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Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning is a book by Jonathan Mahler that focuses on the year 1977 in New York City. It is 'a layered account', 'kaleidoscopic', 'a braided narrative', that weaves political, cultural, and sporting threads into one narrative. It was first published in 2005, and was the basis for the television drama The Bronx is Burning.


Origins of the phrase

The title borrows from a fragment of television commentary. Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, about an hour before the first pitch, a fire had started in Public School 3, an abandoned elementary school a few blocks west of the Yankee Stadium. By the time ABC began its broadcast at 8 in the evening, flames were licking toward the sky. The network cut to its camera in a helicopter hovering above for an aerial view. "There it is, ladies and gentlemen," announced Howard Cosell, "the Bronx is burning." The main political thread of the book is provided by the 1977 Mayoral election; the main cultural thread is that of the effect of the arrival of Rupert Murdoch on the scene; the main sporting thread is provided by following the fortunes of the New York Yankees.

The book begins by telling of the fiscal and spiritual crisis, as Jonathan Mahler calls it, of the city in the mid 1970s. In political cartoons New York had become a sinking ship, a zoo where the apes were employed as zookeepers, a naughty puppy swatted by a rolled-up newspaper. New York's finances were in need of attention. Less than halfway through Abraham Beame's term as mayor the city was 'careering toward bankruptcy'. And perhaps there were signs that the 'cultural axis' had tilted. In 1972, the Tonight Show had moved from mid-town Manhattan to Burbank, California - the cultural equivalent of the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles - and Johnny Carson would stick the boot in by sprinkling his monologues with reminders of the city's decline. "Some Martians landed in Central Park today...and were mugged."

Baseball thread

The baseball thread of Mahler's book focuses on the New York Yankees. In the 1976 World Series the Yankees had been beaten by the Cincinnati Reds, but had won their first pennant since 1964, and the fans were cheering Billy Martin - back in New York after 18 years. At 47 'he had the look of a rather shopworn Mississippi riverboat gambler.' Martin's cockiness, scrapiness and hunger to win met with a positive response in the South Bronx. And on November 29, 1976, Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees. Mahler compares Jackson, not to Joe Di Maggio but to another Joe - Joe Namath, "both were mini-skirt chasing bachelors, and had confidence to bring the city victory." But all winter the papers filled with speculation about how Reggie and Thurman Munson, the Yankees catcher and captain, were going to get along. Those who knew him described Munson as moody. His friend Sparky Lyle didn't agree: "When you're moody, you're nice sometimes." Mahler looks at the new Yankee dynasty that was forming in '77. Mickey Rivers, Willie Randolph, Reggie..and those close to Martin - Catfish Hunter, Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles. Fran Healy the backup catcher was Reggies only friend on the team. Mahler looks at certain key games - May 23, 1977; Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox, when Reggie Jackson having hit a homer ignored his teammates and manager who had gathered at home plate for the requisite posthomer handshakes. 'I had a bad hand' Reggie said - 'He's a fucking liar' said Munson. June 18, 1977 - the bust-up between Reggie and Martin. August 21, 1977, when Ron Guidry helped push the Yankees past the Baltimore Orioles and within half a game of the Red Sox. Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. The Yankees had got to 3-2 against the Los Angeles Dodgers - "and the teams had become emblematic of the cities for the time being - the friendly easy-going Dodgers, the tired neurotic Yankees - Annie Hall made the same point." In Game 6, Jackson hit 3 home runs, in consecutive at bats, on three pitches.

Cultural thread

The cultural thread of Mahler's book focuses particularly on the impact of Rupert Murdoch. News of Murdoch's purchase of the New York Post broke on 20 November 1976. In 1973 he'd gathered up the San Antonio News and launched the National Star as a 'supermarket tabloid'; now the ailing Post was in his grip. His eyes lighted too on Clay Felker's New York. Murdoch was an active presence in the newsroom according to Mahler's account, writing and rewriting headlines, peering over reporters' shoulders; - he punched up the papers headlines and copy. In March 1977 alone, The Post ran 21 items on Farrah Fawcett-Majors a star of Charlies Angels; stories became shorter, pictures bigger, headlines louder. Within the cultural thread too Mahler writes of the music. "Now is the summer of our discotheques" the journalist Anthony Haden-Guest had written in New York magazine. Studio 54 the discothèque that defined an era of nightlife had opened in April 1977. Paramount Pictures had just begun shooting Saturday Night Fever - by the end of the summer, disco would be America's second largest grossing entertainment business after professional sports. If discos like Studio 54 provided an escape from the ugliness, its punk analog, a dive on The Bowery called CBGB embraced it - Television, Blondie, Patti Smith,Ramones. Broken youth stumbling into the home of broken age wrote Frank Rose in the Village Voice.

In the midst of the various threads Mahler writes too of the Son of Sam and of Wednesday 13 July 1977. A blanket of hot muggy weather had descended on the city and demand for electricity peaked in the middle of the afternoon when air conditioners were rumbling all over the city. Later 'a total urban eclipse' , a major blackout struck - all five boroughs and most of Westchester County were suddenly without power. The looting of 1977 remains the only civil disturbance in the history of NYC to encompass all five boroughs simultaneously, and the 3776 arrests, the largest mass arrest in the city's history.

Political thread

The 1977 mayoral race, and the battle between: Liberal Bella Abzug, born Bella Savitzky in 1920, and grew up in a South Bronx railroad flat; ambitious Ed Koch, born in The Bronx, a middle child of Jewish immigrants from Poland, 'marked down as a Greenwich Village liberal when in fact he was more conservative than that' - the Post endorsed Koch; 'the handsome Mario Cuomo, the candidate of the outer boroughs' , known for his involvement in the 1972 dispute over a public housing project in Forest Hills,and before that the Corona Fighting 69, and pushed into running by Governor Hugh Carey. An Italian kid from working-class Queens, 'he aspired to liberal ideals - but by instinct and impulse he was not a liberal' - he was championed by Jimmy Breslin.

Koch took office on the first day of 1978.



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