The Annotated MAD MEN: The Decline And Fall Of New York City

How 1968 was a landmark year in New York's roughest patch.

“Ford To City: Drop Dead”

It’s one of the most famous newspaper headlines of all time, and it sums up the sorry state of New York City in 1975, as the metropolis slid into bankruptcy. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see that particular Daily News headline on Mad Men, but this week’s episode was set against the backdrop of the changes that led to the gleaming New York of the 1950s turning into the decaying New York of the 1970s.

New York City has always been in decline. Henry James set his great New York novel Washington Square 40 years before its publication because he longed for a time before New York became, as he called it, a “terrible town.” James lived through one of New York’s great growth spurts as the city exploded from a population of 400,000 to a population of two million.

But New York’s decline was particularly precipitous throughout the 1960s, and 1968 was the year when everything truly went out of balance, setting the city on a path that would make it almost post-apocalyptic throughout the 1970s.

New York’s tough times began in the post-WWII years, as American society changed. The Second Great Migration, an exodus of millions of African-Americans from the South, changed the demographics of New York City immensely. Between 1960 and 1970 the black population of New York City exploded from 14% to 20% of all city inhabitants. That influx of black faces triggered white flight, sending families fleeing to the suburbs. Racial tension bubbled constantly under the surface, occasionally boiling up in ugly ways.

Meanwhile, heroin became a huge factor in city crime. The Mafia opened up the heroin trade in a big way in the 1950s, and it devastated the black community. The community that had flowered in the Harlem Renaissance was kneecapped by smack. Junkies turned to crime to feed their habits, and robberies and assault rates crept up.

The police were in no condition to handle a rise in crime. Decades of cronyism and corruption had left the New York City Police Department riddled with rotten cops, officers who lived for graft and who cheerily turned the other way when their palms were greased. The NYPD became a ghastly organization, sick with brutality and racism, but ineffective against the larger problems facing the city. Murders jumped to over 1,100 that year for the first time ever, meaning there were more than three killings a day on the streets of New York. The city's murder rate would get higher - it hit 2,500 in 1991 - but that leap into the quadruple digits remained a milestone for decades.

Jobs became an issue. New York’s traditional manufacturing jobs moved out of the city, and what had been a blue collar job market quickly became white collar, made up largely of commuters coming from Long Island and other suburbs. Shipping moved to New Jersey. Wall Street wouldn’t boom in a big way until the 1980s.The welfare rolls increased as the city grew poorer and poorer.

1968 was the breaking point. The year began with a sanitation strike* that left New York covered in a layer of filth. The strike lasted nine days, and while the Sanitation union made sure that garbage was picked up from sensitive locations like hospitals, the city was soon overwhelmed by its own trash.

That wouldn’t be the only labor dispute that Mayor John Lindsay had to deal with in 68 (Lindsay had a lot of labor troubles during his time as mayor. His first day in office was marked by a transit strike; the new mayor walked four miles to work on his first day on the job). The garbage strike left New York dirty (it seems like the city wasn’t clean again for more than a decade), but it was the teachers' strike and subsequent civil service slowdowns that hit New York hardest, leaving a legacy of racial tension between Jews and blacks that would turn violent decades later in the 1991 Crown Heights riot.

The teachers' strike began in May of 1968, and it was sparked by a new community control concept that Lindsay helped introduce in the schools. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville had been largely Jewish for decades, but over the course of the 1960s demographics there shifted even more dramatically than elsewhere in the city. In 1940 6% of Brownsville’s residents were black; in 1960 Brownsville was 77% black and 19% Puerto Rican. But Brownsville’s schools were still being run by white Jewish administrators and teachers.

The community control program changed all of that. Brownsville was one of three school districts decentralized in a pilot program, and a community-elected board made decisions about the hiring of school administrators. For the residents of Brownsville this was a moment of empowerment. For the teacher’s union this was a scary prospect, and it was seen as union busting.

The Brownsville governing body began making changes to personnel and the curriculum of the schools. African heritage was being taught, and students had the option to learn Swahili. The United Federation of Teachers complained that the new curriculum wouldn’t prepare the students for jobs, and the governing body found itself up against the Board of Education, who still had to approve all spending. The community board forged ahead, appointing five new principals of color, including New York City’s first Puerto Rican principal.

Then things got heated. As the Board of Ed refused to grant the community board greater power some parents started keeping their kids out of school. In May the Brownsville community board let go or transferred away 83 teachers, all of them white, most of them Jewish. The Board of Ed told the teachers to simply ignore the notices. When the teachers tried to return to school, parents physically blockaded them; the police had to force the Brownsville community to allow the teachers back. Days later the teachers in Brownsville went on a short strike. The community board dismissed 350 of them, all of whom then returned to the Board of Ed, where they sat around waiting to see what happened next.

What happened next occured in the fall. The UFT went out on strike in a big way. 93% of the city’s teachers walked out on September 9. They came back September 11 when the Board of Ed promised to reinstate the Brownsville teachers, but were back out on the streets on the 13th when it became clear the Board of Ed had no authority thanks to the community control program.

New York City’s public schools were closed for 36 days that fall. One million children were locked out of schools. Ironically Brownsville, which was operating outside of the Board of Ed, more or less continued as normal, one of the few neighborhoods where schools remained open.

Nasty recriminations were flung through the media. Brownsville residents decried the UFT as “Jewish-dominated.” The American Jewish Congress called the whole thing anti-semitic, as did Albert Shanker, the leader of the UFT. The schism divided even the city’s liberals, with the ACLU saying that Shanker was overplaying the anti-semitism to curry favor and the NAACP supporting the UFT in their strike.

The conflict ended in November when the state Board of Ed stepped in and took over the Brownsville district. Principals were relocated, some militant black teachers were let go and things slowly returned to normal. Sadly, normal in this case was a situation where Brownsville, being largely poor and minority, was getting ignored and denied basic civil services. In 1970 it would all come to a head again as residents, sick of the Sanitation Department barely picking up garbage in their neighborhood, would erupt in what became known as the Brownsville Trash Riots.

The impacts of the strike were felt for decades. The relationship between the Jewish and black communities - once based on the Jews’ strong sense of liberalism and social justice - was shattered. The strike was one of what Time Magazine called John Lindsay’s ‘Ten Plagues,’ which included a host of labor problems, including at three day strike that left Broadway’s theater district dark in June and a police slowdown (commonly known as the ‘Blue flu,’ since cops legally can’t strike). Newsweek declared New York City a disaster area. Lindsay would later say the last six months of 1968 were the worst of his life. In fact, Lindsay openly said the biggest question facing New York in 1968 was whether it had a future as a city. The next ten years would make the answer to that question look darker and darker, climaxing in 1977, a year when the Bronx burned constantly, the Son of Sam stalked the streets and it seemed like New York had finally, fully slipped into absolute decay. 

The good news is that New York would be back. A Wall Street boom in the early 80s began to change the city's fortunes, and slowly crime dropped while gentrification reclaimed largely abandoned neighborhoods. But the racial schisms that came out of 1968 have yet to fully heal. 

It’s unlikely that the teacher’s strike will play a large role in this season of Mad Men - after all, Sally and Bobby go to school outside of the city - but this week’s episode, with the constant blare of sirens and Abe's subway stabbing, is best understood through the lens of thickening tension and disorder that was sweeping the city.

* That was a big year for sanitation strikes. There was also one in Memphis in 1968, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was in town to support it when he was assassinated.