Jesse Jarnow

ladies & gentleman, the bronx is burning

Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City is a map of a Manhattan just out of my reach. Though I wasn’t born until 1978, Jonathan Mahler’s scope encompasses familiar locales, as they were (more or less) when I was a child. There is reference to the Stewart House, a building in lower Manhattan so large that it constitutes its own voting district, crucial to Ed Koch in his bid for mayor. It also happens to be where my grandmother moved later that year after my grandfather died (and where I spent much time during high school). There is Bushwick, too, the neighborhood that properly begins a few blocks from my home, and how its own residents essentially burned it to the ground in the mid-1970s, and gutted it during in a massive riot during the 1977 blackout. And there are the Yankees, in their full mustachioed glory, the all-too-human personalities behind faces I vaguely recall from baseball cards. But mostly there is New York: cars and restaurants and gray buildings and dirt and endless people.

By European standards, New York remains an infant, free of the millennia of history that most European city-dwellers take for granted. While some of the figures in the book, especially in Mahler’s excavation of New York politics, seem ancient, they also seem perfectly contemporary, like the same stories could be happening with only minor variations this very minute. In that, The Bronx is Burning is a trick: one could pull multi-tiered historical narratives — maybe not about baseball and disco, but somethin’ — from any period in New York history. But they probably wouldn’t be as engaging.