Ugly New York

The Guideposts senior editor reflects on The Taking of Pelham 123 and New York City.


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I watched an old movie last night, The Taking of Pelham 123. A remake came out earlier this year. I didn’t see it. I don’t want to see it. The point of the first one wasn’t the plot (silly) or the action (there is none). The point was the city, New York.

The original was made in 1974, when any movie set in New York was really about New York. And any movie about New York was about America.

New York in the 1970s was coming apart. The city nearly went bankrupt, its major industries were in decline, suburbs sapped its population and crime rates skyrocketed. New York became a byword for urban failure, a symbol of an America that similarly felt adrift after the Vietnam War and the economic upheaval of deindustrialization.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is about four hostages who take over a New York City subway car and threaten to execute passengers if a ransom isn’t paid. The metaphor is transparent. New York, and by extension America, felt similarly taken over by hostile forces. In the movie the city, humiliatingly, is so broke it has trouble coming up with the million-dollar ransom. The movie is about humiliation, the city’s and the nation’s.

And yet what strikes me is the exuberance of the New Yorkers in the film. The New York I know in the 2000s is a pale shadow of that dirty, seedy, broke-down and yet utterly alive city. Everyone is in everyone’s face in this movie. Everyone is a concentrated ethnic type, a factory of coarse verbal wit.

At one point a subway supervisor strides down the tracks toward the hijackers, heaping abuse on them not simply for threatening hostages but for bottling up his train system. He’s outraged, indignant. He sees their guns and he doesn’t care. He’s like a dried-up sinew of the city, invulnerable. The hijackers shoot and kill him of course. He’s not invulnerable. But he stands for a city that met its degradation with a sharp, hard kick.

I was mesmerized by that kick. The film happens to take place in a subway station blocks from where I work. I ride that line every time I shop at Trader Joe’s. The stations look the same today except they’re cleaner. Subway cars are air conditioned now. There’s no graffiti. A neutered electronic voice announces stations and politely encourages passengers to stand clear of the closing doors. “Remain alert and have a safe day,” the voice says.

How lame. Veteran New Yorkers have mixed feelings about the 1970s. They don’t miss the crime or the filth or the riots or the Bronx on fire. But neither do they much like what, say, Times Square has become, this weird no-place of chain restaurants, tourist traps, gussied-up theaters and, significantly, no New Yorkers. New York is cleaner and safer now. But it’s richer, too, rich with the wealth of out-of-town fools who work in finance or entertainment and who in fact do not like cities, or at least do not like ugly cities.

Ugly New York is gone, replaced as all New Yorks are replaced by the city’s incessant metamorphosis. For a moment last night I felt nostalgia for that ugly New York, though I was a baby when it existed and I knew it only through, of all things, Sesame Street, which in those days existed mainly to educate all those kids in the burning Bronx everyone else had written off.

If you notice, early Sesame Street takes place in the ghetto and what I learned from it is that it’s okay to live in ugly New York. In some ways ugly New York is my imagined ideal city.

Time passes. New York changes. It seems to improve but really it doesn’t. It merely swaps out one set of compromises for another. It grows enchanted with wealth and loses its soul. It’s a fairy tale, a trajectory we are all tempted to live. I prefer my ugly New York.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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