I've been thinking about the phrase "The Bad Old Days." In recent years, it has come up whenever there's a rash of highly publicized crime in the city. However, in a month when we've seen a spate of vividly violent anti-gay crimes, the city media has not bothered to goose the fear quotient with any mention of the return of "the bad old days."
A Google search of the phrase, accompanied by "New York" and "crime," shows a smattering in the 1990s and then more frequent usage in the 2000s.
Like a warm up, it appears in a May 2007 Observer article about "New Nostalgists," people who long for the "bad old days," when "there were no Tinsley Mortimers, no hedge-fund gods. No $1,000 pizzas or latte factories, no $50 million mansions or elliptical trainers at Equinox."
But it seems like 2008, after the recession hit and people panicked, was the year when the phrase started to be evoked in major sources as a sign of changing times.
Lou Beach, New York Observer
June 28, 2008: "Revenge of the Bad Old Days...Does it feel some days as if New York-- wealthy, successful, seemingly at the top of the world--is slipping back into the bad old days of crime, noise, dirt, rudeness?"
November 13, 2008: “Attempting to close a budget gap of this size through cuts alone will wreck havoc on New York City and force us back into the bad old days of broken down subways, unsafe parks and failing schools and will impede state and local government from addressing already increasing human needs,” said Raquel Batista, Executive Director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.
January 4, 2009: Crain's wondered, "New York is gripped by fear. Are we headed back to the bad old days of the 1970s?"
January 26, 2009: The Post pushed the phrase with a headline, "SCARED TO COME TO NY: LIKE BAD OLD DAYS OF PETTY CRIME."
The Daily News
In February 2009, Joel Kotkin put it in a Forbes article. In a February 12 State of the City speech, Christine Quinn used it, saying, "We all remember the bad old days of the 70s. Empty buildings and broken windows...we won’t make those same mistakes again." Almost immediately, it turned up in a February 19 Scott Stringer State of the Borough address.
It appeared in the Daily News in July 2009, talking about "gutter punks" in Williamsburg, "It's like St. Marks in the '70s... It's the bad old days all over again." It appeared in initial caps, like a title, in the Times in August 2009. In September Dwight Garner in the Times used it to review Edmund White's book, City Boy, "an open-throttled tour of New York City during the bad old days of the 1960s and early ’70s: crime, graffiti, garbage in the streets..."
Over five days in April 2010, "The Bad Old Days" hit the trifecta. It was in the Times: "It is impossible to know if the recent increase in violent crime in the city is legitimate cause for concern that the 'bad old days' of crime may return." It was in a Daily News headline: "Increasing crime rates and shrinking NYPD headcounts remind New York City of the 'bad old days.'" And Bloomberg's use of the term "wilding," said the Post, struck "fear into New Yorkers who remember the bad old days when packs of marauding youths roamed the streets."
But April was a fluke in the year.
In 2010, The Bad Old Days seems to have fallen out of fashion. So far, according to Google, it's only appeared in 5 of the past 10 months, and not very often. Why? Said the Times in July: "At the start of the recession, many wondered whether economic forces would propel the city toward 'the bad old days' around 1990, when killings peaked at 2,245. Those fears have not been realized."
So all the "bad old days" prognosticators were wrong--unless you're queer in New York City.