City living as I’ve described it – green spaces, cafes and endless entertainment possibilities – is the ideal, but there’s often danger lurking in the shadows; sometimes even in broad daylight.
Though New York was a city on the brink in the ’70s, it was still an incredible spectacle for an 18 year-old from England. New York City was a hotbed of bohemia and fringe artistry back then – with actors and musicians living in bare-walled loft apartments and putting on shows in disused buildings – before the real estate developers moved in and rents skyrocketed. The city had this incredibly raw and brash feel to it. You had to be careful to avoid wandering far from the main drag, but as long as you had your wits about you, it was still possible to enjoy what the city had to offer.
There was an undeniable edge of danger about the city at that time though. I did my first trip to New York during the ‘Summer of Sam’ in 1977. It was certainly a jolt of reality for a young English guy, like being transported into an episode of ‘Kojak’.
A serial killer, Son of Sam, was at large in New York City. It’s no exaggeration to say the entire city was considered unsafe back then. There were blackouts, firebombings, a crime wave and rioting in some districts. The city was on its knees financially, virtually bankrupt. Massive potholes in the streets and the police refused to patrol the subway, so a group of vigilantes – the Guardian Angels – provided unofficial protection to folks who were brave enough to use it.
The search for Son of Sam was a mystery that gripped everyone. The killer, David Berkowitz, taunted police and the media, leaving notes for them at the scene of his crimes. The killings went on for over a year. Local newspapers carried headlines saying no-one was safe in the city. Then, in bizarre circumstances involving a parking violation, Berkowitz was finally caught in August 1977.
On my third visit to New York in 1979, I had one unforgettable day that showed how people there were living on a knife edge, literally. It started with a short walk from my apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan to the subway stop at Broadway and 86th Street. As I approached the subway entrance there was a commotion on the street right in front of me.
Just a normal domestic dispute: A man was chasing after his wife or girlfriend brandishing a large kitchen knife. The girl was screaming and in desperation she dashed into the street in front of a passing police car. Then as now, that was the only way for a black person in New York City to get the police to stop and do their job. As she threw herself into the path of the police, the guy with the knife backed off and rushed past me, the knife now shielded on the inside of his arm.
This scene of attempted murder in broad daylight barely registered with the people around me. This was obviously a typical scene in rush hour New York in the 1970s, but I was a little freaked out by it. I’d heard lots of stories about the violence in the city, but had so far managed to avoid it.
My work that day took me downtown to the Wall Street area of Manhattan. My last meeting of the day was an interview with the Commissioner of Insurance for New York State. At the end of our conversation, he asked me how I was enjoying New York. I mentioned the events of my morning commute. He nodded sternly, opened his desk drawer and said, “That’s why I never go anywhere without this!” And banged his revolver down on the desktop.
Now I was seriously freaked out. Still a callow youth by New York standards, this was my first experience of a firearm. No one in England, except country gents and gangsters, had guns. In that moment, it felt like this man would have had no hesitation in firing his pistol if I raised his ire any further. He had that look that said this is no laughing matter and everyone needs a gun to protect themselves. I made a hasty exit and was doubly careful on the way back uptown.
Hampstead, London, August 2021