Dirty Boulevards: Songs for a Changing New York

March 02, 2012 at 4:00 am

Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, captured on film by Andy Warhol. The band's classic song, "Waiting for the Man," describes a trade plied on a certain corner in the Spanish Harlem of yore. Flickr/ -jeffrey-

Chances are, you can name at least three songs about New York off the top of your head, without even touching that Ol’ Blue Eyes anthem, “New York, New York.”

But if you listen closely to the lyrics of some of those classics, a pattern emerges: New York has gone through some radical changes over time.

Take, for example, the 1933 Broadway standard “42nd Street.” Today, it seems that the best place for “the underworld can meet the elite” is at Madame Tussauds wax museum. Yet at the time of the song’s release, the area around Broadway had a different mix of glamor and squalor. Even songs released more recently serve as 3-minute time capsules to the past, highlighting activities, trends and lifestyles that might seem a little strange compared to today. So take a listen, and you might just learn a thing or two…

I’m Waiting for the Man” — The Velvet Underground, 1967

Andy Warhol shot this grainy footage of the Velvet Underground, a band he was managing at the time, during a rehearsal in 1966.

This song, one of the more popular from their debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” offers a disarmingly candid account of a quest into Spanish Harlem — Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, to be precise — to buy heroin. “Went up to Lexington, one-two-five, feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive,” sings Lou Reed. At the time, there wasn’t a better place to do it, as the neighborhood’s rich history of gang activity (first Jewish and Italian, later Puerto Rican and Dominican) had allowed a wholesale heroin market to take root there as early as the ’40s.

Spanish Harlem has changed quite a bit since the days when Lou Reed used to visit to score. Luxury apartments with bamboo gardens and valet parking, as well as fog-glass-bedecked condominiums, have sprung up in the neighborhood in recent years. The area has already experienced a renaissance of news arts and media in the form of television studio Metropolis (where BET’s “106 and Park” and Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” were filmed) and MediaNoche, a new media gallery.

But some things stay the same. On Jan. 12, the NYPD announced that it had arrested Lamont and Bernard Moultie, as well as a number of their associates. According to police reports, the brothers had been running a drug operation that made a million dollars a year out of the Millbrank-Frawley Houses on 117th St.

53rd and 3rd” — The Ramones, 1976

The song “53rd and 3rd” allegedly referred to the street corner where Ramones guitarist Dee Dee worked as a male prostitute.

Upon first inspection, the Ramones were the least shocking of the original punk bands: they didn’t try to kill anybody, they didn’t harm themselves onstage — they didn’t even really sing about politics until 1985’s “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” where the Jewish Joey Ramone called out President Reagan on his visit to Bitburg Cemetery, a burial ground for Nazi Waffen-SS troops.

But beneath Joey’s (wonderfully) garbled singing lies a dark world in “53rd & 3rd.” Legend has it, the song is about bassist Dee Dee Ramone working as a prostitute at the titular corner. The intersection of 53rd Street and Third Avenue was a popular location for this kind of work, especially in and around the bar, Rounds. Today, you’d never guess what used to go on there; it’s home to two famous pieces of architecture, the Lipstick Building and the Citigroup Center.

But the construction of these buildings hasn’t precluded criminal activity in the area, as the 17th through 19th floors of the Lipstick Building were home to Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. And punk isn’t completely dead in the area. Last summer, a receptionist from the building held an art show on the abandoned 14th and 15th floors, amid the detritus left behind by another recession-ravaged company in 2008.

Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” — Billy Joel, 1977

“Movin’ Out” referred to working class Irish, Italian and Polish residents of New York City who moved to the suburbs with aspirations of upward mobility.

Given Mr. Joel’s exploits — 33 “Top 40” singles and 150 million records sold worldwide — it’s pretty hard to find his explanation of the lyrics to any given song, even if it does lend its title to a Broadway musical. Nonetheless, the story of “Movin’ Out” is pretty clear: working-class Irish, Italian, and Polish denizens of New York want to move to Hackensack, New Jersey, which Joel believes will result in a “broken back” or “heart attack.”

The one specific location named in the song, “Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street” offers a brief glimpse into New York’s past — Sullivan Street is a small stretch of road running from Canal Street to Washington Square Park. What’s a dumpy restaurant, the kind staffed by an over-tired Sgt. O’Leary, doing in SoHo? The answer is simple enough: though the neighborhood’s name is synonymous with everything yuppie, when Joel released the song in 1977, it wasn’t. This was five years before the Loft Law allowed residents to legally live in the area’s abandoned warehouse lofts, and just ten years after Mayor John Lindsay had advocated ripping the neighborhood up to build a super highway. The Sullivan Street of yore was also a lot closer to Little Italy, as the neighborhood used to extend further west.

South Bronx” – Boogie Down Productions, 1986

The Boogie Down Productions classic, “South Bronx,” pays homage to the group’s neighborhood through a gritty lens, while igniting a rivalry with rapper in Queens.

One of the best hometown-pride jams in a genre known for its regional pride, “South Bronx” was released at a turning point  for the borough. The seventies and early eighties had been hard on the Bronx –when a place is so blighted that residents’ best money-making prospect is burning buildings, things generally aren’t looking too good. Tellingly enough, BDP was formed when Scott La Rock met KRS-One at a homeless shelter for men, where La Rock was a social worker and KRS-One, born Lawrence Krisna Parker, was living.

Things were starting to turn around for the South Boogie Down in 1986. Mayor Ed Koch allocated some $1.5 billion for Bronx restoration, while some 70,000 units of affordable housing were built in the area from 1985 to 2005. The “South, South Bronx” has stayed largely the same since then. It’s avoided the gentrification wave that the New York Times predicted in 2005 ( “SoBro” is a pretty disgusting nickname, anyway). Unfortunately, dire poverty still plagues certain places: according to an article by the Gotham Gazzette, old buildings in the Bronx are making tenants sick.

Christmas in Hollis” — Run-DMC, 1987

In “Christmas in Hollis,” Run-DMC tell the tale of finding Santa Claus’s wallet in the park.

Though originally recorded for two Christmas albums, “Christmas in Hollis” has become, for better or worse, one of Run-DMC’s most enduring tracks, featured in everything from the film “Die Hard” to the television show “The Office.” The song’s goofy, feel-good vibe belies the reality of Christmas in Hollis in 1987, and just how “full of fear” Run’s heart would’ve been approaching a strange man in the park at night. The crack boom was in full-swing, and no place had been hit harder than Hollis.

Of course, since then, the neighborhood has improved, with definite help from the fellows in Run-DMC. Donations from the group have helped make the neighborhood’s hip-hop museum an attraction, while group member DMC has been heavily involved in volunteering around New York, starting a camp for foster kids and teaching lessons in fitness and weight-loss at the gym chain Blink. But DMC has his work cut out for him. 2011 saw crime in the 113th Precinct, of which Hollis is a member, increase by 20 percent, the third highest crime hike in the city.

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