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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning

1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

Jonathan Mahler


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning Download image

ISBN10: 0312424302
ISBN13: 9780312424305

Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book
A National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award Finalist

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning is a detailed account of a year in the life of a city, when baseball and crime reigned supreme, and when several remarkable figures emerged to steer New York clear of one of its most harrowing periods.

By early 1977, the metropolis was in the grip of hysteria caused by a murderer dubbed "Son of Sam." And on a sweltering night in July, a citywide power outage touched off an orgy of looting and arson that led to the largest mass arrest in New York City history. As the turbulent year wore on, the city became absorbed in two epic battles: the fight between Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson and team manager Billy Martin, and the battle between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo for the city's mayoralty. Buried beneath these parallel conflicts-one for the soul of baseball, the other for the soul of the city-was the subtext of race. The brash and confident Jackson took every black myth and threw it back in white America's face. Meanwhile, Koch and Cuomo ran bitterly negative campaigns that played upon urbanites' fears of soaring crime and falling municipal budgets.

As deftly and passionately intertwined by journalist Jonathan Mahler, these parallel Big Apple narratives reverberate to reveal a year that also saw the opening of Studio 54, the evolution of punk rock, and the dawning of modern SoHo. As the pragmatist Koch defeated the visionary Cuomo and as Reggie Jackson finally rescued a team racked with dissension, 1977 became a year of survival-but also a year of hope.


Praise for Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning

"Entertaining and illuminating . . . Mahler marshals his evidence well . . . By using the Yankees as a central metaphor for the city's fortunes, Mahler is able to draw a nuanced portrait of this wild year."—Jon Meacham, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"Ambitiously conceived, marvelously told . . . Mahler weaves several stories into one grand narrative of the city's death and rebirth. Baseball and politics carry most of the weight. About a third of the book is devoted to the New York Yankees and their quest for lost glory under the volatile Billy Martin, hired as manager by the team's new owner, George Steinbrenner. Another third follows the campaign for the Democratic mayoral nomination, a free-for-all that pitted the hapless [Abe] Beame against Bella Abzug, a fire-breathing progressive known for her bad temper and big hats, and two new faces, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch. Between these two long-running stories, Mahler sandwiches major events that changed the way New Yorkers saw their city and themselves . . . [The book moves] at a cracking pace. [Mahler] has a talent for explaining complicated events economically, and an eye for the telling detail . . . [He] is particularly persuasive on the psychodrama of the Yankees, and the folie à trois that made Martin, Steinbrenner, and Jackson one of the most watchable shows in professional sports. It all comes back, in living color . . . [The book's] set piece on the blackout riots is a tour de force, a lurid Walpurgisnacht blending madness, murderous rage, and surreal comedy . . . Mahler casts his net very wide [and tells his] stories with such skill."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"Mahler depicts the struggles of Koch, Beame, and Cuomo in a tone that is thoughtful, affecting, and sweetly sad."—John Thorn, The Boston Globe

"Terrifically entertaining."—John Podhoretz, New York Post

"Terrific . . . [Mahler has] a novelist's gift for narrative [and] has done a wonderful job of transforming this otherwise painful chapter in the city's history into a compelling read. He allows his oversized characters to stride across the stage, thundering, bellowing, and changing everyone and everything around them. He weaves the strands of a trickily complex narrative deftly, balancing the many moving parts and players with ease and confidence. He shifts easily from baseball to history to political battles, never letting the narrative stall or drag."—Michael Shapiro, The Forward

"Mahler takes a broad view of the landscape, moving deftly from the corridors of power to the neighborhoods . . . A stirring portrait."—David L. Ulin, Newsday

"Compulsively readable . . . For New Yorkers like me, of a certain age, whose lost youth is entangled with the city's time of loss, Mr. Mahler's brisk account will be especially absorbing. He has a fine eye for detail and an unerring instinct for cultural signposts, with the result that his lively and thoughtful narrative makes sense of the scattershot headlines, TV reports, and stoop-front debates that brought us the news in those days. Best of all, he resists the impulse to overburden the various players in his drama . . . with too much metaphorical weight. As a result, Mr. Mahler's innocently emblematic figures careen vividly through their historical moment. We watch as Rupert Murdoch transforms the sleepy New York Post into the journalistic id of that awful time and place. We marvel as Bella Abzug, ever the champion of the downtrodden, adds to their numbers by terrorizing her staff. And we fidget while Mario Cuomo, even then a kind of local Hamlet, plays out his tortured obsession with the death penalty in public. Mr. Mahler is equally adept at capturing such disparate phenomena as the rescue of SoHo from its industrial twilight and the rise of Studio 54 as a nexus of disco and celebrity."—Daniel Akst, The Wall Street Journal

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning is a terrifically entertaining and knowledgeable book about one of the most tumultuous years in the history of New York—both on and off the ballfield. Read it and weep, read it and laugh, for the incomparable circus that was our greatest city."—Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley

"Mahler's rollicking evocation of New York in 1977 [is] full of Runyonesque characterizations, energy, and biting wit. Mahler chooses to portray the city from two alternating perspectives, the bleachers and the political clubhouse, and the result is a stereoscopic image in color of a troubled city in search of itself. With characters like Reggie Jackson and Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch and Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and Jimmy Breslin, the bases are loaded and Mahler smokes it."—Harold Evans, author of They Made America

"Mahler takes us back to one tumultuous year in New York, and through masterful storytelling and rich portraits of the leading characters of the day—Reggie, Billy, Koch, Cuomo, Murdoch, Steinbrenner—reminds us that what defines and ultimately saves a city, in any era, are its outsized citizens. In Mahler's expert hands, they are flawed, fierce, brilliant, bickersome, and as indomitable as the metropolis itself."—Michael Sokolove, author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw

"You begin this book thinking, reasonably, that Bella Abzug, Billy Martin, Son of Sam, and Studio 54 can't possibly occupy the same narrative space, but as Mahler's story of New York circa 1977 unfolds, the disparate gritty elements start to resonate off one another. The result isn't harmony—the city has never known such a thing—but rather what a great book about New York should be: a story that's oversized, blaring, impossible, and true."—Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

"An energetic synthesis of a year in the life of a great city in manic conflict with itself."—Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Catcher Was a Spy

"Sports and politics overlap in an exhibition of municipal excitement in a city that, scarcely a generation ago, was in ferment. New York journalist Mahler vividly recalls the Big Apple's spirit of '77. The city was in a fiscal crisis, with doom, ruin, and Rupert Murdoch pressing forward. There were subway strikes, garbage strikes, and job actions by the city's finest—the police. President Gerald Ford, according to the headlines, invited the metropolis to drop dead. An emergent gay scene, punk rock, Studio 54, and diverse raunchy venues like Plato's Retreat marked New York's special culture. Then, in the sweltering midsummer, came Con Ed's great power blackout, followed by rioting and looting throughout the five boroughs. The newspapers delighted in indigenous characters named Bella Abzug, John Lindsay, Abe Beame, Albert Shanker, and Son of Sam. The epic campaign for the mayor's slot on the Democratic ticket boiled down to Messrs. Koch and Cuomo. Meanwhile, the ineffable Yankees contended with their own epic battle between belligerent manager Billy Martin and self-important slugger Reggie Jackson. And, most cleverly, Mahler devotes a major portion of this chronicle to the period's baseball history. Despite the odds against such a combination being successful, he pulls off an expert historical double play by blending front-page political news and sports-page action. The result recalls the ambient atmosphere of the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, the natural argot of the precinct houses and of the locker rooms of New York just a few years ago. And it's all done with the knowing acumen and street smarts of an old-fashioned beat reporter. With a nice touch for pop culture, Mahler paints an informed picture of a bright city in a dark hour."—Kirkus Reviews

"The strange life of New York City in 1977 is recounted in this kaleidoscopic history. Arguing broadly that that year can be read as 'a transformative moment for the city, a time of decay but of regeneration as well,' Mahler, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, constructs a fast-moving, multilayered narrative that puts the city itself in the starring role . . . Mahler smartly chooses a time frame overflowing with drama: the seemingly endless hunt for the serial murderer 'Son of Sam'; the citywide blackout in mid-July that led to devastating arson and looting; the opening of Studio 54 and the disco craze; the bitter mayoral derby featuring the incumbent, Abe Beame, Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, and the eventual victor, Ed Koch; and the Yankees' first World Series victory in 15 years, despite the collective histrionics of owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and outfielder Reggie Jackson. In many ways, this book is a fascinating prelude to Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Mahler points to 'a new era' after 1977 of idealized capitalism and the subservience of the public good to private interests (one omen: the first Concorde touchdown in New York occurred the day after the '77 World Series victory). Mahler, like Wolfe, understands how characters ranging from a dispossessed arsonist to the titans of business, sports and politics can come to represent an entire city—in its madness, its depravity and its glory."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

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,...

About the author

Jonathan Mahler

Jonathan Mahler, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and The Challenge: How a Maverick Navy Officer and a Young Law Professor Risked Their Careers to Defend the Constitution--and Won.

Copyright Greg Martin

Jonathan Mahler

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