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A walk down memory lane: New York 1977-82, a carefree time
This Sunday’s NY Times Magazine has articles on nostalgia for the period 1977-1982 (roughly). The pieces are all about the arts and gay life and the interesting turmoil before the origins of AIDS were well understood.
But that side of NYC ignores the majority of us who, even though interested in and diverted by the arts scene, worked in office buildings as accountants, lawyers, bankers, ad people, and business managers. Some of us remember the time fondly for different reasons than the artists that The Times depicts. (Personal confession: I was in my 30s, in love, lived in Manhattan, and had a good job, so what was not to like?)
From an economic point of view—particularly the economics that impacts one’s life and work, 1977 to 1982 was a unique time. NYC had required state assistance to pay its debts in 1976. The City’s elites therefore had lost some swagger. Hugh Carey had come to office as Governor, oddly not knowing how the machine had worked under Nelson Rockefeller, and uncertainty reigned. Abe Beame, a nice little man, had been mayor from 1974 to 1977. He had been ineffectual and was replaced by the bumptious Ed Koch, who seemed to give N’Yorkers renewed optimism.
Nevertheless, stagflation reigned in the nation, and Jimmy Carter appeared incapable of dealing that or with the standoff in Iran. He used the word economic “malaise”.
In context, things did not seem right economically, and neither the city nor the nation was booming. But important things were happening nevertheless, especially in the field of women’s rights, where women were moving forward both socially and in the workplace, at unprecedented speed. There were all kinds of pushes and pulls within the women’s movement, but its power and thrust were the symbols of the late 1970s.
For those of us out in the world earning a living and coming home to our families, it was an ambiguous time. For families living in the suburbs and commuting, it was the beginning of the time of prevalent divorce and family break-up. For those who, like me, went through that process early, it was a time when love could be found everywhere. AIDS was not yet a significant restriction, harassment in the workplace did not include consensual sex or flirting that might lead to it, and offices often were more congenial and less competitive places.
Work ended around 6 or 7 pm most days for most people. No one carried a cell phone or pda. There was time for love or family—or even a hobby, perhaps. Most of us did not make as much money as we would make after 1982, but the pressure of work was less.
The blackout of 1977 is remembered for the violence in a few neighborhoods, but in most neighborhoods, it was a time of cooperation, not looting. The Indian guy who ran our corner store stayed open late and sold every flashlight, battery, etc., he had—at regular prices, no gouging.
1982 indeed was a transformational year. It was the year that greed become fashionable and changed NY. The Reagan Administration favored greed, in August the stock market, after close to a decade of doldrums, took off upwards, and greed was in the air everywhere. Law firm partnerships stopped being as congenial, workplaces became more cut-throat. As I told a client over dinner one evening that year, ‘The Great God Mammon is on the loose.”
In retrospect, I guess I was right. And mammon has been more influential ever since.
The bookends of the assistance for NYC and the blackout on one end, and the ascendancy of Mammon, fear of AIDS, and sexual harassment restrictions in the workplace on the other, made 1977-1982 a special little time. And those of us who were in love in tho