Punk Rock and Urban Decay in New York – Part 1

Essential Question

What social and economic forces shaped Downtown New York City during the 1970s, and how might they have influenced the region’s music scene?


Conventional histories of popular culture often suggest that each decade responds to the one that preceded it. For instance, many argue that the often messy process of experimentation that defined much of the popular culture of the 1960s inspired a public craving for simple pleasures such as Disco music and dancing in the 1970s. On many levels, the argument works. In 1970s New York City, for example, interest in the Folk, Jazz, and Blues clubs that had made the Lower Manhattan “Village” area a cultural Mecca began to wane, and many venues closed. During the same period, New York became a center of dance club culture. By 1978, the New York based Disco film Saturday Night Fever was a blockbuster with a soundtrack firmly atop the Billboard record charts, and, to many, New York had become the home of the mirrored Disco ball. But New York is vast, and much more was happening.

Saturday Night Fever took place in Bay Ridge, which at the time was a residential, blue-collar area tucked into the southeast corner of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Many of the city’s non-fictional Disco clubs were located between 30th and 86th Streets in “Midtown” Manhattan. “Downtown,” roughly the area south of 14th Street, was a markedly different environment. Much of Downtown was in crisis, scarred by the departure of manufacturing and other industries, “white flight,” and the overall economic malaise of the time. As the British New Musical Express writer Nick Kent put it following a 1976 visit, “In Manhattan you’re either Uptown or Downtown and there’s really no halfway house to dissolve into while in transit.” Depressed and sometimes even dangerous, Downtown Manhattan was the backdrop for the tales of crime and corruption portrayed in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 film Serpico and Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver. Neither film featured a Disco ball.

In Part One of this lesson, students use footage from the Sonic Highways “New York City” episode, archival photos, advertisements, and more to explore ways the departure of industry, “white flight,” and the rise of American suburbs changed the demographics of the region, creating distress, but also possibilities. Students will read an essay by Hilly Kristal, owner of the famed Punk club CBGB and consider how the decline of industry may have inspired a cultural uptick. As homework, students will prepare for Part Two of this lesson by conducting individual research on a band that performed at CBGB.

In Part Two of this lesson, students will view footage of The Ramones and the CBGB club from the Sonic Highways “New York City” episode and consider how the venue and music may reflect what they discovered in Part One of this lesson about the state of Downtown New York in the 1970s. Students will then work in groups, studying images of both “mainstream” Rock and CBGB bands of the era to explore how the landscape of the suburban and urban might be reflected by both.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the changing landscape of New York City post WWII, in particular “White Flight” and demographic change
    • About the G.I. Bill and the rise of suburban communities in Post WWII America
    • How housing discrimination affected the application of the G.I. Bill and created “White Flight”
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to explain through group discussion and written analysis how changing economic and social conditions in New York City during the 1970s played an essential role in influencing the city’s music scene.