By Lawrence R. Samuel
It is the 50th anniversary of 1964, and many of us are looking back at what was a seminal year in the United States and, especially New York City. In many ways, the city of 1964 would be unrecognizable today, as a scan of Hart’s Guide to New York City reveals. New York has always been as a city that is not reluctant to destroy the old in order to create the new, something that has been especially true of the last half-century. Fifty years of “progress” has transformed the physical and cultural landscape of the city to such a degree that a trip back in time would be a generally alien experience.
Newspapers were a mainstay of everyday life before cable television and the Internet, especially in multicultural cities like New York. Dozens of foreign language newspapers, from Arabic to Yiddish, served residents of the many ethnic neighborhoods. The New York Herald Tribune, around since 1924, could still be found on newsstands (but would bite the dust in 1966). Communications in general could be seen as pre-historic from today’s perspective. Telephone calls cost a dime, and the city’s 3,300 phone booths were a visible presence on sidewalks. (More than fifty city employees were needed to collect the five million pounds of change dropped in every year.) The 911 emergency call did not exist in 1964; to contact the police or request an ambulance, one had to dial SP 7-3100. (For a fire, one would dial the operator or “O.”) There remained over eighty Western Union telegram offices in the city in 1964. (Singing telegrams, in which an actual person would arrive at one’s door to belt out tunes like “Happy Birthday” or “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” were available). Other services we would today find peculiar happily existed in the little, old New York of the mid-sixties. Magic Menders repaired nylon stockings, for example (thirty cents per run), and the Zipper Service Company did just that- fix that uncooperative clothing or suitcase zipper (for a buck and in fifteen minutes). The Regent Steno Service was available twenty-four hours a day should a businessman need someone to take dictation and type up a letter at three a.m.; for an extra $2, the rent-a-secretary would bring over her own typewriter.
Transportation was also like another world. Idlewild Airport had recently been renamed JFK after the assassinated president, and airlines like Allegheny, Braniff, Eastern, National, Pan American, and TWA still flew the friendly skies. Fares were generally cheaper in absolute dollars (under $100 for a one-way trip to or from east coast cities and under $200 to or from the west coast), but considerably more expensive when adjusted for inflation. (The inflation rate between 1964 and 2013 is 750 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Taking off half your clothing before getting on a plane, need it be said, was not required. If one was nervous about flying, which a lot of people were in those days, one could walk into an automobile showroom and buy a brand new Rambler or Studebaker. Japanese car companies like Honda, Toyota, and Datsun were trying to get a foothold in the United States, but American consumers were so far unimpressed with these tiny things with horsepower more suited to lawn mowers than automobiles. A little German car, however, was getting a lot of attention, especially among young people. The Volkswagen Beetle would prove to be an ideal car for the streets of New York- affordable to maintain and easy to park. A subway ride cost fifteen cents, the same price as a slice of pizza, in 1964, as Eric Bram, a teenager from the Upper West Side, observed. Bram is credited for first recognizing the correlation in price between a New York City subway ride and a piece of pizza on the way to the World’s Fair, a relationship that has held remarkably true over the years.
There was no shortage of places to go on the subway in New York in 1964. Before there was Time Out New York, those looking for weekly entertainment options would consult Cue magazine or, like today, The New Yorker’s “Goings on About Town” section. The great movie palaces were already gone by the 1960s, but one could go to Radio City, the Paramount, or the Capital to see a movie on a screen we would consider absurdly wide. My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Goldfinger, and From Russia With Love played on such screens that year (James Bond was all the rage), each of them in vivid Technicolor. There were no less than 417 movie houses in the city, although the debut of color television (at the World’s Fair that year) would make that number shrink significantly over the next decade. Viewing options on television were at this point mighty slim, however. There were only a handful of television channels (2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13), and they went to snow at two a.m., leaving late-night viewers in the literal dark. “High” culture in New York was surprisingly accessible and affordable. There were ten opera companies in the city, and admission to the biggest art museums was remarkably affordable: one dollar for the Met and MOMA, fifty cents for the Guggenheim, and gratis for the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney (then located on West 54th Street).
While rock ‘n’ roll was now dominating the music universe, the sounds of jazz and folk could be heard all over the city. The heyday of “Swing Street” (52nd Street) was long over, but one could still hear traditional or “modern” jazz (bebop or post-bop) coming out of the doors of midtown clubs like Eddie Condon’s, Room at the Bottom, Jimmy Ryan’s, or the Hickory House (all of them lost to time). Downtown jazz clubs like the Five Spot Café, the Half Note, the Village Gate, and the Village Vanguard were swinging, with only the latter extant. Big band, a vestige from the 1940s, still swung at Basin Street East and Café Metropole led by old-timers like Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and Woody Herman. While jazz clubs were certainly hip, the hottest places in town were the Eighth Wonder and Trude Heller’s in Greenwich Village and the Peppermint Lounge near Times Square. Any night at each was usually packed with dancers doing the twist, wobble, and the waddle, with celebrities like Ava Gardner often dropping in to blow off some steam.
Folkies, meanwhile, gathered at clubs like Gerde’s Folk City on West 4th Street and the Gaslight Café on MacDougall Street in the West Village, each conveniently located near the “beatniks” in Washington Square. Greenwich Village was made up of “beardos, weirdos, and espressos,” newspaper columnist Earl Wilson suggested in his 1964 book Earl Wilson’s New York, thinking the area offered visitors “the world’s greatest show.”1 In his book Hoot!, Robbie Woliver made a convincing case that the Village was the epicenter of the civil rights, anti-war, and “alternative” movements that continued to gain traction in the mid-sixties. As the activism of the New Left morphed into the counterculture, Greenwich Village served as a Mecca for thousands of young people to come and be part of what was no doubt an exciting experience. The area around Bleeker, MacDougall, and Third Streets was so packed in fact that on evenings it became a pedestrian-only zone, with no cars allowed.2
Folk music was still the soundtrack of the Village in 1964, but a new kind of American rock ‘n roll that traded on the success of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was becoming increasingly popular. (Bob Dylan would famously “plug in” the following year at the Newport Folk Festival.) Greenwich Village was “the scene that birthed the next generation of American rockers,” John Sebastian observed a couple of decades after he and many other musicians made the nightly rounds of the dozens of clubs and coffeehouses that littered the neighborhood.3 (Sebastian would go on to form The Lovin’ Spoonful.) Singer-songwriters like Richie Havens and Tom Paxton could be found any given night at coffeehouses like Why Not?, where baskets were passed around for the musicians. Uber-folkies Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Dave van Ronk were regulars at Kettle of Fish, the bar then located on MacDougall Street, while people like Roger McGuinn (later of the Byrds), Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and Cass Elliot (later of the Mamas and Papas) honed their sound. By 1966, the folk scene (and arguably the Village itself) was in rapid decline, as rock ‘n roll conquered the world and as “hippies” invaded the neighborhood en masse.4
This is the first in a two-part series. The next post will appear in a month.
1 Earl Wilson, Earl Wilson’s New York (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964).
2 Robbie Woliver, Hoot! A Twenty-Five Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984) 112-134.
3 Hoot! 116.
4 Hoot! 116-137.
Lawrence R. Samuel is the founder of Culture Planning LLC, a Miami-based resource offering cultural insights to Fortune 500 companies and their ad agencies. He is the author of many books of 20th century American cultural history, including The End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (Syracuse University Press, 2007) and Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). His new book is New York City 1964: A Cultural History (McFarland, 2014), from which this essay adapted.