Book Reviews

Book Review: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning – New York City’s Turning Point

1977 marked a turning point in the life of New York City. For those who buy into the idea that Rudy Giuliani somehow “saved” the city, they really need to take a hard look at what the city was like before Ed Koch became mayor. The summer marking the four-way race for that office was marked by arson, crimes, a heat wave, and a blackout.

I can remember a lot of the events detailed in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. I was eleven years old at the time, and somehow it just didn’t imprint on me that all of these events took place in one hot, crazy summer. What I do remember was the story that runs through the book; that of Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Being a huge baseball fan, even though my team of choice wasn’t the Yankees, you couldn’t miss the headlines they made that season, both for their playing on the field and the infighting going on off of it.

Having watched the ESPN adaptation of this book, I was eager to get my hands on the book itself. I wondered how it could build on the events I saw that brought back so many memories from my younger days. I was not disappointed. The book gives the events much more depth, with details and background information just not able to be shown in a tightly paced series.

Where the series’ main focus was the Yankees, with other events taking a backseat, the book gives plenty of time to the other events of that summer. There is so much background information and depth to how things came together that summer, from New York City’s fiscal crisis to the blackout that the book proves to be more entertaining and informative than the series. This really shouldn’t be a surprise, and it makes for a much more entertaining and compelling read.

By the time the summer of 1977 rolled around, the city itself was in pretty dire straits. Police had been laid off in the wake of a severe fiscal crisis that had the city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The race to be the Democratic candidate for mayor was split four ways, with a virtually unknown candidate by the name of Ed Koch finding his star rising above that of the ineffectual incumbent, a loud-mouthed liberal, and the governor’s hand-picked choice.

During this time, crime reigned throughout the city. Whether the fault of the previously-mentioned layoffs or the abject poverty which seemed to dominate certain areas of the city, there had been a string of arson fires concentrated in the poorer areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn. On top of that, the city-wide blackout gave rise to the looting of many businesses in those poor areas. Most of them never returned, compounding the problems people in those neighborhoods faced. All of these events, and the history behind them, are detailed in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. I found it really interesting to read the series of events leading up to the lights going out. Many things intrinsic to the City of New York are discussed here in enough detail that it was an education even to this native.

Also brought in is the Son of Sam killings. It was just another part of the summer that seemed to mark a turning point of fear gripping the city and the residents deciding to take it back. Author Mahler not only gives details about the killings and the investigations but also into the dance clubs that the killings decimated in terms of business.

1977 also marked the arrival of tabloid journalism in New York City in the form of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post. His style of journalism helped fan many of the flames that summer, from the mayor’s race to the crime wave, to the Yankees.

All of the summer’s events are framed by the Yankees season. There was fighting even before it began, with the triangle of Jackson, Martin, and Steinbrenner. Martin wasn’t impressed with Jackson even before Steinbrenner signed the free agent. There was also a sense of jealousy over the attention Steinbrenner lavished on his new superstar. Jackson was frustrated by the actions of his manager, and his ego didn’t help matters any. Steinbrenner was hardly the “hands-off” owner he promised he would be.

The book is paced very well, with the events and background to them very interesting. While the series was funny, the book proved to be informative. Both are good but in starkly different ways. There are a few black and white pictures in the book, but not many.

Even those of us who lived through this summer might not understand all the hows and whys of what took place. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning is a terrific look at the summer that proved tumultuous on so many fronts. The book is very interesting and entertaining at the same time. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate it as it focuses much less on baseball than the ESPN series did.