A few days ago I saw a flyer from 1972 promoting a concert by Eric Emerson’s band The Magic Tramps performing at New York’s Mercer Art centre. Later that day I read an article about New York’s High Line Park. The unpleasant details of Emerson’s death and the opening of the park are two seemingly disparate events but ones that encapsulate the changing fortunes of New York City.

Manhattan 1975 

Eric Emerson’s New York of the 1970’s was a dark Hubert Selby-esque world. Emerson had been a dancer in Andy Warhol’s multi-media show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable and had gained Warhol “Superstar” status. His band, The Magic Tramps, were the first to play at the Mercer Arts Centre – a crumbling theatre complex one block off Broadway – which in 1971 in a bid to revive it’s troubled finances opened its doors to rock and roll. On that opening night The Magic Tramps performed in the Oscar Wilde Room where their support acts were a fire-eater called Satan, and The New York Dolls. The New York Dolls went on to hold a 17-week residency at the venue before finding international cult status and rock celebrity. They also found varying degrees of drug addiction and sadly, early deaths. Emerson however didn’t achieve cult status but did find drug addiction and death. He died in 1975 of a heroin overdose. Following the overdose his body was dumped onto New York’s decaying West Side highway to make it – in the words of Lou Reed from Street Hassle – “look like another hit and run”.

In 1975 New York Cities fortunes were also collapsing. No-where was this better illustrated than in the fate of the West Side Highway onto which Emerson’s lifeless body had been dumped. Conceived as an urban boulevard that was to stretch between West 72nd Street and the southern tip of Manhattan, work started on the West Side Highway in 1929. After delays in construction a section of the road was finally opened in 1937 though this was immediately inadequate for the amount of traffic using it. The road continued to have a troubled history and in 1973 an elevated section collapsed under the weight of a truck carrying asphalt for on-going repairs. After the collapse much of the road remained closed. The highway’s eerie emptiness is beautifully captured by Wim Wenders in his 1975 film The American Friend in a scene where Dennis Hopper walks alone along the empty highway at sunset.

The disused highway symbolised the city’s state of decay, which in 1975 when asking President Ford to bail it out from impending bankruptcy was given a definite “no”. The New York Daily News ran the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.  In a city with no money, the highway, like Emerson’s body, was left to rot. “Someone should take this city and just flush it down the f*****g toilet” muttered Travis Bickle in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. This summed up much of the nations mood towards the city. The filming of Taxi Driver was done during a garbage collectors strike causing director Martin Scorsese to instruct the crew to remove piles of garbage from shots to make the declining city seem more believable.

Manhattan 2009

New York is thriving and bears little resemblance to the city of the mid 1970’s. As a perfect illustration of changing attitudes toward the city, a disused stretch of elevated railway infrastructure called the West Side Line was not left as an abandoned place to dump dead bodies but was turned into a landscaped linear public park.

Like the West Side Highway, the West Side Line was built in the 1930’s. Unlike the West Side Highway it remained in use until the 1980’s. Following its closure it was due for demolition but in 1999 neighbourhood residents created the community group “Friends of the High Line” and proposed a scheme to turn the elevated line into a park. Mayor Bloomberg became a supporter of the scheme and in 2004 the New York City government committed $50 million to it. Construction began in April 2006, and a completed section was opened in July 2009.

The High Line is a fitting symbol for what New York had become; loved by its inhabitants, supported by politicians, and populated by successful business. Even on-screen characters living in the city ceased to be The Warriors and became Friends.

Copyright – Roger Crimlis – 2017

The Highline

Eric Emerson

Photograph by Andy Blair 1975.