The author reminds New Yorkers of the way the city once was, the way it is now, and that things can revert to the bad old days of the 1970’s through the early 90’s. People did not get better, but the policing and the will of NYC government did and the broken window theory of fighting crime was the right one. However there are dangerous omens that the city may well backslide, aggressive panhandlers are now everywhere and it is not too alarmist to think that the return of the squeegee men may not be far behind. Elections do have consequences and memories are short. “Perpetual hyper-alertness kept me from being mugged” – me too!
by Steven Cuozzo
One hot summer Sunday in 1988, I watched a mugging just barely not happen. The kid a few yards ahead of me, about 17, crouched jaguar-like measuring his prey from behind: a young woman, her handbag slung over one golden-tanned arm. Her New York radar alerted her before I could shout. She spun on her heel into a restaurant, looking terrified but at least safe — until next time.
Sidewalk dramas in those days didn’t usually end so gently. A Post colleague was mugged at knifepoint on subway stairs; resistance might have gotten him killed. Both incidents took place in Rockefeller Center in broad daylight. There wasn’t a cop in sight. Nor were there many people at all: Tourists were scarce then, and savvy locals knew how scary even the heart of Midtown could feel on a sunlit weekend afternoon.
In less than two years from now, New York City will have a new mayor and, in all likelihood, a new police commissioner. To those of us who remember what things were like not long ago, the latter prospect is the scarier. Schools, zoning, budget, taxes, even bicycle lanes matter, but none as much as the question:
Will our streets be safe? Just as important: All those things which falls under the cognizance of man might very likely be mutually related in the same fashion and there can be nothing so remote that we cannot reach to it: Will we feel safe?
Friends in the businesses I cover for this newspaper, real estate and restaurants, privately worry more about who will succeed Ray Kelly than about who will be the next mayor. People now live, work and eat out and shop in neighborhoods previously forbidding. But the party’s over if muggers and hustlers return — or even if they’re perceived to be getting a pass from an NYPD marching to new, politically correct directives.
The knives are out for the kind of policing we have come to expect from Kelly. His detractors have not laid a hard glove on him; he’s parried glancing blows with stinging authority. Kelly enjoys a singular set of strengths — his triumph on the streets on top of staving off terrorism with a force 15% smaller than in 2001; Mayor Bloomberg’s unflinching support; personal integrity; guts befitting a former US Marine; and a post-9/11 mood that made the least authority-loving citizens unsympathetic to public mayhem.
Challenged a few weeks ago by City Council members who claimed there was a better way to fight crime than the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, Kelly had the balls to disdainfully retort, “Yeah, what is that?”
His successor is unlikely to have Kelly’s nerve. And if the next mayor is as spineless and craven to special interests as are the current candidates, look out.
If a regression to chaos seems unlikely, the sweeping improvement which began under Rudy Giuliani seemed just as far-fetched to those of us who lived through the hell years. Few subscribed at first to Giuliani’s faith that crime could be meaningfully rolled back; the best that seemed possible was a tenuous holding action.
If it’s hard to imagine the mugger-infested Midtown I recall, it was just as hard to picture back then it getting any better. It could, it did, but a thing done can be undone as well.
Most of the city is in good enough shape to rule out overnight collapse. A slide backwards would occur incrementally as it did in the 1960s and early ’70s. Beware first the squeegee man. The personification of government’s abandonment of its obligation not only to protect citizens but also to make us feel protected, he’s gone from the streets but not from our dreams. It would take a mere wink or nudge from a different top cop to invite him back.
Newcomers and those born here recently cannot fathom what the five boroughs were like from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s. Two episodes bracketed my worst memories. In the August 1977 blackout, looters and arsonists destroyed the core of my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill; 35 years later, most of Broadway under the el remains desok=late.
Nineteen years later, a uniformed business improvement district agent greeted riders leaving the subway at Broadway and 47th Street, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Times Square!” Long accustomed to Paul Simon’s “come-ons from the whores on Seventh Avenue,” I marveled that things were getting better. But it wasn’t over yet.
Horrific statistics — 2,245 murders in 1990 compared with 515 in 2011 — don’t convey the extent to which the menace overhung daily routines. The young think they know it from “Midnight Cowboy” and “Bonfire of the Vanities.” But they don’t know it, because they can’t.
In the 1980s, young women didn’t happily bar-hop on Ludlow Street — rape, robbery and worse would likely have been their fate. The predatory “homeless” took over Columbus Circle, subway stations and department store vestibules. My friends leaving a Broadway show were beset by hostile drunks and drug pushers. Terrified of the subway, unable to find a taxi, they enlisted a horse-drawn carriage to deliver them from the cesspool.
I switched subway cars at the approach of roving male youths on the hunt, as they always seemed to be. Perpetual hyper-alertness kept me from being mugged. But if it took so much effort for an able-bodied, younger man to keep safe, what was it like for the old, the infirm, and the poor trapped in bad neighborhoods?
The apartment my wife and I bought in 1993 included a small terrace. I stood on it and thought: Up here, no one can harm us. Not everyone could afford a co-op just to have a pittance of secure outdoor space.
I didn’t fully let my street guard down until a year or so before 9/11. On Broadway near Zabar’s, my reflexes went on alert for transvestite hookers who prowled the neighborhood in earlier days. Then I saw mothers wheeling strollers. And I’ve walked without fear ever since.
Ray Kelly’s NYPD is embattled by pandering politicians, civic “libertarians,” jerks who miss the depraved West 42nd Street of the ’80s, and unreconstructed cop-haters.
So much political and social momentum can only test a new mayor’s and a new commissioner’s mettle. The flashpoint is widespread stop-and-frisk. The howling over it isn’t really aimed at Kelly but at who follows him — and Bloomberg. Alas, Christine Quinn, Scott Stringer, Bill Thompson, and Bill de Blasio appear made not of metal, but of mush.
The NYPD conducted 684,330 stops last year — 87% of them of blacks or hispanics, who comprise 59% of the city’s population. Of all those stopped and frisked, the NYPD’s detractors note, 88% were not charged with a crime.
But maybe because thugs in pre-Giuliani days reduced my Hull Street boyhood home to an empty lot , I’m more interested in the 12% frisked who were charged. In my book, a tactic that catches 82,119 villains in a year justifies its authoritarian-seeming nature.
Even so, stop-and-frisk befalls more non-criminals than a reflexively liberal culture can stomach. Kelly’s successor won’t have the luxury of telling critics, in effect: Get over it. Anyone who howls over kid-gloves airport security should know better. I’m rattled merely when I’m taken behind a curtain and made to empty my every bag and pocket. One agent spent so long at it, I feared he was planting something. My sense of violation overwhelmed knowing that it was for the greater good.
For all that, I believe stop-and-frisk is defensible. For starters, some 53% of the NYPD’s patrol officers are black, hispanic or Asian. That large numbers of minority cops are acting out white-racist roles seems ridiculous in the extreme.
However, it will take a new mayor and a new top cop of resolve to make the case. A Quinnipiac poll found more voters prefer Kelly for mayor (24%) than any announced candidate. Running as a Republican, he’d likely clobber any wishy-washy Democrat.
If the bad guys retake the streets, I’d still have my terrace. But we need a better prospect for the future. We wait for those who’d follow Bloomberg to give us reason to believe in it. We whipped al Qaeda. Save us from the bucket brigade and its accomplices.
Tags: Steven Cuozzo