Punk in 1970s New York

city-on-fireI’ve recently read or watched two items that involve the punk scene (or should I say punk-rock scene?  I’m not sure.) in New York City in the mid-1970s:  The book City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Spike Lee’s movie Summer Of Sam.

City On Fire is a long book, almost 1000 dense pages.  The nexus of the plot is the murder of a young woman in a New York park on New Year’s Eve 1977.  The book describes in great detail the lives and relationships of the people who were involved in one way or another with the murdered woman.  It jumps back and forth in time from the early sixties to the start of the 21st Century while also jumping back and forth between characters.  Many of the characters are punks participating in the New York City scene that apparently started in the mid-1970s.  I cannot speak from experience about any aspect of punk.  During that time period I was moving in the opposite direction; exploring bluegrass, country, and mountain music.  So while the punks in this novel were moving away from the musical (pop) mainstream and finding punk, I was moving away from the mainstream and finding bluegrass.  Given what I learned from the book and movie, I’m glad I moved in that direction.

City On Fire also covers the massive and  complete blackout in New York City in the summer of 1977.  Some of the book’s climactic events happen during the night of the blackout.

summer-of-samThe movie Summer of Sam uses the background of the Son Of Sam serial killings to depict life in New York when David Berkowitz was on his killing spree.  It focuses on the punk scene and on life in the city’s Italian neighborhoods.  City On Fire presents more of a political and artistic picture of punk as a search for a sort of anarchistic freedom.  Summer Of Sam, in contrast, focuses a lot on the sexual goings-on within the punk and club scenes.

I’m not sure I would recommend watching the movie or reading the book.  I was often irritated at the book’s author for jumping around so much.  I kept wanting him to stick to the plot line in which I was engrossed.   Eventually, I just wanted him to wrap things up and tell me what happened to all the characters whom except, I think, for one, were strung out on drugs or alcohol.  They were all drinking excessively, strung out, shooting heroin, dropping pills, sometimes doing it all in one day.  I did not think it was possible for a person to use as many drugs and as much alcohol as some of the characters.

Watching the movie left me feeling like I had besmirched my soul.




Chávez Ravine

You may know about Chávez Ravine if you are a baseball fan, or if you are old enough to have been following baseball in the early 1960’s, or if you were a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, or if you or your family once lived in Chávez Ravine, or if you’re a hardcore Ry Cooder fan.  My family never came close to Chávez Ravine.  We’re blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians who rarely strayed from the Mid-West much less into big cities like Los Angeles.  I do fit all the other criteria for knowing about Chávez Ravine.

Years ago I borrowed Ry Cooder’s album Chávez Ravine from the library.  I was recently reminded of the album when I stumbled upon one of its songs while browsing in iTunes.  The album is a concept album that tells about the city of Los Angeles and the Dodgers destroying a Mexican-American community in order to build a baseball stadium.

The first song on Cooder’s album is Poor Man’s Shangri-la.  I don’t know if it was a Shangri-la but in the 1940’s

the area was a poor, though cohesive, Mexican-American community. Many families lived there because of housing discrimination in other parts of Los Angeles.

The city designated the area as blighted and moved forward with plans to redevelop the area.  The plans included a public-housing project, and the city began buying land from individual home owners.  The buy-out efforts were not completely successful.  Holdouts who did not wish to sell were part of the

Battle of Chavez Ravine, an unsuccessful ten-year struggle by a small number of remaining residents of Chavez Ravine to maintain control of their property, after the substantial majority of the property had been transferred to public ownership, during the period in which the city intended to use the land for the Elysian Park Heights public housing project.

The housing project died, and L.A. transferred the land to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a land swap.

With Chavez Ravine slated to become the site of the new Dodger Stadium, the tiny number of remaining members of the Chavez Ravine community were physically forced to relocate, although they were compensated for their properties at fair market valuations. While some had initially left the neighborhood, voluntarily or involuntarily through either the use of eminent domain or condemnation, a number (quite a small number after about 1954) stayed until the end. Eventually the sheriff’s department went in with bulldozers and armed men. A few property holders in the area had actually managed to avoid eminent domain proceedings and they were finally bought out by O’Malley [the owner of the Dodgers]. The final holdout eventually accepted the city’s offer of $10,500 for his former home. The homes and streets were razed, the larger community having been destroyed years before in the public housing effort.

Ry Cooder’s album tells the story of Chávez Ravine through songs in English and Spanish.

Cooder sought out musicians from the era and the place, including the late Pachuco boogie boss Don Tosti, the late legendary Lalo Guerrero, Ersi Arvizu, and Little Willie G., all of whom appear with Joachim Cooder, Juliette & Carla Commagere, Jim Keltner, Flaco Jimenez, Mike Elizondo, Gil Bernal, Ledward Kaapana, Joe Rotunde, Rosella Arvizu, and others. Chávez Ravine was nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album” in 2006.

Check out the album if you like Mexican music and Ry Cooder and want to get a taste of what the  Mexican-American music of that era sounded like.  The above quotes are all from the Wikipedia entry on Chávez Ravine.  It has a lot more information, citations, and links.

chavez wall

Something similar happened in St. Paul when the African-American, Rondo Street community was gutted to make way for the I-94 freeway.  Here’s is a page from a newsletter published by my former employee taken during the construction of the freeway.



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