Remembering New York’s 1977 riots, 40 years later
Reprinted from City Journal.
A few days after the infamous July 13, 1977, New York City blackout, I joined a group of pals setting out from Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that hadn’t yet gentrified, for Williamsburg, home to Hasidim and Puerto Ricans in the decades before it, too, became a hipster hot spot. Headed for Jack’s Pastrami King, our favorite restaurant, we were in a jovial mood, though New York was reeling from two days of rioting and looting, which had destroyed 1,600 stores. The riots were another blow to a city still struggling to rebound from its near-bankruptcy of 1975.
Jack’s Pastrami King was famous for hand-sliced pastrami, served on delicious rye bread smeared with Ba-Tampte mustard, with “healthy” sides of potato salad, coleslaw, and fabulous sour pickles included. The restaurant’s reputation was built on the meats smoked on site, in its basement. Jack, explained our friend Louis Menashe, who grew up around the corner, smoked the pastrami in cedar, not the customary hickory, and flavored it with fresh garlic, not garlic salt. This was food fit for the hardworking Jewish manual laborers who had hailed from the Russian Pale of Settlement 75 years earlier.
The restaurant’s fame was such that a mutual friend’s wife, an airline stewardess, made regular deliveries of its corned beef, pastrami, and rye bread to Louis’s friends in Paris. But what amazed us was the day we heard an enormous commotion as we were sitting and stuffing ourselves. Three guys had just come in from San Juan, via JFK, to pick up several thousand dollars’ worth of smoked meats, sides, and rye bread. They brusquely paid in cash, shouting at the largely Latino staff, already hustling, to “hurry up, we’ve got a plane to catch.” The food was packed in Styrofoam to keep it as fresh as possible for the return trip. Apparently, they had carefully coordinated their trip so that they could quickly return to San Juan for what we gathered to be a party of some sort.
But when we returned to the neighborhood in the aftermath of the riots and looting, we were in for an unpleasant surprise. So many stores and building had been torched that we couldn’t find the restaurant. Louis, who knew the neighborhood best, wasn’t with us, and without him we were clueless. The driver, Freddy, circled round and round; we saw block after block in ruins, until we were able to make out what we thought might be the charred remains of Jack’s. Freddy pulled over, and I stepped out to ask some guys standing on the sidewalk if the burned-out building behind them had, in fact, been the restaurant. (We must have been naive to assume that Jack’s Pastrami King would survive the riots, but we couldn’t believe that anyone would destroy a restaurant that provided pleasure to so many people.) Several told me, smirking, that the looted building had been “liberated.” I had no response but bewilderment. It was only later, in l’esprit de escalier, that I wished that I’d asked them how many people had lost work due to the looting.
Today, the graffiti and gang violence of the 1970s evoke a contrived nostalgia on the part of some hipsters, many of whom hail from out of town but wish that they could have been part of the funky seventies as evoked by Saturday Night Fever and other films of the time. But as a native New Yorker, I look back on the seventies as a kidney stone of a decade—a decade in which I heard the frightening, reverberating thud of a truck crashing through the old elevated West Side Highway a few blocks from my apartment. The city was too caught up in expanding its welfare system to pay much attention to small matters like bridge and road repair.
The dreadful 1977 riots hit Brooklyn the hardest of New York’s boroughs; the poorer the neighborhood, the greater the damage. The damage that I sustained was relatively trivial, but instructive: told that the vandalism that had destroyed Jack’s Pastrami King was an act of liberation, I lost much of my political innocence. The city itself had been mugged, I realized. I’m still haunted by that moment from 40 years ago, when my political reeducation began.