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Part 3: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals and NYC around 1975

In 1976 Billy Joel sang in his “Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway,” “They burned the churches up in Harlem, but no one really cared.”

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From "South Bronx Series" by Mel Rosenthal

Wolfen church in South Bronx

Because of the tremendous troubles that beset New York in the 1970s, many evangelicals, Jews and others started to resurrect the old eponym for the city, “Sodom and Gomorrah.” In The City’s End. Two centuries of fantasies, fears and premonitions of New York’s destruction. Max Page said that popular culture provided a staccato of doom-beats for the city. In 1976 Billy Joel sang in his album Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway), “They burned the churches up in Harlem, but no one really cared.” Popular culture saw the city as murderous (in the 1974 movie Death Wish), perverted (in Taxi Driver, 1976), and made up of vicious gangs (1990: The Bronx Warriors, 1981). In the 1981 urban horror flick Wolfen, Albert Finney tracks down the wolfen to their home in an abandoned church within a mass of rubble in the South Bronx.

In a fit of pique during contract negotiations the police union handed out a “survival guide” to visitors welcoming them to “Fear City,” recalled Jonathan Mahler in his Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. When the city lights went out in 1977, up to 40% of the police didn’t show up to stop the arson, looting and violence that swept the city. One priest went out with the police who did show up to help calm his community only to find that his altar was stolen while he was gone. Mahler has provided us a fearsome picture of the city at that time as has Mel Rosenthal in his photographs.

The evangelical magazine Christianity Today suggested that God had sent his judgment on the city. “The lack of electricity lit up the reality of people’s minds and hearts. That’s what people are like when separated from light and the light.”

General lawlessness seized the city. The crime rate was the highest in history. Puerto Rican terrorists of the FALN bombed two Manhattan buildings. Politicians brawled in the streets. Democratic mayoral candidate Mario Cuomo beat unconscious the Conservative Party leader. An “anti-poverty” leader in the Bronx was suspected of a hit and run killing of a rival. A case never solved.

What looters and arsonists didn’t destroy a horribly misguided government urban renewal policy steamrollered neighborhoods into rubble. In a most famous case all of the buildings across from St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn were left in ruins. Weeds grew up, stray dogs, junkies and winos moved in beneath the sign “Urban Renewal Zone.” Father James Kelly recalls, “It wasn’t urban renewal; it was urban removal.” A deacon was held up at knife point in front of the church and attendance at Sunday mass dropped by more than half. Excrement littered the confessionals, and the church closed its parochial school.

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The chaos was matched by a crumbling of public morality. Prostitution and pornography mushroomed. In certain stroll areas hundreds of prostitutes would be lined up. In the South Bronx food terminal prostitutes on skates and no pants whisked in and out for fast trysts. Addicted and abused, many women died. Tammy remembers seeing a young prostitute die on a stoop near Tammy’s apartment. The degradation of women was generalized on the streets.

By 1977 the New York City Planning Commission reported 245 pornography institutions in the city, 93 of them in and around Times Square. In 1965 there had been nine in the whole city. The multi-story Show World was the biggest sex arcade in the nation.

4 stories of porn & peepshows @ 42nd & 8th Avethe whole city.

An ex-McDonald’s manager-cum-orgy entrepreneur named Larry Levinson opened Plato’s Retreat, a life-guard supervised orgy center. The IRTearoom opened as a simulated subway bathroom with screeching subway train sounds to accompany the unprotected oral sex. Studio 54 opened with shirtless busboys in white satin gym shorts, busty women hanging upside down on trapezes, balconies for fornication, and a big statute of the Man on the Moon shoveling a coke spoon up his nose. Jay McInerney captured the drug soaked, hallucinatory life in his hit novel Bright Lights, Big City (published in 1984). It is a story of one person moving to the cadencies of “the white marching powder” to meet men and women he cares nothing for. Happiness, he said, has abandoned us like a passing era. Exhaustion seemed to be the city’s destiny. Some, like Tammy, warily navigated toward the steeples in the rubble in the search for hope.

From "South Bronx Series" by Mel Rosenthal

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Next read: Part 4: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals and the religious context of 1975


  • Thank-you Neftali! This is a tremendous contribution! Noone was exactly sure of the identities of the people in the photo nor of their story. Can you fill in the blanks for us?

  • Oh my goodness I can't believe my eyes.
    Last picture is my beautiful aunt & that's not her daughter its a family friend. how beautiful this picture is.
    Rest her soul<3

  • Thanks. What was your experience then?

  • I was in NYC in 1975. Thanks for this remembrance of the faith side of NYC. I haven't read anything like this before.

  • Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, I bookmarked it.

  • Spectacular series. Can't wait to see your article on Hill Song.

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