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A City in Crisis: How the Collision of Poetry and Punk Defined 1970’s New York City

In his 2015 New York Times article, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking about New York in the Late 1970s?”, Edmund White questions why modern creatives have a romanticized view of 1970’s New York City. Perhaps, it’s because the cultural world was smaller, rent was cheaper, Jasper Johns still painted in his East Houston street studio, Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor and people happily stood in line for hours for the chance to mingle with the famous at Studio 54. The city was a kind of “love among the ruins.” But it was also in social decay and staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. Deindustrialization and post-war optimism led white New Yorkers out of the city and into the suburbs leaving the city to rot. The Bronx was burning, unemployment was high, the homeless cramped the streets, buildings were vandalized, graffiti covered the subways, gangs traversed the streets, murder rates were rising, porn films ran in Time Square Theaters, and the AIDS epidemic was about to sweep the globe. When tourists visited New York City in the summer of 1975, they could expect to be handed a pamphlet by city police with the words, “Welcome to Fear City”[1] in black capital letters. “Do Not Walk” “Stay off the streets after 6pm” and “Safeguard your handbag” were some of the survival guide’s listed instructions. And, yet, despite the bleak reality of the city, writers, artists, and filmmakers fled downtown to live and work in vacant loft spaces where cheap rent meant not having to worry about securing stable employment. What is most notable about the cover of the “Welcome to Fear City” pamphlet is a sketched image of a skull draped in a black hood. This image not only signaled the potential fatal outcomes for tourists who failed to comply with safety precautions but the skull would become a symbol for a burgeoning subculture of underground artists and rock misfits: punk.