Milton Glaser’s 87-year love affair with New York is a fable of the city itself, beginning in one era of economic and ethnic division, the 1930s in the South Bronx, and arriving now in another one, with different fault lines and promises. Along the way, his I ♥ NY logo, first drawn on a scrap of paper in the back of taxi, has declared that love in a nearly universal language, understood in every corner of the planet.
By the following year, when Mr. Glaser and Mr. Felker started New York magazine by reassembling the elements of a weekly insert in the recently folded New York Herald Tribune, it was a response to another iteration of New York City. This one was rocked by the new youth culture and upended by showdowns between the city and its unions, including a bitter 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that left the streets strewed with 50,000 tons of uncollected garbage. Mr. Glaser soon hired Mr. Bernard to be the art director.
“The city was getting very dark,” Mr. Glaser said. “A lot of crime. Economic problems, for sure. And there were a tremendous amount of people leaving the city. There was the sense that life was not going to improve here.”
The decline and the exodus were just beginning. The Glasers left the East Village for West 67th Street when the old neighborhood started to feel unsafe.
The city in those years would be unrecognizable to anyone who has moved here in the last decade, except through the peculiar nostalgia of works like Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel “City on Fire” or HBO’s short-lived “Vinyl.” Instead of romanticizing the era’s bright side, these works luxuriate in the chaos: rampant crime, open-air drug markets, homeless encampments, the collapse of the school system, buildings abandoned or in flames.
“I tell people that, and they can’t believe this,” Mr. Glaser said. “We’d be sitting on 67th Street at dinner and I would say, let’s go out for a walk, and Shirley would say: ‘I’m afraid. There’ve been too many muggings in the neighborhood.’ People were literally afraid of walking the streets. Well, you can’t get much worse than that in the city.”
As New York spiraled toward bankruptcy, The Daily News produced one of the era’s greatest hits, in the form of an October 1975 front-page headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Less than a year later, at Easter services at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Paul Moore Jr. delivered another. “Look over your city and weep,” Bishop Moore told the congregants, “for your city is dying.” (A third supposed hit, Howard Cosell’s 1977 on-air deadpan, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” has proved to be a mirage: Cosell never said the words.)
Mr. Glaser loved this New York as well. He never considered leaving. “I never separated the city from myself,” he said. “I think I am the city. I am what the city is. This is my city, my life, my vision.”
The “I Love New York” concept was a reaction to this sense of decline. Many have claimed credit for the line. If New York was an unlovable wreck, a city on fire, a state in a slump, that only made it the kind of place a certain kind of New Yorker could boast about loving. The state tourism office launched a $4 million ad campaign, commissioning a jingle writer named Steve Karmen, a Bronx-born child of Russian Jewish immigrants, to make the slogan sing. The logo came later.
To Mr. Glaser, the slogan was appealing because it was less a sales pitch than an oath, a statement of belief. It did not try to persuade people to buy or do anything. He spent two weeks drawing a logo with the words “I Love New York” inside two lozenges, and submitted it to the state for approval. Then, in a taxi ride to his studio one day, he had another idea. Using a red crayon on a scrap of paper, he sketched out the four characters in the logo that would be seen around the world.
“It’s a little tricky,” he said. “‘I’ is a word. ♥ is a symbol for emotion. ‘NY’ are initials for a place. So three acts of transformation are going on. You have to use your brain a little to translate it, even though once you do it, it’s obvious, and there’s no one that can’t figure it out. But the activity of the brain doing that is partially responsible for its durability.”
Even he is baffled by the logo’s ubiquity. “There’s something about the rigidity of the black, and the voluptuous nature of the heart,” he said. “It’s very hard to say why something works, why this is a beautiful portrait and this is not such a beautiful portrait. It’s not that the nose is funny, it’s something else going on.”
The original scrap of paper is now in the Museum of Modern Art. The logo, for which he received a $2,000 fee — less than the cost of producing the mock-ups, he said — now generates more that $1 million annually for the state in licensing fees, and keeps a bevy of state lawyers busy writing cease-and-desist letters for its unlicensed use.