“Rather than pining for an imagined utopian past, 1970s enthusiasts yearn for the emblems of ‘Fear City,’ the symbols of dystopia”
If cleanliness is next to godliness, then New York City in the 1970s was practically satanic. Rank with rotting garbage, the streets teemed with rats. When David Johansen, the lead singer of the proto-punk group New York Dolls, shouted, “Trash, go pick it up!” on their 1973 single “Trash,” he wasn’t being figurative. Sanitation workers were being laid off; so were cops and other public servants. The days of post-war plenty were gone: unemployment was rising and the rich were making for the suburbs. Crime got so bad that the city was regularly compared to a war zone—and with periodic bombings by the FALN, the Puerto Rican paramilitary organisation, it sometimes felt like one. By 1975 New York City was almost bankrupt and Mayor Abraham Beame was forced to ask for a federal bail-out. President Ford’s response was curt. The headline in New York’s Daily News summed it up: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
New York did, at least, have one vocal admirer in 1975. That spring, David Byrne, the intense, twitchy singer of the new wave band Talking Heads, wrote a song called “Love -> Building on Fire.” The title was topical: a few months earlier, a fire had raged for 15 hours in New York Telephone’s central offices on 2nd Avenue. And as more and more firefighters lost their jobs, fires became increasingly common across the city. Manhattan got off lightly; as of June 1975, there had been 5,500 recorded cases of arson in the South Bronx in just 17 months. Byrne’s song, normally referred to as “Love Goes to Building On Fire,” was a defiant tribute to the Big Apple.