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.

View More


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.


Motivational Activity:

  1. On the board, make a T-chart with columns labeled, “urban” and “suburban.” Present the following questions to the class, keeping track of students’ answers on the chart.
    • What type of sounds might you hear in a suburban environment? How about in an urban environment? (Encourage students to think of industry, proximity of neighbors, the sounds new and old houses and apartments might make, etc.)
    • How might you travel in a suburban environment? In an urban environment?
    • How often might you see other people in a suburban environment? Would you “bump into” people on your travels? How might this differ in an urban environment?
    • Do you think a suburban environment would have a diverse population? How about an urban environment? (Encourage your students to consider this question in terms of economic class, ethnicity, age, etc.)
    • Is there any music you think of as coming from a suburban location? Why?
    • Is there any music you think of as coming from urban environments? Why?
    • How do you think the sounds of one’s environment might affect one’s taste in music to play or listen to? Why?


  1. Tell your students that in this lesson they will learn about “Downtown” New York City, in particular the section known as The Bowery, and the Rock and Punk music scene that thrived there in the mid 1970s. Play Clip 1, “Downtown New York City in the 1970s”, then ask students:
    • Why does Thurston Moore suggest it was so inexpensive to live in New York City in the 1970s? What does he insinuate the trade off was?
    • What are your impressions of present-day New York City? Do you think of New York City as inexpensive? Safe? Clean? Why do you think New York City was in the condition we saw presented here during the 1970s?
  2. Distribute Handout 1 – White Flight, Planned Communities, and Economic Crisis in New York City and read it as a class. Ask your students:
    • Look at the 1856 Map of New York on the handout. What about the geography of New York City might have made it a center of manufacturing and trade?
    • The General Electric advertisement on page two suggests, “It’s a Promise.” What do you think this promise was? Why do you think people might have chosen to pursue this promise outside of a city like New York?
    • What effect do you think the departure of the white, mostly middle-class population might have on a city? (Encourage students to consider the power dynamics of mid-20th century America and the whites owned and managed a significant portion of the major business in New York. Many took their business with them.They provided a tax base which help support local structures like schools and social programs. Whites were also established and bolstered by privilege. The immigrants that replaced them were new and without similar benefits.)
    • When factories close, what possibilities do you think might exist for the space? (Encourage students to consider the size and specialized structure of factories. They’re often too large for anything but another manufacturing operation to use; they often become derelict, unused space.)
    • Thinking back to Clip 1, in what ways did musician Thurston Moore find a way to take advantage of the Downtown New York while it was in decline?

  3. Tell your students that you will now show several images to compare city life to the emerging idea of suburban living in the post WWII years. Without naming the image, or telling your students what it is, show Image 1 (above, “Aerial View of Levittown, PA, 1960”) and ask students:
    • What do you think you are seeing in this image?
    • Why do you think people might leave a city to move to a planned development such as this?

  4. Show Image 2, “G.I. Bill Advertisement” and ask your students:
    • What does this ad suggest men would get from the suburbs?
    • What does it suggest women and families would get from the suburbs?
  5. Now show Image 3, “New York City Apartments, 1950s” and Image 4, “Brooklyn Brownstones, 1960s,” and ask students:
    • How might you contrast suburban development with apartment life? What do you think those who move to the suburbs might gain, and what do you think they might lose?
  6. Now show Image 5, “1950s 7-Up Advertisement” and ask students:
    • Describe what you see happening in this picture. Would it be possible for a family in the city? Why or why not?
  7. Show Image 6, “Suburban Rail Advertisement” and ask students:
    • Overall, what messages do you get from the advertisements about the suburbs? What do they seem to represent in contrast to city life? (Students might suggest that the suburb are advertised as offering a measure of peace, quiet and solitude not attainable in a city. Also, that one is closer to “nature” in a suburb.)
  8. Break students into small groups and distribute one copy of Handout 2 – Hilly Kristal and CBGB to each group. Have students read the handout as a group and then record their answers to the prompts below the text.

Summary Activity:

  1. Discuss students’ response to the prompts on Handout 2 as a class.

Homework/Extension Activity:

  1. In preparation for Part Two of this lesson, have students complete the Music Research Homework assignment.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
  • Core Music Standard: Connecting
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.