Last Friday afternoon, I happened to walk through Bryant Park, in central Manhattan. It was “beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” barely a week into November. The ice rink had been put up. People were skating happily. Merchants had set up their kiosks, café owners were selling their hot chocolate and donuts. Children were playing, tourists were snapping photos, lovers were smooching. It was a kind of wonderland — a picture of urban bliss.
I thought, “Twenty years ago, this park was more or less a no-go zone, like so much of New York. The public could not use this park. It was the domain of drug-dealers, cutthroats, and bullies. Days ago, people elected the very philosophy, the very politics, that made Bryant Park unusable before.”
For 20 years, New York has had no mayor but Giuliani or Bloomberg. Now the people have elected a Democrat for the first time in 24 years — and not just any Democrat, but a bona fide leftist, a supporter of the Sandinistas and the Castros. Just before the election, I saw an ad for him, featuring celebrities: One was Harry Belafonte, a true-believing red; another was Susan Sarandon. And so on.
I think that New Yorkers were largely innocent in what they did. I think they have basically no idea what they’ve done. They think they’ve elected a nice “progressive” who likes “minorities,” hates “Wall Street,” and will make the Richie Riches pay their “fair share.” I think the city has no idea what’s about to hit them. But maybe things will turn out all right. I hope so (as a resident, for one thing).
After I walked through Bryant Park, I went to my desk and recorded a weekly podcast I do with Mona Charen. Our guest was Myron Magnet, one of the foremost experts on New York, urban policy, and more. Myron and his comrades taught people once before what is necessary to have a decent city — and not just a decent one, but a magnificent one! Now they have to do their work all over again, because the world never learns. There are no permanent victories — but, as the bromide concludes, there are no permanent defeats either.
Still, what a pity to have to push the boulder up the hill again and again. What a pity that civilization can’t just proceed on autopilot for a while.
On Saturday night — this was the day after my walk through the park — there was shocking news: a shooting. Right on that skating rink. A 16-year-old gang member wanted someone’s coat. The man wasn’t willing to give up his coat. The gang member shot him, as his victim was skating. The victim lived. In the process, the gang member also hit a 14-year-old kid. Didn’t kill him either, but the 14-year-old can’t use his legs. The gang member, when taking his “perp walk,” smiled broadly for the cameras. Beamed, actually. You would have thought he had just won the national spelling bee or something.
Last year, there were 414 murders in New York, a city of 8 million. That was the fewest murders since 1928. For comparative purposes, there were 2,262 murders in 1990, which comes out to more than six a day. Under Giuliani and Bloomberg, crimes of all types have been driven down, down, down. But crime takes place — people commit murders — in part because of the ghetto culture, from which the Bryant Park shooter sprang.
There will never be a New York without crime, unless human beings sprout wings, in which case they will probably live somewhere higher (and not Denver). But the last 20 years have been about as peaceful and heavenly as one can imagine, or has a right to expect. Will there be a reversal? How bad will it be?
Have a taste of the bad old days in the form of a letter, sent to me by a friend of mine, Chris Meyer, who’s a native New Yorker. What he has to say is not extraordinary (though he says it very well). His testimony is like everyone else’s. Anyway, I will print the letter, and talk to you later:
. . . My whole childhood, it was a common practice for kids to take “mugger money” with them to school so that if/when they were mugged they wouldn’t get beaten up for not having any money. Our principal actually gave several addresses advocating this, as did the PTA.
My folks managed the apartment building we lived in. Small, six-story building. They had the audacity to hire a Croatian firm to do some renovations. Their first week on the job, the Croatians were beaten — one of them to the point he had to go to the hospital — by a mob of protesters organized by one of the Sharpton-offshoot organizations who swarmed outside our building because there were no black guys on the six-man team of workers. It escalated until a kid ran up our fire escape and pointed a gun at my mother through her window. I ran into her room with a baseball bat as the kid fled back down the fire escape. By the time the cops showed up, the gun and the kid had disappeared into the mob. After that, we had our own cop posted outside the building until the work was done.
A list of items: I was mugged outside my own door. A guy followed my dad from the subway and tried to mug him as he opened the door. Twice. My dad also was walking the dog when a shootout happened right in front of him. Which was different from the time my dad was trying to buy ice cream and the Korean guys who ran the convenience store across the street stopped a mugger at knife point. (The Koreans always carried these long, thin knives. They were the heroes in our neighborhood because they were the only ones who would always be around, since their hours were late.) There was a cop held at gunpoint by a homeless guy on our street.
There were so many streetfights in front of our building, it became my hobby to jump to the window and watch the beatdowns every time I heard a shout in the street. You would see all your neighbors also looking through their windows, while everyone called the cops. I’d go downstairs the next morning and find knives, brass knuckles, links in a chain — whatever weapons had been used — lying in the gutter from the night before. It seemed like there was always a blood stain in the concrete in front of our door from the latest fight.
And this was all on the Upper East Side [one of the most affluent parts of New York]. You can take a wild guess at how things were playing out in the projects.