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Freedom From Fear, For Now

by Jay Nordlinger

A personal reflection on living in New York

Here is a stunning fact: In 15 years of living in New York, I’ve just about never looked over my shoulder. Never crossed the street out of apprehension, never feared crime at all. I’m not cloistered, either. I’m in the streets for a couple of hours a day, and I’m out late most nights, or many nights.

“Well,” you might say, “you wander in the nicer parts of New York — of Manhattan, specifically.” 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 happened to me in San Francisco about a week ago. I took an apparently wrong turn, somewhere near U.N. Plaza, and came upon a scene of drugs and menace. I got out of Dodge as quickly as I could, pulse racing. I’ve been to Philadelphia and St. Louis recently, too. I looked over my shoulder, crossed streets . . .

I further remember Chicago when I was a teenager. And of Detroit, we shouldn’t even speak. I lived just 45 minutes away, and going to the big city — or the dwindling city — wasn’t really an option.

All of this brings me to the mayoral election we’re going to have in New York this fall. 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 1993, there has not been a Democrat in the mayor’s office. This is amazing, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

But the party can’t last forever — and it seems certain that, next year, we will have a “progressive” Democrat as mayor. I don’t mind saying that this makes me uneasy.

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. After all, I had grown up with television shows and movies depicting the horrible crime in New York. How many sequels to Death Wish were there? And, of course, I had 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. We could get into details, but let me just mention some names: “Bensonhurst,” “Yusef Hawkins,” “Crown Heights,” “Yankel Rosenbaum,” “The Wild Man of 96th Street,” “Bernhard Goetz,” “Freddy’s Fashion Mart.” In people who remember, these names cause shudders. But to many, these names mean nothing. Think of it: You can be a native New Yorker 25 years old, and basically have no memory of the bad old days. You have known nothing but 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 were clueless about muggings.

To return to my own story: We moved here in 1998, four years into the Giuliani renaissance. 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. Back in the quaint village of Georgetown, I didn’t even like walking on M Street after about 10 p.m.

Our neighbors in New York recounted the awful past: “Oh, you wouldn’t have liked living here before. That park over there was a ‘needle park.’ You couldn’t go near it, only drug dealers and thugs. And let me tell you what happened to my aunt . . .”

In 1993, New Yorkers turned to Giuliani out of desperation. They didn’t want to elect a hard-nosed Republican prosecutor. It wasn’t natural to them. But they had almost no choice: Their backs were to the wall, guns were to their heads. So they did it. And Rudy and his partners beat back crime, with alacrity.

It’s hard to remember — bewildering to remember — what the prevalent thinking used to be: Tough policing was racist in nature. Crime had root causes, namely inequality and poverty, and you couldn’t do anything about crime until you eliminated those causes. You just had to accept it, you just had to live with it. Rudy & Co. said, “Nonsense,” and proved it.

The mayor was willing to withstand what very, very few people are willing to withstand. He was willing to be called a racist — screamed at as a racist — over and over and over. You have to have a stomach of iron, and a spine of steel, to be screamed at as a racist. Rudy just took it. And reminded people that black citizens, more than others, were victims of crime.

There were people — I knew some — who were nostalgic about the old New York, or pretended to be. The present, safe New York was just not “edgy” or “authentic” enough. There were Gap stores everywhere. You might as well be in the suburbs. Times Square had been “Disneyized,” they said. That was one of the great putdowns of the day: “Disneyfication.” Times Square was better — certainly more authentic — when it was less square: marked by drugs and prostitution.

But others liked the new New York, a lot. They felt that Rudy was protecting them. The story was told that, at a bus stop, an old lady saw a “youth” acting up. And she called out to him, “You better watch out, or Rudy’s gonna get you.”

Giuliani was limited to two terms, so in 2001 we were going to elect a new mayor. “That’s it,” I thought. “It was fun while it lasted.” One beautiful late-summer day, I was walking through Riverside Park, where families were picnicking and birds were chirping. It was idyllic — Disneyesque, you could say. And I thought, “Once Mark Green is mayor, all this will be over.” That was my concern, anyway.

In due course, Green became the Democratic nominee. He was an old aide to Ramsey Clark and Ralph Nader. He was a long way from Giuliani.

The primary elections, Democratic and Republican, were held on September 11. Later in the day, they were postponed. During the weeks of the general-election campaign — i.e., when the World Trade Center still smoldered — Giuliani was very popular. He campaigned vigorously for the Republican nominee, Bloomberg. And the nominee spent a fortune from the fortune he had made. He won, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We were granted a reprieve.

And Bloomy proceeded to do something remarkable: He drove down crime even further. You could practically sleep in Central Park. In 2008, he got the city council to change the law on term limits, allowing him to run a third time. This was a brazen move, a power move. But I, for one, was pleased. As far as I was concerned, Bloomy could be mayor forever, if Rudy couldn’t.

Let me throw some stats at you. Last year, there were 414 murders in New York — the fewest since 1928. In 1990, there were 2,262 murders, which came to more than six a day. In the last 20 years, murder is down 83.2 percent, rape is down 55.5 percent, robbery is down 79.1 percent, burglary is down 83.4 percent — I could go on.

And this was no accident, no matter of luck: It took tremendous political courage.

With Bloomy, conservatives have had to put up with certain things. A few months ago, we at National Review had him on our cover as “New York’s Nanny,” flying like Mary Poppins with his umbrella over Gotham. The piece inside by Mark Steyn was excoriating, funny, and true. In an editorial a few weeks ago, we described the mayor as a “prissy little autocrat.”

Yes. He banned smoking in bars and restaurants. He banned or curbed trans fats (whatever they are). He has tried to limit the size of “sugary drinks.” He is not a Goldwater Republican. And I don’t care. Because, in New York, I’m essentially a one-issue voter — and that issue is crime. If that is not in check, nothing else matters. If you have to look over your shoulder, if you can’t go out, if you have to move — who cares about the size of sugary drinks?

Myron Magnet said it best in a recent essay for City Journal: The job of a New York mayor is to ensure, to the extent possible, freedom from fear. That is the whole enchilada.

Apparently, our next mayor will be a woman named Christine Quinn, the speaker of the city council. She is a “progressive” out of Central Casting. She has been inveighing against a police technique known as “stop and frisk.” Bloomberg’s critics have been screaming that this technique is racist. He is taking the abuse, and talking back to it. A New York congressman complained, “The mayor has shown no willingness to rein in the NYPD.”

The words “rein in the NYPD” should send a chill down the spine of everyone who lives in New York. There was once a time when the NYPD was good and reined in. And criminals ruled.

There are people who say that New Yorkers will never go back. They will never again “tolerate the intolerable,” to borrow a phrase from Norman Podhoretz. They have seen the lights of Paree — a safe, livable, delightful New York — and they won’t go back to the farm. I don’t believe it. Everything Rudy and Bloomy have done is reversible. The barbarians are never vanquished, permanently. They are always at the gate, waiting to be allowed back in.

What can reverse our reign of peace? A mayor who submits to racial bullying. Leadership that is complacent, inattentive — that lets our guard down. “Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth; and thy want as an armed man.”

The least important thing about New York is my relation to it. New York does not exist for my personal pleasure. There are 8 million people here, all with their own fish to fry. But everyone has an interest in freedom from fear. And it has been so lovely to live here.

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