By early 1975, New York City owed $5bn to $6bn in short-term debt, out of an operating budget of $11.5bn. According to the then-city budget director, Peter Goldmark Jr, “Many people believe there is little or no real security or receivables behind these obligations.” Wall Street bankers, who had enabled much of this reckless behavior, now abruptly refused to take up any more of the city’s notes, leaving it teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
In fairness, New York was still paying out much more than it received in state and federal taxes. It was also expected to pay out a higher share of support to its indigent citizens than any other major American city – and no city had anything like the number of welfare recipients that New York did: over a million by 1975. In the years since the second world war, the poor and the aspiring had flocked to the city just as they always had. What they found, though, were not jobs and hope, but heroin and firearms. The city had lost a million manufacturing jobs since 1945; 500,000 of them since 1969.
New York could no longer serve as both poorhouse and cash machine for the nation. The city turned to Washington for help, asking the federal government to back its bonds while it got its fiscal house in order, by making draconian budget cuts and reforms. It was then that President Ford decided to advance his own political prospects by holding New York up for ridicule to the rest of the nation.
Ford, an accidental president about to face a stiff primary challenge from Ronald Reagan, went before the National Press Club in Washington on 29 October 1975 and called New York’s mismanagement “unique among municipalities through the United States”. He blamed its situation on “high wages and pensions … its tuition-free university system, its city-run hospital system and welfare administration”. Ford insisted that the city’s “day of reckoning” had come, and promised he would “veto any bill that has as its purpose a bailout of New York City to prevent a default”.
The speech provoked the most famous headline in the history of the (usually conservative) New York Daily News, a tabloid boasting the highest circulation of any paper in America at the time. In 144-point type, its front page proclaimed: “Ford to City: drop dead.”
Reagan or no Reagan, Governor Carey – who had just spent a desperate summer fighting to cut New York’s budget to the bone – was baffled by such intransigence from the genial, deal-making Ford. Down in Washington to lobby for a bailout plan, Carey was told why by Melvin Laird, a former US defense secretary under Richard Nixon. “Jerry’s been told by somebody that when New York City collapses, Chicago may become the financial centre of the US,” Laird informed him.
But who could be spreading such nonsense? “Well, Rummy comes from Illinois,” Laird confided. “Rummy – he’s your problem!”
Donald Rumsfeld, then Ford’s 43-year-old chief of staff, was apparently operating under the delusion that Chicago could shortly become the world’s financial centre. Carey would have to look elsewhere for help.
New York’s budget cuts fell heaviest on the city’s public workforce. In May 1975, Mayor Beame had announced severe reductions in salaries, pensions and working conditions, plus the layoff of 51,768 city workers – more than one-sixth of its employees – with the proviso that these cuts might be averted if all the city’s workers agreed to work four days a week, for a commensurate salary.
But the municipal unions were not in a giving vein. Their members had borne the brunt of the social chaos over the past 10 years: workers in public hospitals had dealt with hundreds of thousands of heroin junkies; subway workers had got their deteriorating, antique trains back out on the rails every day, 24 hours a day. The police had engaged in almost open warfare with the Black Panthers and other would-be revolutionaries. Firefighters rushed to thousands of false alarms, and were repeatedly bombarded with bricks and garbage, or even shot at, while they tried to keep the city from burning.
“The mayor has a right to discuss a four-day week. Let him discuss it as a monologue,” responded Victor Gotbaum, the feisty executive director of District Council 37 (DC37), an amalgam of some 60 union locals representing 110,000 workers in different lines of work. Albert Shanker, the even more belligerent leader of the city’s largest teachers’ union – already lampooned in Woody Allen’s sci-fi comedy Sleeper as the man who set off the third world war – demanded a 21% raise for his members, saying he would rather see the city go bankrupt than give in.
The most audacious and ruthless tactics, however, would come from the uniformed employee unions of the Council for Public Safety. The vast majority were police – especially the roughly 40,000 members of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the rank-and-file street cops who were scheduled to suffer nearly 11,000 layoffs.
“Cops tend to like to hit back a little,” Richie Steier – editor of The Chief, a newspaper for New York’s municipal employees – told me recently. Steier expressed some sympathy about the cuts the police were facing, but allowed: “They’re not big on diplomacy. It’s a volatile union.”
In 1966, the New York Police Department had defied Mayor Beame’s predecessor, John Lindsay, and won a bitter fight against the appointment of an independent review board with a racially tinged campaign that included lurid adverts depicting a terrified young white woman standing alone by a darkened subway station.
The new head of the PBA, Ken McFeeley, decided on a similar tactic: “Fear City”. McFeeley, a broad-chested, 36-year-old Navy veteran, had been on the force for 13 years before being elected head of the association, most recently driving a patrol car around the crime-infested Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The creation of Fear City was “strictly McFeeley and the PBA”, Steier said, quoting one former city union commissioner. Certainly it was McFeeley, and McFeeley almost alone, who was willing to become the public face associated with the pamphlet. Urging business leaders to stop the police cuts, it looked for a long moment as if his defiance might carry the day.
On 30 June 1975, the city laid off an initial 15,000 workers, including thousands of cops and 1,600 firefighters – 20% of the city’s entire force. Some 26 fire companies were simply disbanded. By September, 45,000 workers had been laid off – and the unions reacted with rage.
Ten thousand municipal workers demonstrated in front of First National City Bank, whose arch right-wing president, Walter Wriston, had led the bankers in demanding city cutbacks. McFeeley’s cops held a mass demonstration around city hall, blocking traffic and letting the air out of motorists’ tires when they complained. Highway workers picketed on major roadways during rush hour, while bridge workers cranked up three of the city’s drawbridges and simply walked away.
Garbagemen staged a two-day wildcat strike that left 48,000 tons of trash to mellow in the June breezes. On the picket lines they yelled, “This isn’t Fear City, it’s Stink City!” Shanker’s teachers staged a one-week strike at the start of the school year in September, after the city laid off 7,000 teachers. They marched with signs that read, “Fear City, Stink City and now, Stupid City.”
Yet the tide had already begun to turn. Most of New York’s municipal unions condemned or distanced themselves from the Fear City campaign, including the unions representing police sergeants, lieutenants and captains. When the PBA won the right to distribute its Fear City pamphlets, Sergeant Harold Melnick, head of the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association, told the press “it’s time that reason took over”, adding that everyone “recognised an obligation to the City of New York … Most police officers who stop me – 99% – are not happy about the Fear City tactic,” he claimed.
Other unions had also begun to reassess their slash-and-burn tactics. “We could stop the collection of millions of dollars a day, turn off the water supply, pull out the ambulance drivers, leave Coney Island without lifeguards,” ruminated Gotbaum, the DC37 union’s executive director, during the crisis, with a frankness no American union leader would dare voice today. “We could rape the city. [But] to me, this would be disgraceful for any union to do. I never think there’s validity in destroying the city. I really believe that a union has a responsibility to the public.”
Soon, even McFeeley and the PBA backed off. After a day or two, the pamphleteering ceased. Plans to hand out Fear City at train and bus stations were never implemented, though the threat remained. Instead of destroying New York City, the unions ended up saving it.
Where the banks and federal government baulked, Gotbaum and other union leaders persuaded their members to throw $2.5 billion in pension funds – often their entire savings for old age – behind the city’s bonds. If the city still went bust, there was a chance they would lose it all.
Throughout the morning of 17 October 1975, a car idled dramatically outside City Hall, waiting to rush out legal documents officially declaring New York bankrupt. Gotbaum and others sought to persuade the teachers’ union boss Shanker to stack the nearly half-billion dollars of teachers’ pension funds behind the city’s bonds, too (there were rumours that the bearish Gotbaum had threatened to throw him out of an eighth-storey window if he didn’t go along). In fact, Shanker had already begun to pull in his horns, getting his teachers to go back to work even though the city only restored 4,500 of the 7,000 positions it cut, telling them, “A strike is a weapon you use against a boss that has money. This boss has no money.”
The union leaders and government officials negotiated hurriedly in the Manhattan apartment of longtime city powerbroker Richard Ravitch, absently devouring slabs of matzoh, the only thing they could find to eat, and scattering the crumbs all over the carpet. At one in the afternoon, “the matzoh summit” broke up when Shanker declared simply, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
The city was saved – for the time being.
Governor Carey, meanwhile, was seeking out other pressure points to use on Jerry Ford; some of these would be found abroad. In London, the Times newspaper called Ford’s position denying aid to New York City an “act of monumental folly”. At the International Monetary Fund’s October 1975 summit in Washington, Ford reportedly approached the West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and asked amiably, “How’s the Bundesbank? How’s the mark?” only to be told: “Mr President, never mind the Bundesbank or the mark. If you let New York go broke, the dollar is worth Scheiße!”
Schmidt went on to announce publicly that a New York default would have “a domino effect, striking other global financial centers such as Zurich and Frankfurt”. At a later summit in France, the French president Giscard d’Estaing joined Schmidt in insisting that the bankruptcy of New York “would be seen as the bankruptcy of America”.
At home, public sentiment seemed to shift. Polls showed nearly 70% of Americans supporting some kind of aid for New York, as long as the city balanced its budget and taxpayers outside New York didn’t have to foot the bill. In late November 1975, Ford urged Congress to pass a bill making $2.3bn a year available for three years to New York in direct loans. It quickly passed and was signed into law by the president.
The federal credit line was vital to restoring financial confidence in New York City. But it mollified no one: not Reagan conservatives, and not New Yorkers. The following year, the city handed presidential candidate Jimmy Carter – whose local adverts included the line, “I’ll never tell the people of the City of New York to drop dead” – a majority of more than 700,000 votes over Ford. This was more than twice Carter’s narrow margin of victory in New York State, whose 41 electoral votes put him in the White House.
Twenty-five years later, Ford was still insisting to a former aide to Hugh Carey, “I never said ‘New York City, drop dead’.” But New Yorkers knew better.
The city would not go bankrupt, but years of austerity and cutbacks still lay ahead, many of them imposed on the same men and women whose sacrifices had just rescued the city. Those city workers who kept their jobs generally lost their cost-of-living raises, at a time when inflation reached 16% to 18%. The NYPD shrank from more than 42,000 police officers to less than 27,000 by 1990 – the same year that murders in New York reached a record high at 2,245. The bitterness lingered as well. When a blackout set off a riot of looting and mayhem in the summer of 1977, some 10,000 cops – 40% of the off-duty force – ignored orders to report for duty.
“Municipal workers’ wages and pensions never recovered,” claimed Robert Fitch in his 1993 history, The Assassination of New York. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis proved to be a great boon to New York’s elite as the city “got rid of the stock-exchange tax, halved the personal income tax, and set the real-estate tax at a record low”.
Today, New York City is a vastly different place than it was 40 years ago: cleaner, brighter, safer, more orderly – and richer. According to the US Census, its population is close to a record 8.5 million people – up by more than 300,000 since 2010. Once destitute and crime-ridden neighbourhoods such as Crown Heights, or Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, are rapidly being gentrified – something that would have seemed unimaginable in the days of Fear City.
Other neighborhoods, such as the High Line and the Meat-Packing District, seem to spring up overnight, complete with towering glass residences and chic new shops and restaurants. At times Manhattan looks, and sounds, like a single, gigantic construction site.
Crime here has been dropping exponentially for more than 20 years, making New York one of the safest cities in America. In 2014, murders fell to 328 – according to The New York Times, “The lowest figure since at least 1963, when the Police Department began collecting reliable statistics.” This new “Safe City” is reflected in a huge increase in tourism: there were more than 56 million visitors to New York in 2014, over five times the number that came in 1975.
This February the city set a modern record of 12 straight days without a murder, and crime continues to drop.
And yet, a fear of returning to “the bad old days” appears to linger in the psyche of many New Yorkers of a certain age. The Republican candidate for mayor in 2013, one Joseph Lhota, tried to openly evoke that fear in his campaign. He was trounced, losing by nearly 50 percentage points to a little-known and little-regarded city councilman, Bill de Blasio.
Since then, the local outlet of the Murdoch press and sensationalist TV news programs have trumpeted any uptick in crime or social disorder, especially since the city ended its police’s wildly unconstitutional “stop and frisk” program.
This past February, however, the city set a modern record of 12 straight days without a murder, and crime continues to drop. For better and for worse, New York’s bad old days are not coming back. The average cost of a condominium or apartment in Manhattan is now $1.5m, for instance; no one is about to walk away from such investments the way many people fled their rental apartments in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rather, New York’s main problems today are those of wealth, and its distribution. Thanks to the seemingly endless real-estate boom, some estimate there are as many as one million millionaires in the city – as well as some 85 billionaires. At the same time, more than 21% of the city’s population is living in poverty; about the same proportion as in 1980.
Every mechanism of New York’s current economy widens these disparities. Much like London, the city has suffered the Invasion of the Foreign Building Snatchers: tycoons from around the world scooping up residences as boltholes or tax havens they visit for only a few days each year.
Meanwhile, those apartment and condo owners who are full-time residents routinely join landlords in jacking up commercial rents, driving out beloved small businesses and neighborhood eateries, and reducing the cityscape to a monoculture of faceless chain stores, nail salons, bank branches and overpriced restaurants.
More and more, the new buildings of the super-rich turn their denizens inward, justifying their extortionate prices by offering amenities such as gyms, screening rooms, wine bars and even libraries – and thereby further reducing the street life that any great city depends upon.
There arises, for the first time in its history, the possibility that New York will no longer be a place where talented young people want, or can afford, to go – becoming instead the world’s largest gated community: incalculably wealthy, sterile, and dull. This, surely, would be the real Fear City.