Summer in the city: Edmund White on sex and dancing in 60s New York

There was a hit song in the 1960s by the Lovin’ Spoonful called Summer in the City all about how the days were hot and gritty, everyone looking half-dead, but the nights passionate and fun, full of sex and dancing. That was certainly my experience of the summer of 1967, an especially hot one when New York became a tropical city full of cruising and drinking, of people sleeping without air conditioners on the cindered roofs of their buildings, sharing wine coolers out of Mason jars, and attending late-night horror movies. In the Village on Sixth Avenue and West Third Street, there was always a pickup basketball game going, the beautiful shirtless bodies slathered in sweat.

A young Edmund White.
A young Edmund White. Photograph: Christopher Cox

In the evenings, I remember everyone would be outdoors sipping beers or just strolling around, usually in packs. New York was a city of young people, so many that the streets were impassable for cars. Even my Chelsea neighbourhood, which is so gentrified now, was noisy with neighbours sitting on their stoops, half clad and listening to music late into the night. Many people walking past were speaking Spanish. A cheap restaurant chain sold hotdogs and papaya juice. The No Smoking signs at the subway entrances said “No Fume”.

During the days, richer people with cars would drive out to Jones beach; the still richer would go out to Fire Island or the Hamptons, where they owned or rented houses. A typical fun thing for us poor teens to do was to take a subway out to the end of the line in Brooklyn where it came up above ground. Then we’d switch to a bus that would take us to Riis park, where we’d descend on the wide, white sand beaches, swim in the icy ocean and snack out of Styrofoam coolers; the drag queens would put up tents where they’d change into ever more extravagant costumes. The gay part of the beach was loud with sibilance, mock indignation and dance music. The ride back into the city was magical, the slanting evening sun playing rope tricks with the long hair of girls or boys; in this long stretch above ground the windows were open. Back in the city, we would dine alfresco at cheap spaghetti houses with gardens out back.

There was a lot of sex on the hoof and we’d make out in bushes in the parks or at the end of a garbage-strewn alleyway or in the unlocked holds of parked trucks. When a gay bar would open, everyone would rush there until the police closed it; it wasn’t until 1969, two years later, and the beginning of gay liberation following the Stonewall uprising that gays could freely congregate. At bars like the Blue Bunny, when a plainclothes cop would enter, the overhead Christmas lights would start to twinkle and all the dancing couples would break apart.

By the end of that summer, the city had become smelly and intolerable. Those who had air-conditioning stayed in; those who could afford to escape the city did. In New York there were no alleyways for garbage pickup – land was too valuable. Big, black plastic bags were piled high kerbside, stinking and overflowing, besieged by rats. It was rumoured the mafia had cornered the market for garbage collection, which meant the bags were rarely carted away. By the end, summer was a cantaloupe rind littered with coffee grounds, something the ravenous rats had liberated from the sacks. It was no longer fun. We were longing for autumn breezes and the return of tanned, stylish grownups.

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