Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farewell to Funkytown: A Tribute to Ed, Lou, Al and Stan

As 2013 ticks away into 2014, our city is poised to get its first new mayor in over a decade. At the stroke of midnight, the Bloomberg era ends and the De Blasio era begins.

WNYC radio has had a great series of reports called New York Remade: Before and After Bloomberg. A lot has happened, both in the city and beyond, during these past 12 years. As the series' website explains:

On Jan. 1, 2002, when Michael Bloomberg was sworn into office, these things barely existed: iPods, Blackberries, pocket digital cameras. These things didn't exist at all: the Barclays Center, Citi Field, One World Trade, or the Gehry NY building.

People smoked, all the time, in restaurants and bars. Almost no one rode bikes, and T.V.-less yellow cabs drove down Broadway right through Times Square. Back then, a market rate apartment in Harlem was about $1,200 — about half of what it is today. Pizza was $1.50 a slice, same price as a subway token.

Carrie Bradshaw lived in a Manhattan brownstone, drank cosmopolitans and typed onto a black and white computer screen. The High Line was a rusted and weedy hulk, not the locale for furtive kisses for the "Girls" crew before they head home to Brooklyn. Adlai Stevenson High School still existed. The Success Academy and six hundred other schools did not.

You could be anonymous in 2001. Now, not so much. We are watched, everywhere, if not by security cameras, then by each other.

New York has been transformed in the last 12 years, in ways that are wrenching and huge and intimate.

Might I add: the city was also still reeling from 9/11. Ground Zero was a smoking hole with clean-up crews moving away the rubble of the old World Trade Centers and still finding bodies.

Back then, our city's biggest fear was getting hit by another terrorist attack. 
Now it's being able to afford to live here.

The first decade of the 21st century has been a profound transitory time for our city. I don't recognize the town I was born in the 1970s, and grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. The 20th century is but a faint memory now, another time that is both feared and fetishized in our collective memory. If you go back and watch movies made in NYC back then, movies like "Taxi Driver", "Do the Right Thing" and "Bad Lieutenant", it made NYC look like a nightmare. Now we go to movies like the recently released "American Hustle", set in the late 1970s, and you'd think the city was simply "funkytown" back then.   

Perhaps it was better, perhaps it was worse. Perhaps what we've gained in public safety, health, and schools has been lost in a sky-high cost of living, a bleaching of the culture, and a loss of communal spirit. The debate rages endlessly on. But one thing is clear: maybe we don't actually want to live in Funkytown anymore but we still want to talk about it.

And in 2013, four notable New Yorkers died who lives embodied the late 20th century city, who rode high during the era of Funkytown: former mayor Ed Koch, rocker Lou Reed, pornographer Al Goldstein, and news reporter Stan Brooks. They were four very different men, occupying quite different spheres in this city's life and imagination, but their lives and careers are essential to understanding that time in our city's life that is now so definitely over.

Ed Koch was mayor from 1978 to 1989. In his time, he improved the city's disastrous finances and built affordable housing. He had a proud legacy but was also very divisive. He was famously irrascible, screaming at anyone who disagreed with him, and he seemed to relish conflict with anyone who wanted it. Koch's natural successor was not his actual successor, David Dinkins, but Rudy Giuliani: both men polarized the city, setting black against white, rich against poor. The Bloomberg era has been markedly different both in tone and governance: race relations have greatly improved and he has openly supported gay marriage. As for the poor, Bloomberg hasn't played rich against poor: he's simply forgotten about the poor and forced them out of the city. (Problem solved.) So a governing style of quiet ruthlessness and embracing diversity has replaced the divisive, rough-and-tumble governing style of Funkytown -- and the man who embodied its spirit left us in 2013.

Lou Reed made his musical career in the 1960s and 1970s writing songs about drugs, death, bondage, and drag. His music was about the dirty and dangerous city -- and it was brilliant. As NYC changed and Lou Reed got older, his music became legendary not only for its great experimentation but also for its memories of the vanished city. The city of "Sally Can't Dance" and "Dirty Boulevard" is gone and now, sadly in 2013, is Lou Reed. But we'll always listen to his music and remember that time and its poet, a man who made lyrical beauty out of the decay of Funkytown.

Today, anyone can get porn on the web. My generation was the last that had to work hard to get its porn (usually by begging an older friend to buy a magazine from a creepy vendor and then hiding it under the bedroom mattress, stressing out that mom would find it when making the bed or discover us reading it when she called us to dinner -- let me tell you, it was stressful) but today's "yutes" can simply go online, search vast amounts of naughty content, and then hit the "Clear History" tab on their browsers when mom calls. The man who represented the mattresses-hiding time of porn was Al Goldstein, the foulmouthed pornographer and provocateur and New Yorker extraordinaire, who founded "Screw" magazine in the 1960s and then, from 1974 to 2003, hosted the racy cable show "Midnight Blue" on Channel J. He was gross and offensive and wanted you to know it. He was "the man" during the time when Times Square was a bastion of porno theaters and drug dealers. Al Goldstein became the symbol (for many) of everything that was wrong with NYC back then, the filth that Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" so desperately wanted to wash away. Giuliani started the scrubbing in the 1990s with raids and new blue laws but, in the Bloomberg era, it was washed away by the Internet and gentrification. Goldstein's magazine and TV show didn't survive, and he literally became homeless as a result. But his recent death is a reminder of that time, of the sleaze of Funkytown, when the city was a wild place -- fun for some, revolting for others -- that is now clean and, for many, very boring.

And finally, Stan Brooks. You might know his name: he was a reporter for 1010 WINS radio news for decades. He had a great voice, one that was born for radio, and he reported on everything from the 1971 Attica Prison riots to the recent election of Bill De Blasio as mayor. Any history that was made in NYC over the last 50 years, Stan Brooks reported it first. If you ever saw the movies "Goodfellas", it's his voice that reports on the Lufthansa heist made famous in that classic film. Stan Brooks was the memory bank of this city, the man who explained what was going on in Funkytown to its residents. Now Stan Brooks is gone, along with the city he reported about for so long. We've lost a great reporter, a great New York voice, and a living link to our city's past.

As another great New Yorker, novelist Don DeLillo wrote: "It's all falling indelibly into the past."

The song "Funkytown" was a one-hit wonder released in 1980, a year when the city was deep in the era of Ed Koch, Lou Reed, Al Goldstein, and Stan Brooks, and when yours truly was just three years old. The song was written by a guy named Steven Greenberg for a band called Lipps, Inc who were all from Minneapolis and dreamed of moving to NYC. The song was an open love letter to the dream of this city, to its spirit and danger, to why people wanted to live here, even back then, the so-called bad old days. Just remember the first few lines:

Gotta make a move to a
Town that's right for me
Town to get me movin'
Keep me groovin' with some

You can't be funky without some energy, and energy was the essence of the Funkytown era -- the era that the Bloomberg years have so definitively vanquished

Now our city moves into a new era. Sadly, these four great New Yorkers won't be there to see it. But they made NYC an interesting place in the last decades of the 20th century, they gave the city its unique energy, and for that we thank them. 

Now, firmly in the second decade of the 21st century, and the dangerous energy of that time has been replaced by a safe apathy. We may not be going back to Funkytown anytime soon, but we need to shed the apathy and re-find its energy. That's the way we'll honor their legacies in the new era that's about to begin.


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