Politics & Policy

My New York

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

Something evil is going on in New York. But in order to justify resorting to this strongest of all epithets, I need to tell the story of the twists and turns I personally have witnessed and experienced as a native and lifelong resident of the city.

Perhaps as good a place as any to begin is with a phone call I received some years ago from a woman doing publicity for the Brooklyn division of the New York Public Library system. From her broad midwestern accent alone, I could tell that she came from neither Brooklyn nor anywhere else in New York, but even without that detail, the question she asked me would have proved definitively that she knew next to nothing about the city.

The question was this: As one of a number of “prominent people” born and bred in Brooklyn, would I be willing to have my picture included in a brochure celebrating an upcoming anniversary of the library? I would be honored, I said; just send the photographer up to my office. “Oh no,” she answered, “we want to take your picture in front of the local branch you used as a kid.”

I had to pause before replying with a laugh that I had no objection to this arrangement provided they could send me in a tank, or at least with a police escort. And they had better do the same for the photographer. Even if the branch from which I had regularly borrowed books many years earlier was still standing — which I doubted — the neighborhood surrounding it had become a war zone, and any middle-class white who ventured into it would be lucky ever to get out in one piece, if at all.

It was clear from her hemming and hawing that she was trying to decide whether to take this as a piece of especially extravagant hyperbole or a shameless display of racism; and since I never heard from her again, I concluded that she had opted for the latter. Yet I was exaggerating only slightly about the danger of setting foot in the 1970s or ’80s into the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where I had spent the first twenty years of my life (1930-50), during most of which Fiorello H. LaGuardia was the mayor of New York.

Admittedly, it was not exactly a peaceable neighborhood even then. In my own corner of it, immigrant Jews from East Europe lived side by side with Italian immigrants from Sicily, and Negroes from the rural American South who, if they were not strictly speaking immigrants, were no less foreign to the ways of the big city than their white neighbors. In these three groups, the adults had as little to do with one another as physical contiguity permitted. But their children (most of them, like me, born in America) all went to the nearby public school together, except for those who were sent either to Catholic or Jewish schools.

Throwing the children into the same educational “melting pot” unquestionably worked to reinforce the process of Americanization that would eventually differentiate us in ways both large and small from our parents. Yet as opposed to what school “integrationists” would naively have expected, there was scarcely any lessening among the kids of the ethnic and racial suspicions and hostilities pervading the immigrant generation. On the contrary: Animosity was still strong enough in the second generation to erupt periodically in fistfights or turf wars. By the murderous standards of the future, these battles were relatively tame. Never did they involve guns and only rarely knives (though stones, bottles, and baseball bats could be pretty lethal themselves).

But what I want to emphasize is that such intergroup and interracial clashes were confined almost entirely to the kids. Among the adults, the only violence that ever broke out was black on black, usually (in a carryover from a southern tradition) on Saturday nights in and around the bars in which no white person was ever seen. Yet (in another carryover from the South) neither was any white passerby ever assaulted.

My father’s experience was typical. He worked all night long delivering milk, and on his way home from the subway, he had to pass those bars. Usually this was about 7:30 in the morning when they were still closed, but every Saturday he spent the whole day collecting the week’s bills from the customers on his delivery route and did not get back until dark. And so as he walked past the bars and the clusters of drunks invariably hanging around outside them, the pockets of his uniform would be bulging and jingling with the coins that would remain in his care until he could turn them over to the company on Monday. Yet even at the height of the Great Depression of the ’30s, never once was he mugged or robbed.

Subsequently, in the late ’40s, I myself commuted daily by subway from Brownsville to the Columbia campus in uptown Manhattan. Two nights a week I also attended the academic division of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was somewhat farther north than Columbia and only three short blocks from Harlem. Even then, a group of us — including a number of girls — thought nothing of saving some time after classes were over by cutting across a very dark Morningside Park at 10 o’clock at night to a subway station in Harlem itself.

When precisely it became almost suicidally foolhardy to do such a thing I cannot say. Almost certainly, like so much else by which we have been cursed, the new danger was born in the ’60s. At any rate, I can remember going to a Harlem nightclub as late as the late ’50s without feeling fearful or unwelcome. But I can also remember looking back on that experience a short time afterward with incredulity. By then I was married and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the menace in the air of my childhood in Brooklyn was now becoming palpable in my present neighborhood as well.

For example, after parking my car at night in the nearest garage, I would feel as though I were traversing a minefield while walking the five blocks to my apartment. Did the group of young Puerto Ricans hanging out on the corner ahead seem more dangerous than the one across the street or the cluster of blacks looming a block farther up? Should I cross here, and take my chances there, or would it be more prudent to keep going?

This was not paranoia or “racial profiling”: I was in fact accosted once in a while. But growing up in the wilds of Brooklyn turned out to be good basic training in the techniques of brazening my way out of danger, and except for the rancid taste of fear and the humiliation it brought with it, I always got away unscathed. Others with softer backgrounds were not so lucky, and stories of muggings became the staples of neighborhood lore and conversation.

One consequence was the formation of block associations that would hire private security guards to patrol at night. This reliance on what I sardonically named a bunch of low-rent Wyatt Earps was decided upon, remember, in one of the most liberal parts of New York, where practically everyone believed that nothing could be done about violent crime until its “root causes” — that is, discrimination and poverty — were eliminated.

I raised four children in that neighborhood, and I very nearly bankrupted myself sending them to private schools because, beyond the lower grades, the local public schools were even less safe than the ones I had attended in Brooklyn. But I do not wish to exaggerate. Though a couple of my kids were robbed or roughed up on the streets by blacks or Hispanics a number of times, nothing worse than that happened to them or any of my neighbors’ kids in the twenty years I lived on the Upper West Side.

Nevertheless, the point had long since been reached where all New Yorkers were increasingly wary of going out at night; and no one with any sense would venture into the parks after dark. Yet the paradox was that this thickening apprehension manifested itself in tandem with a great hopefulness about the new possibilities of racial harmony. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the civil-rights movement, still in its benevolent integrationist phase, was under the leadership of advocates of nonviolence like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and great believers (like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League) in the courts and the Congress as instruments of peaceable reform.

There was, however, a dark side to this integrationist optimism. It consisted in the readiness of many white New Yorkers to tolerate behavior from “minorities” (a new solecistic euphemism that had crept into the language) that only yesterday had been regarded as intolerable coming from anyone at all.

I first became aware of this development through what may seem a ridiculously trivial event — the sight of a black man lighting a cigarette on a subway train. At this distance, it is hard to convey how extraordinary it then was for anyone to smoke on the subway. Never before in all the thousands of hours I had spent traveling the subways in New York had I seen anyone light up inside one of the cars. I cannot explain why this particular rule had always been observed so punctiliously; but the fact was that it always had been, and to see it being violated — without anyone, including me, daring to protest — was so shocking that it seemed like the beginning of the end of civil order in New York.

Hysterical as my reaction now sounds, this violation turned out to be a clear foreshadowing of what, where far more serious matters-up to and including violent assault and murder — were concerned, was to become the norm in New York. So much so that when in the ’70s (or ’80s?) a number of New Yorkers were asked by a magazine to isolate the single most important problem afflicting the city and what it would take to solve it, I answered that so long as we continued “tolerating the intolerable,” we would go on sliding down the slippery slope onto which we had fallen. I ended by wondering when, if ever, we would allow ourselves to reach bottom. Surely there must be a limit to our willingness to accept conditions that were so recently and so universally regarded as intolerable. Or was there?

For a long while, it looked as though the answer was no. The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 set off a series of veritably volcanic eruptions in black neighborhoods all over the country, but even in the preceding three years there had already been riots in many of the major American cities. Among blacks themselves, the burnings and the lootings were accompanied by a resurgence of various forms of anti-white black nationalism, with their repudiation of non-violence in favor of “mau-mauing” or even “taking up the gun,” and their rejection of integration in favor of separatism. And among white liberals, there arose a disposition to justify not only the riots but also any outrages committed under the auspices of this great ideological sea change.

In New York, the shift in attitudes among both blacks and whites more or less coincided with the mayoralty of John V. Lindsay (1965-73), a liberal Republican who ultimately made an honest man out of himself by becoming a liberal Democrat. But probably just as significant was the accession in that same era of McGeorge Bundy to the presidency of the Ford Foundation in New York.

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.

Mostly here I have been talking about Manhattan, but in certain parts of the other boroughs it was even worse. The war zone my old neighborhood in Brooklyn had become was matched and even trumped by the South Bronx, whose very name evoked an image of urban decay at its most extreme. An occasional improvement would be announced, and perhaps even effected, through some initiative or other. But more commonly, well-intentioned interventions either collapsed or only made things worse.

In general, no one seemed to know what to do about the deterioration, and morale sank to a lower level than I had ever seen it go. Amazingly, even very prosperous New Yorkers who could enjoy the glamorous life — the great restaurants, the star-studded parties, the hugely expensive apartments on the Upper East Side — began to talk of leaving the city.

In the intellectual community, which was my milieu, people to whom anywhere in America but New York had once been “Nowheresville” now also not only talked of leaving but actually left, most often for Washington. Indeed, so many intellectuals started moving there in the late ’70s that articles began to be written claiming that Washington, replacing New York, was becoming the intellectual as well as the political capital of the country.

The most formidable such article came from none other than my old friend Irving Kristol. Long regarded as the quintessential New York intellectual, Kristol of all people had pulled up stakes and relocated in Washington, taking the magazine he edited, The Public Interest, with him. So portentous did Kristol’s desertion of New York seem, and so persuasive was the case he made for its decline as an intellectual center, that I — considered another quintessential New York intellectual — was suddenly getting calls from reporters who wanted to know whether I agreed with him and whether I intended to follow him down there. My answer was that I thought he was right about the decline of New York as an intellectual center, but way off in claiming that Washington would or could replace it.

The problem, I said in a piece I then decided to write in reply to Kristol, was that Washington was a company town. As Detroit was to automobiles, and as Los Angeles was to the movie business, so Washington was to the one great industry for which it had been created. No matter how many think tanks might set up shop there, or how many veterans of New York’s ideological wars might join them, Washington would remain umbilically tied to the affairs of the federal government.

As such, it would always strangle any idea that could not immediately be translated into a legislative proposal or a political scheme. But for ideas that aimed “only” at analyzing or synthesizing the realities around us so that we could comprehend or appreciate them better, Washington had little patience and less time. Which meant that it could never provide an environment for a genuinely serious intellectual community.

The New York I had once lived in was a world made up mainly of writers and critics and magazine editors like myself, with an admixture of painters and musicians, who saw one another on a regular basis and who spent much of their time arguing with great heat and seriousness about the arts and politics. The politics in question did not as a rule involve the issues that usually agitated elected officials or that arose in electoral contests. For none of us cared all that much about Democrats and Republicans (“Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber,” as one well-known New York intellectual, Dwight Macdonald, once dismissed them). It was politics in the ideological sense that preoccupied us almost exclusively.

This meant arguing about Karl Marx and which of his latter-day disciples, if any, was the legitimate carrier of his analysis and his vision. It meant (since we all agreed that Stalin had betrayed the cause of socialism for which the Russian revolution had been fought) arguing about whether a change of regime in the Soviet Union could make a difference, or whether the crimes of Stalinism were the logically inexorable consequence of the Communist system, or even (a breathtakingly bold idea) of Marxism itself.

But it also meant arguing about America. Was this country nothing more than the embodiment of a materialistic, plutocratic, puritanical, and philistine culture? Intellectuals not only on the left but also on the right (like Henry Adams and the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s) had been saying so for at least a century now. Yet some of us (the ones who ultimately became known as “neoconservatives”) were beginning to believe that America was the single greatest bastion and defender of freedom and prosperity in a world menaced by murderous totalitarian tyrannies. About this, too, furious debate raged on and on.

On that level, we were all very passionate about politics. And we were equally passionate about the arts. I had seen grown men nearly come to blows over the merits of a book of poems (the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959 was one such occasion), and I myself (in 1953, at the age of 23!) was threatened with ruin by another famous poet, John Berryman, for what to him was the unforgivably bad critical judgment I had shown in writing an unfavorable review of Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March. I had also known people who ceased speaking to each other because one of them was convinced that Jackson Pollock was the wave of the future in painting, and the other was betting on Willem de Kooning.

Yes, that New York was pretty well dead and gone by the mid 1970s. It had already been weakened by the dispersal of its members to universities all over the country, and then it was killed off by the assault on its foundations that came from the New Left and the counterculture of the previous decade. Hence the intellectual life of the city was now conducted almost entirely on paper, with very few face-to-face encounters to give it an extra lift and a heartier dose of spice.

Nevertheless, New York, I thought, still constituted a better environment for thinking and writing about important matters, including even political matters, than Washington. According to Kristol, the ruling passion of New York had become the pursuit of money. Not that he had anything against this. Though he did not quote Dr. Johnson — “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money” — his own attitude was much the same. But the pursuit of money did not, in his view, give as much food for thought as the ruling passion of Washington, which was the pursuit of power. But here, in my opinion, Kristol was mistaken.

As I saw it, the ruling passion of New York was the ambition for success, of which the acquisition or possession of money was merely one of many different forms. Unlike political power, success could be sought in so great a variety of fields that the obsession with it made for a more multifarious and therefore more intellectually interesting world than was dreamed of in the monomaniacal philosophy of our most monolithic company town.

“So,” I said in conclusion, “I wish my old friend well in his new surroundings, but for this surviving remnant of the moribund New York intellectual community, Manhattan is the only place to be.”

I was perfectly sincere when I wrote these words, but they were incomplete in that they did not touch upon the disgust I shared with so many other New Yorkers about the overall condition of the city. Nor was this disgust significantly lessened by the fact that I had by now moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Upper East Side. There one felt — and in fact was — safer, but even in this most prosperous and privileged part of Manhattan, people were permitted to sleep on the streets at night and to accost one by day with pleas (or rather, demands) for money. Even there, in other words, toleration of the intolerable was still the regnant ethos.

Some improvement seemed to be in the offing when Edward I. Koch became mayor in 1978 and began offering public resistance to what he called the “poverty pimps.” Koch even tried hard to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters, but for a host of reasons — not least the opposition he ran into from the courts and liberal organizations like the ACLU — he failed. Therefore, while Koch’s colorful rhetoric helped create a better atmosphere, the actual condition of the city remained dismal. Moreover, the outspoken mayor’s candor about race, though refreshing to some of us, simultaneously played, as opportunity arose, into the hands of black demagogues like Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson and their white fellow travelers.

It all went even farther downhill when David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor, succeeded Koch in 1990. The gentlemanly Dinkins, a standard product of the old Democratic machine in New York, was not himself cut from the same cloth as the likes of Sharpton. Yet being black, he was much more subject than Koch to the pressures coming from such quarters. The result was that he permitted Carson, in violation of a court order, to stage a boycott in Brooklyn against a Korean grocery store that went on for weeks with, at most, token interference from the police. Dinkins was also very slow to respond when blacks in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights rioted against their Orthodox Jewish neighbors, and a rabbinical student was set upon by a mob and stabbed to death.

It was incidents such as these that led to Dinkins’s defeat in 1993 at the hands of Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican who (unlike Lindsay) was not a liberal Democrat at heart. Having voted for Giuliani, I obviously figured that he would be better than Dinkins. Yet neither I nor anyone else ever dreamed that the new mayor — or any other person occupying that office — would be able to turn the city around, let alone that he would do so almost overnight. How wrong we were!

Our error arose from a failure to anticipate two things that would previously have seemed out of the question. One was the application of an academic theory for fighting crime that — perhaps for the first time in the history of academic theories of social policy — not only worked but did so almost from the minute it was put into practice. This was the so-called “broken windows” thesis originally developed by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson.

Simply described, the thesis held that neglect of very minor infractions of public order encouraged and engendered larger and more serious crimes that were much more difficult to tackle. Under the influence of this idea, the Giuliani administration concentrated on apparently trivial “quality-of-life” offenses. In a flash the squeegee wielders were gone from the intersections in which they had formerly stationed themselves; suddenly there was hardly a derelict sleeping on the streets by night and begging by day; all at once, youths avoiding the payment of fares by jumping over subway turnstiles ran into the waiting arms of cops on the other side. This last tactic, to the amazement of everyone but (I daresay) Kelling and Wilson, brought a bonus in the arrest of a very large number of youths who were packing guns and were wanted for some graver charge.

All by itself, this campaign effected an enormous transformation. From a city that even a stubborn holdout like me had started wondering whether to leave, New York was turning into a place in which it was again a pleasure simply to walk. It was by no means a paradise, and certainly it helped that the economy — fueled by the Wall Street boom and engendering such improvements as the cleanup of Times Square — was doing so well.

But it was itself stupid to imagine that the change in New York could all be credited to “the economy, stupid.” The truth was that a majority of New Yorkers — including even liberals whispering to one another at dinner parties, if rarely in public — had finally answered my question about whether the point would ever be reached when New Yorkers would stop tolerating the intolerable. That this point had indeed been reached was what put Giuliani into City Hall and gave him a mandate to see whether a crackdown would actually bring results even while at least some of the “root causes” of crime remained in place.

The second unexpectedly fruitful course Giuliani adopted in following through on this mandate was to enlarge the NYPD’s “street crime” unit. This was an elite force of plainclothes policemen who were sent to high-crime areas (which were invariably populated by blacks and Hispanics) and empowered to take measures that would prevent crime instead of just pursuing perpetrators after their crimes had been committed. Such measures included stopping suspicious-looking types and frisking them in the hope of confiscating concealed weapons.

It was four officers in this unit who last February pumped 19 bullets into an innocent young immigrant named Amadou Diallo from Guinea, under — so far as we know — the impression that he was a serial rapist for whom they had been searching and that he was about to pull a gun on them. Here was the golden opportunity Al Sharpton had been waiting for to launch what Arch Puddington, in a recent article in Commentary, aptly described as “The War on the War on Crime.” It was also the perfect cue for the temporarily silenced “root cause” crowd to find its voice again. Daily demonstrations were held featuring famous politicians and even more famous actors and actresses who demanded that federal investigations be launched. No comparably garish a show of “radical chic” had been seen in New York since Leonard Bernstein’s notorious party for the Black Panthers in 1970.

Never mind that, as George Kelling himself put it, under Giuliani “last year New York had 0.48 fatal shootings per 1,000 officers, the lowest figure since 1985.” Never mind that “in 1992, when David Dinkins was mayor, more than 2,200 people were murdered in New York City — a high proportion of them minorities,” as compared with just 600 under Giuliani in 1998 (“fewer,” added Kelling, “than in Chicago, whose population is barely one-third of New York’s”). Never mind that “sixteen hundred more New Yorkers would have died last year alone had crime remained at Dinkins-era levels.”

In spite of all this, the demonstrators shouted themselves hoarse spreading the egregious lie that police brutality and trigger-happiness had run amok under Giuliani. The reduction in crime, went their mantra, had been achieved by a systematic violation of the rights of innocent “minorities.”

Here, finally, I come to the reason I think that “evil” is not too strong a word to describe what is going on in New York. To quote Kelling again, this time on what might be characterized as the multiplier effect of the 1,600 lives saved by Giuliani’s crime-fighting policies: “Calculate the . . . families spared grief, youths not imprisoned, and we are talking about thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been immeasurably improved . . .” I contend that “evil” is precisely the right word for a campaign whose purpose is to undo so much good in order to resurrect a discredited ideological position and to reap a crassly partisan political advantage.

But will this evil drive succeed? Will New Yorkers once again allow themselves to be intimidated into tolerating the intolerable? I would guess not, and I hope not, if only because the taste of a better city is still fresh in their mouths.

If the worst were to happen, I myself might at long last give up on New York. Unlike Irving Kristol, I managed to remain here despite the loss of the intellectual community that made up my New York, and his, and I eventually built up a new life in new surroundings and with new friends. As befits the rapid advance of my age to three score and ten, and also suits my correlatively more reclusive habits, it is a less exciting and much less eventful life than I led when I was younger.

Still, in the past few years, there has been compensation in the resurrected pleasures of wandering about this great city that is my birthplace without having to avert my eyes from the sights of degradation that daily afflicted them not so long ago, or to look nervously over my shoulder after dark at the sound of approaching footsteps from behind, or to glance apprehensively at every street corner ahead.

“I’ll take Manhattan/The Bronx and Staten/Island too./It’s lovely going through/The zoo,” sang Rodgers and Hart once upon a time. Once upon a time, too, Fred Astaire danced in Central Park under the lamplight at night, crooning as he leaped from bench to bench something like, “I like New York in June/How about you?” And later Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra jumped all over the place (to the choreography of Robbins) singing (in the words of Comden and Green and to the music of Bernstein), “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town/The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down/The people ride in a hole in the ground.”

Alas, we have not yet arrived back at that romantic technicolor pass, and perhaps never will. Yet at the moment, just strolling in that same Central Park on a sunny Sunday in the spring is to encounter so many delights — the kids scampering, the dogs running, the roller-bladers skating, the joggers jogging, the cyclists biking, the boaters rowing, the girls sunbathing, the musicians performing, and all with nary a frown in view — that it is hard to believe how dangerous this place (where an 80 percent reduction in serious crime has occurred in the past six years) so recently was.

If, then, the evil designs of Al Sharpton and his ilk should prevail, New York might finally lose me. And that would of course be the least of so great a calamity.

— This article first appeared in the June 14, 1999, issue of National Review.


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