I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway
Humans are social creatures. They need social contact. They have to have friends, enemies, lovers, coworkers, and families. In order to make these social networks possible, humanity has organized towns and cities. As time goes by and industry develops in these cities, cities get larger and more populated. Eventually the cities become so packed with people that carelessness such a litter, crimes such as muggings, and natural causes such as building neglect leads to poor living conditions and the need for recovery. But is the recovery worth the time, energy, and resources? Or should society just cut their losses and move on?
“I've seen the lights go out on Broadway, I saw the Empire State laid low.
In the 1976 song Miami 2017, New York environmentalist and world famous musician Billy Joel writes of a future where the government has decided to demolish New York City because the citizens have allowed their towns to decay and go bankrupt to the point where it was not possible to repair the damage. After the city’s destruction, the New Yorkers move to Florida where they unwittingly start the entire cycle of urban decay and abandonment all over again. Although today Joel calls the song “More science fiction now than then”, at the time of the song’s writing New York was in severe environmental and financial trouble. According to a New York Times article found in a search at deja.com, a Usenet newsgroup archive, “In the 70's, New York hit bottom. Not that it stayed there for long. The city has always been too skilled at reinventing itself not to bounce back from hard times. But by the mid-70's, only an irredeemable optimist could keep the gremlins at bay, the ones that stalked the soul in the dead of night. Could it be, they hissed, that New York had finally had it?” The article goes on to describe years of wild spending of social services and an exodus of middle class taxpayers. When New York asked the government for financial aid, they were rejected at first. “Eventually,” the article concludes, “The White House came through with Federal loan guarantees that enabled New York to get past the immediate crisis. But the initial rejection still stung. It had been seared into the municipal consciousness by a 1975 headline in The Daily News that became an instant classic: ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’.”
And life went on beyond the Palisades, They all bought bright Cadillacs - And left there long ago.
We held a concert out in Brooklyn- To watch the Island bridges blow.
They turned our power down, And drove us underground,
But we went right on with the show...”
On the other hand, what if New York could not save itself? What if people remained in the ruins of the city living a life of scavenging and gang war? That is the premise behind Escape 2000, the 1984 B-movie that stars nobody and features nothing. However, what it lacks in plot, acting, and special effects it makes up for in concept. When the residential, commercial, and industrial centers of New York decide to abandon the city, a gang of misfits decides to stay behind where they can live in the ruins without incident. The film begs viewers to consider the legal, ethical, and sanitary issues that would occur if this situation were to actually happen. As in the movie there would be protests, fundraisers, and meetings, but in the end nothing would really get done.
Abandonment and urban decay are seen again in sci-fi fan Matt Groening’s futuristic series Futurama. The series chronicles the life of a not-so-bright 20th century delivery boy named Philip J. Fry after he is accidentally cryogenically frozen in 1999 and is thawed out in the year 3000. As Fry adjusts to his new life in the future, he discovers that the city of New New York is built over top of our modern day New York (known in the year 3000 as Old New York). Old New York became the new city’s sewer system after it was decided that it was impossible to save the old town. Overall, the theory of abandonment is more popular in science fiction than it is in real life.
“I've seen the lights go out on Broadway- I saw the ruins at my feet,
In real life governments have tried to deal with urban decay through a process of rebuilding highly dilapidated commercial and industrial areas in order to stimulate the economy and beautify the city known as urban renewal. Metropolitan areas around America have been working on urban renewal programs for years, and in some cases since the end of World War II. For example, the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority’s website states, “The Johnstown Redevelopment Authority was formed in 1949 following World War II. Urban congestion and deteriorated conditions throughout Pennsylvania Cities had prompted the State Legislature to create the Urban Redevelopment Authorities Act. The mission of an Urban Redevelopment Authority is to eliminate blight and dangerous conditions. The Authority is formed by the local governing body and operates independently thereafter both in its business dealings and with respect to the debt which it may incur.” The JRA website goes on to say that it’s chief purpose today is to “concentrate on clearing urban and industrial land of both outdated structures and environmental liabilities and encouraging small scale commercial and industrial uses.”
You know we almost didn't notice it- We'd see it all the time on Forty-Second Street.
They burned the churches up in Harlem- Like in that Spanish Civil War-
The flames were everywhere, But no one really cared - It always burned up there before....”
“I’ve seen the rats lie down on Broadway, I watched the mighty skyline fall.
So which is the better solution: abandoning a crippled city or rebuilding it a piece at a time? Obviously if major metropolitan areas turn to abandonment we would see an decrease in inhabitable areas and an increase in crime and homelessness (there will always be people who choose to live in the remains of a city, despite it’s lack of civilization – it is much cheaper than living in an actual populated area). Rodents and insects will take over where we leave a civilization void. Eventually the buildings will decompose on their own which could possibly damage other structures in the area, which could cause a chain reaction of damage out into the newly populated areas. A safer alternative to this scenario is for each major city to start an urban renewal program to restore now-dilapidated alleys and neighborhoods to their former glory. While more expensive in the short run, this practice would save money over a span of several decades and would allow citizens to remain in their homes after renovations. In the end it would seem that abandoning a city is best suited to the world of science fiction and urban renewal belongs in the real world. After all, would anyone go to see a riveting sci-fi thriller about economic reform to bolster commercial profits? Some premises are so unlikely that they go beyond even the sci-fi genre.
The boats were waiting at the Battery, The union went on strike- They never sailed at all.
They sent a carrier out from Norfolk and picked the Yankees up for free.
They said that Queens could stay, they blew the Bronx away, and sank Manhattan out at sea....”
“You know those lights were bright on Broadway, but that was so many years ago...
Before we all lived here in Florida, before the Mafia took over Mexico.
There are not many who remember - They say a handful still survive...
To tell the world about... The way the lights went out, and keep the memory alive....”
Escape 2000. Comedy Central. 2 March 1996. Aired as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000. People remaining in the rubble were urged to “Leave the Bronx.” As a B-movie it’s not terribly convincing, but the overall plot gives the viewer something to think about. Or if you just want to watch it to laugh at how bad it is, that’s fine too.
Futurama. FOX. WOFL, Orlando, Florida. 28 March 1999. Brilliant yet network-neglected animated series from the creator of The Simpsons. Features satire of modern day through sci-fi references and scenarios. Offers convincing “what if” scenarios and is an excellent sci-fi media to reference when a satirical source is needed, despite it’s animated, comedic angle.
Joel, Billy. Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).
Turnstiles. Columbia Records, 1976. From the liner notes to Joel’s 1981’s Songs in the Attic CD (which featured a live version of “Miami 2017”): “1975 – New York Daily News Headline: “Ford to New York – Drop Dead!” (Remember Madrid – No Pasaran!) More science fiction now than then. A legacy for my unborn grandchildren.” A classic song, no matter how dated it is and very thought provoking.
Johnstown Redevelopment Authority. Johnstown Redevelopment Authority Home
Page. May 1998. A typical department homepage listing current projects and organizational purpose and history. Full of information and resources and provides a basic explanation of urban renewal in Pennsylvania.
Lights Go Out on Broadway??. Deja Newsgroup Archive. 27 September 1999.
Turned up in a search of the alt.music.billy-joel newsgroup. More than likely the same article reference by Joel in the aforementioned liner notes. It’s not a scientific source, but not all good references have to be.
A "Node Your Homework" production - original essay written Spring 2000