Over the past several years, there have been several documentaries and pieces built around nostalgia for the bad-old days of New York City. The years when the city was in decay and the birth of hip-hop, punk rock and other art forms was a direct result of those making something out of nothing and turning what some considered noise into a beautiful wall of sound to others. VH1 was a culprit in the NYC nostalgia with their “NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell” documentary. You also had Jonathan Mahler’s “Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx Is Burning,” which chronicled New York City’s tumultuous 1977 filled with a crazy mayoral election, blackouts, heat wave, crime and the Yankees.
You can thank Audible Treats from wiping that romantic nostalgia off the face of documentaries like those because the release of 1979’s “80 Blocks From Tiffany’s” on DVD shows you how residents of the South Bronx, gangs and the police reacted in real time to unfortunate events…and a little piece of hip-hop history as well.
Produced and directed by Gary Weis, with photography from Joan Churchill, 80 Blocks follows the Savage Skulls and Savage Nomad gangs, police officers, community activists and former gang members around the South Bronx, you see the abandoned buildings, the decay and the nonchalant attitude to doing whatever it took to feel like someone. It was this attitude of making something out of nothing that birthed hip-hop and the culture as proven by the organized block party at the tail end of the film.
But one of the best examples of a nonchalant attitude to things some would consider horrific comes right at the beginning of the documentary.
“There was a couple of old Puerto Rican gentleman playing dominoes,” said a former club owner by the name of “Heavy.” “There was kids skipping rope. Girls. There were some fellers down the way tossing a football. And from across the street ran two guys and they starting shooting at one another. Right in the middle of the street. The guys with the football skipped to the side. The old men kept on playing dominoes. The girls stopped skipping rope to watch. But nobody ran. It was not that unusual.” 80 Blocks hits you with the “shocking” at the beginning and makes the tales of murder attempts, robberies and rape charges sound par for the course for young men who live to protect themselves since no one else will.
The DVD packaging also has the original Esquire article by Jon Bradshaw, which sparked the idea for the documentary. There are also insightful interviews with Weis and Churchill regarding the documentary’s creation. 80 Blocks is a piece of city history that one should never forget, but it’s also a reminder of how things look when you don’t see a way out of your situation.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s is a reminder of how the downtrodden in New York actually felt during that time and not about the romantic recounts of squalor from those that didn’t really experience it.