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My New York
An intellectual considers his city, from LaGuardia to Giuliani and beyond.


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Before his appointment to this job in 1966, Bundy had been national security advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and had played a key role in the American decision first to intervene in Vietnam and then to escalate our involvement in the hope of winning the war. But by the time he left the waning Johnson administration, Bundy had evidently come to believe that it had been a mistake to resist the Communist Vietcong in the first place.

On the basis of the policy he immediately adopted as the new president of the Ford Foundation, I used to joke that no sooner had he arrived there than he summoned his staff and demanded that they bring him the Vietcong. The Vietcong? In New York? At so uncomprehending a reaction, as I imagined the scene, a derisive sneer formed on the lips of this famously arrogant New England patrician who knew as much about New York as the publicity lady at the Brooklyn Public Library (or as he himself had known about Vietnam when he plunged into it). “I mean the black radicals, the militants,” I could hear him snarling at his underlings. “Get them up here, because this time, instead of fighting them, we’re going to give them all grants.”

But whether or not any exchange even remotely resembling this ever actually transpired, my imaginary scenario captures precisely how Bundy proceeded to deploy the great wealth and power of the Ford Foundation. In New York at that moment, the main objective of the radicals was to take over the public schools through a system known as “community control.” Bundy threw the resources of the Ford Foundation behind this objective and the people pursuing it, while Lindsay more discreetly (being an elected official) added his own weight to the new strategy of appeasement.

Naturally, Bundy and Lindsay and their hordes of cheerleaders on the left did not think of themselves as engaging in a cynical maneuver, and certainly not as the cowardly victims of a novel species of protection racket. In their own eyes, they were supporting programs designed to bring about a greater degree of social justice.

Similar programs instituted with the same rationale had already been set into motion by Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and were constantly either being added to or funded more lavishly than ever (even after Richard Nixon replaced Johnson as president in 1969). And all the while, New York City became a more and more dangerous and unpleasant place to live.

Thus, thanks to an “enlightened” policy of releasing psychiatric patients from the institutions in which they had been hospitalized, New Yorkers soon found themselves tolerating hordes of raving lunatics — white as well as black — screaming and sometimes lunging at them with knives or other weapons, or pushing them off subway platforms into the path of oncoming trains.

The swelling population of the “homeless” who had taken to sleeping (and urinating and defecating) on the streets was made up in some part of these “deinstitutionalized” victims of a theory that was as delusional as their own psychotic fantasies. (The theory was that their illnesses could be treated adequately on the outside by medication, assuming that they were even really ill rather than rebels against a society that was itself insane and therefore eager to pin that label on anyone who refused to conform to its demented conception of rationality.)

But many of the homeless were also incorrigible alcoholics and junkies — again, both white and black — of the type who had once been confined by the police to the Bowery (New York’s Skid Row). Now, however, their spillover into every part of the city was winked at by the police for the simple reason that no public outcry was raised against this intolerable situation.

The upshot was that beggars — a class mainly composed, like the homeless with whom they overlapped, of deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients, and drug addicts and alcoholics — now abounded everywhere a New Yorker went. Their pleas for money were often made with glowering eyes and threatening gestures. Or they might station themselves at intersections where cars were forced to wait for the light to change and start to “clean” the windshields with filthy rags and squeegees, for which service most drivers considered it the better part of prudence to shell out a “tip.”

Any effort to cease tolerating these intolerable conditions was invariably frustrated by the courts. I remember in particular a federal judge named Leonard Sand ruling that it was a violation of the First Amendment to ban begging in the subway. Other judges decided that trying to hospitalize several out-of-control lunatics was an infringement on their civil liberties (or was it their civil rights?).

And all this is not even to mention the horrific increase in crimes of assault, rape, and murder whose numbers rose to hitherto unthinkable levels. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan would point out, the gunning down of seven mobsters in Chicago in 1929 became known as the St. Valentine’s Day “massacre.” Now, however, seven murders were hardly enough to make the evening news, and if the murderers were actually caught, chances were that they would be back on the street in very short order.

No wonder, then, that almost everyone had become sour on the city by the mid ’70s. Once upon a time, Americans from other parts of the country would say that New York was a nice place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there. Increasingly, however, New Yorkers themselves were saying the same thing, while non-New Yorkers were no longer so sure that it was even a nice place to visit.

True, most of the great museums and concert halls were still located in relatively safe areas, but the Broadway theaters in the Times Square area were now surrounded by some of the worst concentrations of the ills that had infected other parts of town: filthy streets, aggressive beggars, junkies and their suppliers, prostitutes of both sexes (often children), transvestites, pornographic movie theaters and stores.



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