Flashback: Summer of 1969 in NYC

Woodstock tickets

Woodstock tickets (Credit: Newsday)

Men landed on the moon. The  Stonewall riots erupted. The Mets actually were winning. The Vietnam War raged. Hippies stopped traffic for miles en route to an  upstate concert.

If these events weren’t  memorable enough, the city’s infrastructure was crumbling; racial and class divisions grew starker; sanitation and school strikes were fresh in the public
mind; and there was a sense that the safe, ordered city of yore had broken down. Even the mayoral campaign was surreal.

All this happened in a momentous stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 1969, a summer whose echoes are with us to this day.

“I think the summer of ’69 was tense in New York. There’s no other way to get around that,
despite the good things like the Mets and the Apollo mission,” said Vincent J. Cannato, author of “The Ungovernable City.”

Indeed, just a few years later, the city would be crime-ridden, bankrupt and, many felt, beyond  redemption.  

“You had a tremendous sense of, ‘Where are we going?’” recalled Michael Sigall, 65, who taught political science at CUNY that year.

The feel-good moments

Given what awaited the city, it’s tempting to see the summer of 1969 as the last gasp of a happier New York. That’s hardly true — “Midnight Cowboy” in theaters is a reminder that the city’s decline was already well under way. But it’s hard not to mythologize those months given the moon, the Mets and the music of Woodstock.

Take Woodstock: It became a watershed for a generation, but that wasn’t immediately clear.
“It wasn’t as much about the mu-sic, it was about, ‘What are these crazy things the hippies are doing?’” said James Nevius, author of “Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.” 

As Woodstock rocked, the Mets were starting to sizzle on the road to winning the World Series.

“Nobody thought the Mets had any kind of a chance during that season,” said Stanley Cohen, author of “A Magic Summer: The Amazin’ Story of the 1969 New York Mets.” “There seemed to be something brewing that nobody was ready to put their finger on.”

Underdogs defy the odds

Like the Mets, Mayor John Lindsay himself was an underdog. He was a Republican running for re-election on the Liberal Party line, shunned by his own party and by frustrated white, lower-middle-class voters who believed his brand of liberalism favored minorities.

“You’ve got lots of bad feelings built up, especially among those in the outer boroughs. ... On top of that you’ve got this mayoral elec-tion where all these feelings are coming out and a lot of it’s aimed at Lindsay,” Cannato said.

The candidates who represented that constituency were little-known Staten Islander John
Marchi, who ran as a Republican, and pencil-mustachioed Mario Procaccino of the Bronx, a Democrat.

But just as the Mets were unlikely World Series winners, so too was Lindsay in the election.

His opposition to the war, embrace of the women’s movement and outreach to youth were among the factors that helped, said Richard Aurelio, Lindsay’s campaign manager. Not to mention, the anti-Lindsay vote was split by candidates  who were in many respects very similar: Italian, outer-borough and conservative, Cannato said.

Vietnam stirs deep fears, anger

Ultimately that summer, the specter of Vietnam was inescapable.

“By 1969, my major concern was with the war in Vietnam and the draft,” said Jim
Janowitz, 63, of Manhattan.

Journalist Jimmy Breslin, who ran in 1969 for mayor with author Norman Mailer, noted the outsized presence of the war.

“You had a war that was destroying us. ... The war was the thing that was hurting
us,” Breslin said.

And even for those not on the draft list, it was a time when, indeed, it seemed that the city was teetering on the precipice of something frightening. The Mets and the moon could not hide this inescapable fear of a society “starting to crack,” as Nevius put it.

“The man on the street was confused and scared. What would happen to this country? And there was reason to be,” Sigall said.

Shayndi Raice and Marlene Naanes contributed.

***

Cheap Thrills

What things cost in the summer of '69

Evening tickets for Broadway’s “Hair”:  
Orchestra, $12;
Front Mezz, $11;
Rear Mezz, $9.

Subway fare:
20 cents

NYC Aquarium:
Adults, 95 cents;
children, 40
cents

Dinner:
Prime rib at Andrew Maclean’s restaurant in Manhattan,
$6.95

A good read:
”Portnoy’s Complaint,”
$6.95

New York Times:
10 cents

New York
magazine:

40 cents

Park Slope
Victorian
brownstone:

$30,000

West 94th Street
unrenovated
home:

$55,000

East Side floor-
through rental:

$400 a month

Manhattan
parking:

Day rate at lot:
$5; first two
hours, $3

Baked ham
sandwich at
Fifth Avenue
Woolworth’s:

40 cents
Sources: New
York Magazine,    
New York Times

***

Flashback: Summer of '69

May 26:
John Lennon and Yoko Ono hold bed-in for peace in   Montreal.

June 17:
“Oh! Calcutta!” featuring much nudity, debuts Off Broadway.

June 28:
Stonewall riots erupt in Greenwich Village, found- ing gay rights   movement.

July 18:
Chappaquiddick crash ends Ted Kennedy’s presidential hopes.

July 20:

Astronauts land and walk on moon.

Aug. 9:
Manson family kills actress Sharon Tate and six others in Calif.

Aug. 13:
Ticker-tape parade is held for Apollo 11  astronauts in NYC.

Aug. 15-18:
Woodstock rocks.

Sept. 2:
Chemical Bank deploys first ATM machine, in RockvilleCentre, L.I.

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: New York , history , John Lindsay , Mets , Woodstock , moon , hippes , space travel , crime , 1969

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