On the evening of July 13, 1977, moments after a massive power failure left all five boroughs of New York City in the dark, Alan Rubin, the owner of Radio Clinic, stood on the corner of Broadway and 98th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and watched scores of people, some of whom he recognized from the neighborhood, rushing into and out of his store. The first to arrive had pried open his security gate and smashed through his door. They quickly but methodically went to work, stealing televisions, radios, stereo receivers, amplifiers, FM tuners, turntables, speakers, and boomboxes.
Rubin rushed over. Looters told him to get lost. The owner of a nearby pizza place, who was firing a gun into the air, offered Rubin his spare. “No way,” Rubin said, as he head to the precinct house, where he found the police shorthanded and overwhelmed, their holding cells already filled beyond capacity.
Rubin went home, returning early the next morning to find that all the remained of his showroom merchandise was a few toasters and tape recorders that had been kept on wall shelves too high for anyone to get to or pull down. Fortunately, even though the looters had discovered the business’ basement warehouse, they failed to figure out how to get the large appliances, including most of his air conditioners, out without the freight elevator and power.
Long before the electricity was restored, Rubin and his employees were back at work, sweeping glass, removing debris, and carting air conditioners out a door which led from the warehouse into to the basement of apartment building the store was a part of. With the mercury headed toward 100 degrees and expected to stay there, the moment the power went back on there would be a crush of customers at his 83rd Street store.
All morning, neighbors dropped in to express their regrets and ask Rubin what he was going to do now. So many, with so much work to do, that Rubin put a sign in the window: “We Are Staying.” When a reporter from Time noticed the sign, Rubin took a moment to elaborate.
“I’m responsible for twenty-five families—the families of the people that work for me,” he said. “What’s going to happen to them if I pull out? As bad as I got hit, there are other guys who got wiped out. What’s going to happen if they can’t re-open? What can the city and government do keep people from us from leaving these neighborhoods?”
Good questions, and we learn the answers in We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood, an engrossing memoir written by Jen Rubin, Alan’s daughter. The book has drawn praise from The Progressive contributing writer John Nichols, who called it “a remarkably powerful, poignantly told story of a family, a business, a neighborhood, and a city. But what makes this book so brilliant, and so necessary, is the skill with which Rubin places this very personal story in the broader context of our struggles to understand one another and the common ground where we make our shared lives.”
As it turned out, the “city and government” did precious little to keep Alan Rubin from leaving, but he stayed anyway. This, after all, was the business his father Leon had started in 1934 with $300, the cost of his first month’s rent.
We Are Staying is a family story, an immigration story, a New York City story, a small business story, and a story about the political economy of urban America. Jen Rubin—a social worker, professor of social policy, and activist—tells it with enormous insight, refreshing honesty, and a sure feel for New York, even though she has been living in Madison, Wisconsin, for many years. She is also a gifted storyteller. We know from the book’s title what happened in the immediate aftermath of the blackout and from the book’s opening pages where the story is going to end.
There is nonetheless drama all along the way, along with seemingly endless optimism against great odds, determination, hard work, frustration, resourcefulness, family tension, resilience, and no small amount of small business wisdom and wit. One customer asked Rubin if he’d match the price advertised by the Wiz—which like Crazy Eddie drove the electronics and appliance stores “crazy” in the 1970s and 1980s. He said, “No,” quickly and emphatically. And then with exquisite timing, added: “I’m not going to raise mine price just to match the Wiz.”
I am not a dispassionate reviewer. I wrote a book on the 1977 blackout and interviewed Alan Rubin for it. The first time we met in person we realized that his late sister had been one of my mother’s best friends. I read an early draft of a chapter of this book and encouraged Jen Rubin to keep going. When I got to the end of We Are Staying, I learned that her father thought that I missed an important part the story.
My primary interest was the widespread looting and arson and the arguments about it, which began in the streets in the midst of the blackout and raged for weeks after. Less than a decade earlier, the Kerner Commission had explained the riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and numerous other cities as the result of racism, segregation, economic, social and political inequality. In the summer and fall of 1977, that explanation was challenged by people who saw simple criminality, even barbarism.
The looters were animals, many said, released from civilizing constraints. The sociological explanation of the 1960s and early 1970s was wrong, even morally bankrupt, which was part of the reason why the city was bankrupt too. The police, mayoral candidate Ed Koch said, should have shot to kill. My aim was to juxtapose complicated behavior—all the things that different people did when the lights went out—and often stunningly simple-minded explanations and debate.
Alan Rubin, so forward looking a man that he was thinking about how to improve his business as he watched it being looted, was not engaged by that debate. He thought the real story, and certainly the untold story, was what came next for the devastated businesses.
Jen Rubin couldn’t resist the story of her family’s emigration to America—after her great grandfather was murdered in a pogrom—or the story of her grandparents’ early years in the city, the opening of the store and its rise in the golden age of both radio and small business (there were five-hundred small stores an easy walk from their apartment) or the story of the blackout and its immediate aftermath. But in the second half of her book she tells the story her father most wanted told, the experience of small businessmen and women in the months and years after the blackout looting.
Here again I am hardly impartial, for I am an often unrequited lover of the city that Leon Rubin and his friends and neighbors built, the city that Alan Rubin and his allies tried to save, and that Jen Rubin’s book is a lovely tribute to. When my family moved back to Manhattan in 2000, we bought our conditioner from RCI. Two decades later, I still go out of my way to shop at the smallest stores that sell what I need.
Some of those stores are a long walk or a bicycle or subway ride away. Some are pretty big. Some that were small and family owned just a few years ago sold stakes—or the entire business—to much larger businesses or the first good offer that came their way. Still, once a week someone asks me why I go to so much trouble when I could get what they see me carrying much cheaper at Costco or Stew Leonard’s or much more conveniently from Fresh Direct or Amazon.
I tell them: “After the people, what I love most about the city are the stores. Who in the world is going to want to live here when they are all gone?”