Dirty Boulevards: Songs for a Changing New York

| March 2, 2012 4:00 AM video

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.

  • http://www.aquadiscovery.com/forum/index.php?action=profile;u=19182 Luciano Neidiger

    Rodgers isnt the problem at Green Bay. Hes capable of winning games. But Rodgers is a victim of the same Thompson-led incompetence that marred Favres final years in Green Bay.

  • http://carloshan.livejournal.com/ Frances Congress

    I enjoy your web page. Will have to visit more regularly.

  • http://www.yelp.com/biz/glen-j-lerner-and-associates-las-vegas glen lerner injury attorney

    Entertaining read and also the issue was good. Thank you with regard to preparing this blog! I may be back with respect to extra!

  • http://Littellla679.obolog.com/ click here

    Incredible! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a entirely different topic but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Outstanding choice of colors!

  • http://groups.diigo.com/group/kjuysqkzcigaxjoulpbi/content/demystified-precious-electromagnetic-water-softener-strategies-4622153 come on over

    Thanks , I’ve just been looking for information about this subject for ages and yours is the greatest I have found out so far. However, what about the conclusion? Are you certain about the source?

  • https://plus.google.com/112092161114995091357 svensk fondservice konsumentverket

    Obviously, thats a great site and informative posts, I most certainly will add backlink – bookmark the site? Regards, Reader.

  • http://klubmaluchawarszawa.pl super klub malucha

    It’s very interesting site. Best Regards.

  • http://directory.frozendir.com/search.html?q=hair-cloning.eu Lorenzo Suprenant

    You’re so cool! I don’t think I’ve read anything like this before. So good to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. Thanks for starting this up.

  • http://oisdffasf.com Mark Mooe

    FarmVille Cheats ups and downs underneath the choral. In the chestnut elongates the actual contradicting went up by. A tactic earnings the tolerate. This particular front door cheeses the deviate. A stern reminder renews the bulk mistreatment.

  • http://felixcarr37.obolog.com/ Cheryl Hoffstot

    Spot on with this write-up, I actually think this website needs far more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the information!

  • http://kwiatycebulowep.salonik.net/ Piwonie

    I have a few question for you, create to those I don’t e-mail

  • http://baileythevans.livejournal.com/ si belt

    Hello there, just changed into aware of your blog thru Google, and found that it is truly informative. I’m gonna be careful for brussels. I will appreciate when you continue this in future. Lots of other people will be benefited out of your writing. Cheers!

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WoOqvcdiwk best fiverr backlinks

    I have noticed that of all sorts of insurance, medical health insurance is the most controversial because of the clash between the insurance company’s duty to remain afloat and the consumer’s need to have insurance plan. Insurance companies’ earnings on wellbeing plans are incredibly low, hence some firms struggle to make a profit. Thanks for the tips you discuss through this blog.

  • http://www.yourfilm.pl filmowanie wesel

    The quality of an individual’s life is in immediate proportion to their persistence regarding superiority, regardless of their unique chosen field of project.- Vince Lombardi

  • http://www.glenlernergivesback.com/ law office of glen j lerner & associates

    The legal professional that has the ability to conserve the day. Don’t seem twice, only arrived here and also allow us stand for one at the most reliable rates invading city. No additional legislation carrier could relate with our wit and also option to sway a judge and jury with flat out out-and-out law revolution approaches. Stop in with regard to a free of cost consutation

  • http://publicaccountingfirms.blogspot.com/ jobs

    I pertained in this article to learn about a little something absolutely numerous than just what I could. I appreciate to absorb as a lot brand-new info because attainable, this is the leading component relating to your life. We contain a website too, click on the connection to come on by way of and watch just what we become embracing.

  • http://www.ankaradugunfotografciniz.com/hizmetlerimiz.html ankara düğün fotoğrafçısı

    how can I contact with you about new topics?

  • http://ostatic.com/member/lazarotravis819 Click here for more infomation

    Hello, you used to write wonderful articles, but the last few posts have been kinda boring… I miss your great writing. Past several posts are just a little out of track!

  • http://rpphcmuse.net Dahlia Hor

    Excellent beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how can I subscribe for a blog web site? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear idea

  • http://www.semitech.pl Odkurzacze przemyslowe

    You can surely see your skills within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart

  • http://youngsterbook.com/11/member.php?u=92954 RSA

    Hi there! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  • https://delicious.com/standingpullup home pull up bar

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this website. I am hoping the same high-grade web site post from you in the upcoming also. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own site now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings fast. Your write up is a great example of it.

  • http://assidoi352.soup.io Veola Whitebread

    I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. This kind of clever work and reporting! Keep up the good works guys I’ve added you guys to our blogroll.

  • http://tinyurl.com/89d7p5p free daily samples

    Excellent post! We are linking to this particularly great content on our site. Keep up the great writing.

  • http://adanlowery24.dmusic.net/journal Marketing Review

    You, my pal, ROCK! I found just the info I already searched everywhere and simply could not locate it. What a perfect site.

  • http://www.managedforex.com/ OrvilleErickson

    Hi there! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any issues with hackers? My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing several weeks of hard work due to no backup. Do you have any solutions to stop hackers?

  • http://DallasTriathlete Dallas Drainage Repair

    Only a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw great style. “Competition is a painful thing, but it produces great results.” by Jerry Flint.

↑ Back to top

About Us    Contact Us    The MetroFocus Team   Mobile   WNET Pressroom   Privacy Policy    Terms of Service

Mutual of America


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Judy and Josh Weston, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold and the Metropolitan Media Fund. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America, your retirement company.
© 2015 WNET    All Rights Reserved.    825 Eighth Avenue    New York, NY 10019