A few issues ago, I had a piece in National Review called “Freedom from Fear, for Now: A personal reflection on living in New York.” I would like to expand on that piece in this column, for the next few days.
I will begin the same way I began the magazine piece — with a strange fact, hard to believe: In 15 years of living in New York, I have never looked over my shoulder. At least, I don’t recall doing so. I have never crossed the street out of apprehension. I have never feared crime at all.
And I’m not cloistered, either: I’m out in the streets for at least two hours a day. And I’m out late most nights, or many nights, owing chiefly to my work as a music critic.
“Well,” you might say, “you wander in the nicer parts of New York — of Manhattan, specifically.” That’s true. But not very long ago, some of those parts were not so nice. You wouldn’t have wanted to wander in them, and you definitely wouldn’t have wanted to linger in them.
‐Why am I aware of not looking over my shoulder? How do I hear a dog not barking? Because, from time to time, I visit other cities — and then I hear the dog bark, loudly.
This summer, I was in San Francisco, and I took what was apparently a wrong turn. My wrong turn involved Jones Street, I think — not very far from U.N. Plaza. I came upon a scene of drugs and menace. Something out of a “gritty urban drama” on TV (or something out of the old New York).
I felt my stomach tighten, my heart beat faster. I put away my cellphone. I quickened my pace. I got the glares, the mutterings, the snarls . . .
Similar things have happened in Philadelphia in recent years. Say you arrive in the evening at 30th Street Station and walk to the Kimmel Center. You may find yourself looking over your shoulder, crossing the street. You are certainly not oblivious to potential trouble.
Some months ago, I was in St. Louis. And one of the creepy things about the experience was the absence, or paucity, of people on the streets (some of those streets). When you did see someone, you were apt to think, “What’s he doing here?” Maybe he was thinking the same thing about you . . .
I well remember Chicago when I was a teenager. I took a few wrong turns. I got out of Dodge as fast as I could. And of Detroit, we shouldn’t even speak. I lived about 45 minutes away from the big city (or dwindling city). And going there wasn’t much of an option. Chicago was our big city, four hours away.
Okay, back to my point: In New York, I don’t look over my shoulder — ever. I don’t think about crime, ever. And when I’m in another city, I think, “Oh, yeah. I remember this. This is the way it was in New York, too, once upon a time.”
‐Which brings me to the mayoral election we’re going to have on November 5. For 20 years, we have had only two mayors: Rudy and Bloomy, or, more formally, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Giuliani is a Republican, and Bloomberg has always run on the Republican ticket. He styles himself an independent now. But the fact remains: Since January 1, 1994, there has not been a Democrat in the mayor’s office. This is amazing, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
If you had said, on the first day of 1994, “Hey, for the next 20 years — until 2014 — there won’t be a Democratic mayor,” you would have been told, “You’re on crack,” which was in abundant supply.
But the party can’t last forever — and it seems certain that, next year, we will have a “progressive” Democrat as mayor. A man named Bill de Blasio. (His Republican opponent is Joe Lhota.) When I wrote my magazine piece, I figured the Democratic nominee, and the next mayor, would be a woman named Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council. De Blasio, by all accounts, is worse (meaning, even farther to the left).
A New York without Rudy or Bloomy? A New York governed, or misgoverned, by a “progressive” out of Central Casting? This makes me uneasy, to put it mildly.
‐We moved here from Washington, D.C., in 1998, well into the Giuliani renaissance. I knew about this renaissance, of course. But I still had some worries about New York. What about taking the subway at night? What about walking around? What should the rules be?
You’ve got to forgive me: I’d grown up with TV shows and movies depicting the horrible, unceasing crime in New York. How many sequels to Death Wish were there? And, of course, I’d read the novel that summed up the age: Tom Wolfe’s 1987 classic, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
‐New York was a cauldron of racial antagonism and violence. Let me mention just a few names: “Bensonhurst,” “Yusef Hawkins,” “Crown Heights,” “Yankel Rosenbaum,” “The Wild Man of 96th Street,” “Bernhard Goetz,” “Freddy’s Fashion Mart.”
Do those names mean anything to you? In those who know them, they cause shudders. I could tell you in minute detail about each one of those cases. But the point is: New York was the aforementioned cauldron of racial antagonism and violence. Civilization was breaking down.
‐To a lot of people, the names mean nothing. I’m talking about people who live in New York. I’m talking about native New Yorkers, even! Think of it: You can be a lifelong New Yorker, 25 years old, and have no memory whatsoever of the bad old days. All you have known is Rudy-Bloomy security.
In 2004, the New York Times was moved to publish an article titled “Is New York Losing Its Street Smarts?” There were young people and newcomers who had no idea about muggings. They still don’t.
‐Back to my own story (if I may) (after all, I titled my piece a “personal reflection”!): We moved here in 1998, four years into the Giuliani renaissance. And it was soon clear that the biggest danger, in our neighborhood, was being run over by happy moviegoers. That was at midnight. In daylight hours, the danger was being run over by young mothers with strollers, or by nannies pushing those strollers.
When we lived in the quaint village of Georgetown, D.C., I didn’t even like walking on M Street after about 10 p.m. I really didn’t. (My grandparents did much of their growing up in Georgetown, by the way.)
In New York, our neighbors recounted the awful past: “Oh, you may like it now, but you wouldn’t have liked living here before. That park over there? It was a needle park. You couldn’t go near it — only drug dealers and thugs. And let me tell you about what happened to my aunt . . .”
I didn’t need to be told, really. I knew. In November 1993, New Yorkers, in their desperation, turned to someone they would never have dreamed of electing, and didn’t want to elect even then: Giuliani. It’s just that they were desperate.
And I’ll continue tomorrow. Thanks, everyone.