“101 Things to Love in New York City”: A Look Back at How the City Has Changed Since 1976

101 Things to Love in New York City

It might go without saying that a lot of things have changed in New York since 1976, but, well, we’re going to say it anyway. A lot of things have changed in New York since 1976! For example, back then, the city’s mayor was only 5’2″ whereas now, in 2014, the mayor is 6’5″. That’s called “progress,” and we’re living it. Other things that have skyrocketed that are not related to our elected officials’ heights include real estate prices, Brooklyn’s relevance, and the use of lists in journalism. 

But even though the ubiquity of lists is a relatively recent phenomenon, that doesn’t mean that such august journalistic institutions as the New York Times didn’t at one time occasionally embrace this most relatable (or, at least, easily consumable) method of communicating simple (and at times simplistic) ideas. Last week, Scouting New York discovered a Times list that seems more suited to the BuzzFeed of today than the Gray Lady of today, reducing, as it does, the beauty of New York into “101 things to love.” And just like today’s lists detailing New York’s many wonders, this one (re-printed in full below) is delights in the arcane bits of trivia and obscure references that only New Yorkers would catch, as well as being not a little bit deprecating about the city itself. So, we pretty much love this list! Even if we don’t understand everything on it! (“#36 Austin Street, Queens” what?!) However, Nick Carr of Scouting New York wasn’t such a huge fan of it, finding it confusing, and other people, like Martin Schneider of Dangerous Minds found the list “cranky, creaky, weary,” and felt that too many items do little more than “signify what an awful place New York [was.]”

The thing is, though, New York in 1976 was kind of an awful place! Or, ok, it wasn’t that New York was awful, but it was going through almost unfathomably hard times. This was a year after the city was told to “Drop Dead” by then-President Gerald Ford. This was the era when the city almost went bankrupt. This was a time when just about every city worker—from those in the sanitation department to members of the teachers union—went on long strikes. This was a year before the blackout that featured fires and looting. This was right before the Summer of Sam. What better time than the summer of ’76 was there for a little of patented New York City-brand black humor? No better time. Because maybe the city has changed a lot, but our ability to laugh at ourselves even in the darkest times is something that will always remain. Maybe the New Yorkers of today can’t relate to loving “the missing apostrophe from DONT WALK,” but we can all relate to “hating Con Edison” and “thinking that iridescent pigeon necks are beautiful” but “hating pigeons.” The reasons that we love New York (or some of them anyway) might be different in 2014 than they were in 1976, but our feelings are just as strong, different as they may—or may not—be. And, c’mon, Brooklyn Day? There’s nothing better.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

101 things to love about new york city

101 things to love about new york city

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  1. New York City was not an awful place at all in 1976. It was in some ways nicer than the New York City of today. From my diary:

    Sunday, February 22, 1976

    5 PM on a wet, chilly Sunday. Tonight, after a week’s absence, winter will return and there may be snow tomorrow. But still, this past week with its warm temperatures was a wonderful respite from winter.

    Yesterday was mild and breezy and bright. Driving into Greenwich Village, I went first to the Eighth Street Bookshop, where I said hello to Laurie, browsed in the little magazine section, and ended up buying Richard Elman’s new poetry chapbook, The Man Who Ate New York.

    I embarrassed myself when I first met Elman at the Fiction Collective party in Soho, and I figured buying his book would make up for it. He’s quite a good poet.

    Yesterday Alice showed me an article by John Leonard in the Times about the financial struggles of writers. Elman gets by through his teaching at Columbia, where he works for Peggy’s husband Dick Humphreys, and doing numerous book reviews as well as writing “novelizations” of current movie screenplays.

    Another writer the article mentioned, an editor of the Paris Review, writes seamy stories for men’s magazines. It’s obvious that I’ll never be able to eke out a living by being a writer, but what can I do?

    Walking across Eighth Street and up Sixth Avenue, I felt the Village bursting with the energy that only New York City has. Our town may be a dying hell of a metropolis, but no place can match it for that exciting nameless quality that pulsates through the streets: the well-dressed dowagers walking poodles; the black queen looking with wonder at an expensive jumpsuit in a store window; a Chinese mother pushing her baby’s stroller as the child squeals with delight; young matrons selecting vegetables at Balducci’s; the guy outside Nathan’s, intoning “Turn to Jesus . . . Turn to Jesus before it’s too late” and the girl next to him handing out leaflets that say “Learn the Truth About Trotsky’s Death.”

    I walked up to 12th Street, to the Bun ‘n’ Burger, where a pretty waitress with hairy arms served me lunch, saying, “If the Tab is too sweet or too anything, call me.” I enjoyed it so much, being surrounded by New Yorkers.

    People in this city are tough and cynical and there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that can surprise them. A cute teenage boy asked me for directions to the subway, and I gave them to him, and we exchanged knowing winks as we went on our way. Basically, New Yorkers are co-conspirators.

    Sitting in Washington Square, I watched the weekend photographers and the black men with their cheap wine and the many lovers of all races and sexes. I listened to a bad trumpeter playing “Alfie” and to the rapid-fire Spanish talk of some frisbee-tossing teenagers.

    Despite what anyone says, there is a sense of community in New York, and being a part of it makes me high.

    Sunday, July 11, 1976

    9 PM. Four years ago I was in Miami Beach, attending the Democratic National Convention with Leon, Skip and our delegate, Mikey. It was an exciting time for me, and I thought I’d try to see what was going on at the 1976 Convention today as long as it’s being held in New York, starting tomorrow.

    And I did do something I could do in ’72: get a close-up glimpse of the Democratic nominee. Yes, I’ve seen Jimmy Carter in the flesh, bright smile, cool blue eyes and all.

    I figured the best place to go was the Americana Hotel, the headquarters for the Carter campaign as well as the New York and Iowa delegations. I parked my car on Eighth Avenue and 52nd Street, and as soon as I got out, I was approached by a man asking me where Seventh Avenue was.

    He had one of those very noticeable non-New York accents (he pronounced his r’s) and I asked him if he was here for the convention. It turned out that he was the chief political reporter for U.S. News and World Report, “that is, I will be if I ever get my credentials.”

    I went with him to the Americana, where he picked up his credentials and I walked around. There was really no difference from the lobby of the Diplomat Hotel in Florida in 1972 and the lobby of the Americana in 1976: the people looked the same, spoke about the same things, the hotel glitter was there, the hospitality suites . . . only the candidate and the mood of the party had changed.

    This year, after eight years out of power, caused in part what they feel were contentious, bickering conventions, the Democrats smell victory and everybody seems ready to swallow (if not love) Jimmy Carter because he can bring them victory.

    Certain types at conventions were in evidence along the streets of midtown Manhattan, like a red-haired teenager, a button collector trying to get all the buttons he could; and a middle-aged, slightly drunk-looking man sitting outside the hotel, his sports jacket covered with green Carter buttons as if they were growing on him like ivy (he was selling them for fifty cents each).

    There were information desks set up, and downstairs in the Americana, Carter HQ was being set up, with tables for Women, Hispanics, Blacks, Messages, Volunteers, Issues, Southeast – all different Carter committees.

    When Rep. Andy Young of Atlanta, Carter’s main black supporter, entered, I shook his hand, saying, “Welcome to New York”; like every good politician, he pretended to know me from somewhere else.

    Bella Abzug came in with State Senator Carol Bellamy after some Women’s Caucus. Bella looked good, having lost some weight – but she’ll always be recognizable for her hats.

    Then the bright TV lights came on as I stood near the door. Mrs. Carter – Rosalynn – came in first. She’s a pretty slip of a woman. Then Jimmy came in, and the crowd was electrified. I was just a couple of feet away from him, but Secret Service agents would hardly let you get close. My first impression: his eyes were a beautiful blue, very cold and determined – and he seems a lot shorter in person.

    If Carter was short, Congressman Peter Rodino, who came to chat with him about the Vice Presidency, is a really tiny man, terribly plain and sweet-looking. I chatted with Carter supporters, some very nice Udall delegates from Iowa, and some members of the press – who appear to outnumber delegates.

    On my way out I saw anti-abortion presidential candidate Ellen McCormack and her supporters marching down Eighth Avenue.

    Tuesday, August 31, 1976

    Before I went to Mikey’s apartment, I had dinner in Brownie’s; I hadn’t been there in a long time, but their salads are definitely worth the high prices, and I also got to enjoy a nice cup of rose hips tea.

    My own herb collection is no more; I sort of lost interest a couple of years ago when I started out not being able to afford herbs. Also, the pace of my life has changed, and I’m no longer patient enough to relax with a cup of herb tea every night. I’m less of a hypochondriac, so I don’t need to rely on herbal remedies anymore.

    Mikey lives on 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth, next to the McBurney YMCA, across from the Chelsea Hotel. It’s a nice little apartment. He’s fixed it up simply, but it’s very comfortable, with enough room to move around.

    Mikey and I watched the news on TV – the Medicaid scandals have made the front pages for the past few days. (I sent Fabrikant a letter saying that if I don’t have the check by Saturday, I’ll take him to Small Claims Court, and I mailed the veiled threat of reporting him to the authorities.)

    Then Mikey and I drove down to the Village, parking on Washington Square North. When he got out of the car, Mikey started laughing, as I had parked right where Nina was passing; she takes an NYU course on Monday nights.

    They broke up on Friday night, and there it was, just three days later and who do they run into in a city of eight million people? Each other.

    What made it even more ironic is that as they were talking, one of these black dudes who hang around Washington Square made a beeline for Mikey and started in about this “weed” he wanted to sell to him:

    “With this stuff, man, you and your lovely chick will find true happiness together. Everything will be even better: When you make love, you will be one. Can you dig it?”

    Mikey said he couldn’t, and finally the guy went away. Mikey and Nina carried on a somewhat strained conversation for a while, and Mikey asked her if she wanted to join us, but she said she’d better get back home.

    Walking around – we couldn’t get into either The Bottom Line or the Waverly Theater – Mikey told me he finally got Nina to admit that she really couldn’t give a damn about him; all this time, she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings.

    I told Mikey she was pretty (with blonde hair, a nice figure, clear skin), and she said she was a pretty rotten person. He looked down, so I said, very matter-of-factly, “Do you want her to die?” and he broke out laughing a lot.

    Unfortunately, we ran head-on into Nina again on Bleecker Street, and this time Mikey got upset because she was with some guy. I felt a little chilly, so we warmed up with some coffee and cannoli at the Café San Marco.

    I really do like the Village at night; I feel at home there. Mikey and I rode around a while before returning to his apartment.

    There were lots of great times in 1976. Things were cheap, I could drive to Manhattan from Mill Basin easily and find free parking with little trouble, and generally life was good.

    It was *1977* when things started to suck:

    Sunday, January 23, 1977

    4 PM. I’ve just come from a poetry and fiction reading in Soho.

    I couldn’t find parking in the Village, where I wanted to eat, so I had to settle for lunch at the 125 Prince Street Bar and Restaurant. At first I felt uncomfortable in such a Soho-y, brunchy, trendy place, but then I realized I didn’t have to bestir myself.

    A good man is comfortable within himself and takes that level of comfort with him wherever he goes. So, I figured, let the 125 Prince Street Bar and Restaurant adjust themselves to me.

    I can’t stand so much of what I see in the Soho/ Atlantic Avenue/loft/Frye boots/hanging plants in wicker baskets/posh art gallery/homemade bread/three earrings in each ear/caftan scene. The other day at Jack Gelber’s house, John Ashbery said, “Well, doesn’t everybody read the Soho Weekly News?” I don’t, sir.

    In a way, these people are more despicable than hardhats/ethnics/ bourgeoisie because they claim to be the rebels, the counterculture, the trailblazers – yet they end up looking as alike as the roller-headed housewives at Key Food here on Avenue N.

    Look past the outer wrappings and you’ll find that most people are sheep. They read what the New York Review of Books tells them to read; they buy what New York magazine tells them to buy; they eat where the Village Voice tells them to eat; they watched the cable TV station pumped into their tastefully-decorated apartments.

    And the people – my God, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I could carve better people out of bananas. Yet these are our tastemakers, the intelligent and aware portion of our population, the part the arts depend on to survive.

    You can forgive Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow in Canarsie because they don’t know any better, but from Soho people, one should expect a lot more. As I looked around the Anthology Film Archives, I looked at these people: they look exactly like one another to me: limp, casual, bland, disdainful, asexual . . .

    Perhaps I am not the right person to point this out. But it seems to me that McDonald’s is preferable to all these Soho joints because at least McDonald’s doesn’t pretend to be anything but plastic. And curiously, there’s more energy in a fast-food franchise than in any of these intimate and expensive sidewalk cafés and bars.

    I suppose I’m being cranky, but my goodness – now there’s an expression for you! – if someone ever did something spontaneous, these people would drop dead. And these are the very people who say they worship spontaneity.

    I’m glad I don’t fit in, and heaven help me if I ever get sucked into it.

  2. I agree with Richard. I was in high school in 1976 and I’ve heard comments from people, both those who were there and those who WEREN’T, and the city was going thru some tough times but I appreciated those times because as New Yorkers we weathered the storm, immortalized the “Drop Dead” comment in my yearbook and came thru the other end stronger. New York is not for the faint of heart or sissies and we could find affordable housing!

  3. I agree with Richard. The hotels used to be cheaper, as well as eating outside. I enjoyed it more a few decades ago, it’s now a tourist trap.