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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning
ON the evening of July 3, 1976, some fifty thousand New Yorkers sat on blankets in Central Park's Sheep Meadow eating picnic dinners, drinking wine, waving red, white, and blue sparklers, and listening to Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic in a surging birthday concert for the United States of America.
The next day, a Sunday, dawned bright and brisk. Millions of people set out early to secure spots along the waterfront, crowding onto the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn or staking out space on the West Side Highway, the pockmarked stretch of crumbling concrete and rusting steel that had been closed to traffic for two years now, ever since an elevated portion of the road had collapsed under the weight of a city dump truck loaded with asphalt. The water was scarcely less congested. Thousands of boats jockeyed for space in the New York Harbor, from yawls to sloops to runabouts. It was a forest of masts and sails, "an unbroken bridge of small craft that reached from the shores of Brooklyn to the coast of New Jersey," as the lead story in Monday's New York Times described it. Some boats dipped in and out of view in the chop; others circled idly, their sails bent against the breeze, waiting for the parade to begin.
It began promptly at 11 a.m., when the three-masted Coast Guard bark slipped under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Fireboats sprayed plumes of red, white, and blue water. Cannons boomed. One by one, an armada of tall ships chugged north against the Hudson's current and a downstream wind: the Danmark (Denmark), the Gorch Fock (West Germany), the Nippon Maru (Japan), the Dar Pomorza (Poland), and on and on.
New York's five-foot two-inch Democratic mayor, Abraham Beame, watched the whole spectacle through his Coke-bottle-thick horn-rimmed glasses from the ninety-foot-high flight deck of the host ship, the gargantuan aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. By his side wasnone other than President Gerald Ford, who had only days earlier reversed his position and conceded to loan New York City five hundred million dollars--enough, for the moment anyway, to stave off bankruptcy. When the show was over, Beame, who was wearing a light blue seersucker suit and USS Forrestal cap, boarded a Circle Line craft that had been hired out to ferry dignitaries to the nearby shore. The boat strayed into the wrong channel and was seized by the Coast Guard. Beame laughed off his rotten luck, as did his wife, Mary. "If they put him in the brig," she joked, "it'll be the first vacation he's had since running for mayor!"
Darkness ushered in the biggest fireworks display in the city's history, thirty minutes of thudding guns and streaking rockets fired from Liberty Island, Ellis Island, Governors Island, and three separate barges. The splashes of color against the night sky were visible for fifteen miles around. Transistor radios were tuned to local stations, which played snippets of great American addresses, from Lincoln at Gettysburg to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. After the last chrysanthemum exploded into thousands of beads of light, the crowd turned toward the Statue of Liberty and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a helicopter towing a huge flag made up of thousands of red, white, and blue lightbulbs floated overhead.
Nobody wanted the party to end. Fortunately, there was another one just around the corner, the thirty-seventh Democratic National Convention. The last two--Chicago '68 and Miami '72--had been notoriously rancorous, but this one was guaranteed to be a love fest. The party's presidential candidate, the genteel Jimmy Carter, had already been anointed, and the city was primping for its close-up. Special repair crews were sent out to patch potholes in midtown, the Transit Authority changed its cleaning schedule to ensure that key stations would be freshly scrubbed for the delegates, and more than a thousand extra patrolmen and close to one hundred extra sanitation men were assigned to special convention duty. With the help ofa hastily enacted antiloitering law, the police even managed to round up most of the prostitutes in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden. New York's holding cells were overflowing, but its streets were more or less hooker-free. A red, white, and blue crown glowed atop the Empire State Building.
Come opening night, July 12, the Garden was stuffed to capacity. Beame, who had been the first big-city mayor to throw his support behind the ex-governor of Georgia, welcomed the throngs to "Noo Yawk" in his Lower East Side monotone and then proceeded to hammer the administration of his erstwhile shipmate. "It has been Noo Yawk's misfortune, and the misfortune of this entire nation, that the very men who should have been healing and uniting this land have chosen instead to divide it!" the Mighty Mite thundered.
That night Rolling Stone magazine threw a big bash for Carter's campaign staff at Automation House on the Upper East Side. A month earlier the magazine had splashed Hunter S. Thompson's maniacal twenty-five-thousand-word profile of Carter--JIMMY CARTER AND THE GREAT LEAP OF FAITH--on its cover, thus sewing up the youth vote for the Democratic candidate. (Thompson insisted that the article wasn't an endorsement, but you would have to have been high to read it as anything less.) Pious Christian that he was, Carter may not have been rock 'n' roll ready--in a few years' time, a disillusioned Hunter would be comparing him to a high school civics teacher--but he'd do in a pinch. At least his campaign team, which included the likes of Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan, and Pat Caddell, passed for young and hip, especially for a magazine that was aspiring to get out of head shops and onto newsstands.
The party was the hottest ticket in town, a strictly A-list affair--the drugs were to be contained to the bathrooms and closets--to which only an elite five hundred had been invited. Thousands more, including dozens of congressmen, turned up. The party started at 11 p.m. By midnight the doors had been barred, and taxis and limousines were still disgorging hundreds more. Lauren Bacall,Senator Gary Hart, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Warren Beatty, Carl Bernstein, Nora Ephron, Ben Bradlee, and Katharine Graham all were stuck outside, vainly brandishing their invitations. The scene inside was a little more subdued, as the Establishment (Walter Cronkite) mingled seamlessly with the anti-Establishment (John Belushi). At 3 a.m. the landlord of Automation House, the labor lawyer Ted Kheel, asked the magazine's thirty-one-year-old founding father, Jann Wenner, for a couple thousand dollars to keep the party going. Wenner shouted at Kheel for a few minutes before writing another check, and the booze continued to flow into Monday morning.
It was a bleary crew at the Garden that night, when the Democratic Party adopted a platform that promised, among other things, a "massive effort" to help New York. Twenty-four hours later Jimmy Carter was nominated. As the convention drew to a close, delegates, well-wishers, surely even some reporters sang along to "We Shall Overcome."
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BRONX IS BURNING. Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Mahler. All rights reserved.