A stretch of Times Square, September 2021 (Jay Nordlinger)

On the rise and fall — and rise again? — of a city

Editor’s Note: The below is an expansion of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

Criminologists can give you lots of data — social science. I can give you stories, mainly. But they’re not nothing. I have the evidence of my own eyes, ears, and nose. Don’t forget that last organ: Smells can tell you something about how a city is going.

And I will talk about New York.

In July 2020, friends invited me over to dinner. They lived at 77th and Broadway, and I live at 69th and Broadway. I’ll call them Christoph and Ann. They proposed a rooftop, socially distanced dinner — the pandemic was roaring at the time.

Christoph is European and likes to eat late. I’m from the American Midwest and can eat dinner while other people are finishing lunch. I figured he’d ask me to come at 8, 8:30.

“What time are you available?” he texted me. I said, “Anytime after 5:30.” He said, “Great. Why don’t you come over at 6?” That was surprising. He further said, “That way, you’ll be home before dark.” That was shocking.

Readers, let me repeat: shocking. “Home before dark”? For the previous 25 years or so, the relevant stretch of Broadway had been utterly peaceful and delightful — as had New York, for the most part.

Dinner was very nice. As I was leaving, Christoph said, “Text us when you get back home, just to let us know that you made it okay.” Again, this was incredibly unusual. When I got back home — eight blocks — I did not text them. But they texted me, just to be sure.

You can forgive them their nervousness, or conscientiousness. In previous weeks, hundreds of street people had been moved into hotels around 77th Street. These included the drug-addicted and mentally ill. Plus convicted sex offenders. Maybe this was right — a necessary, humane measure in a pandemic — maybe it was wrong. I don’t know.

In any case, my friends could scarcely walk the streets, even during the day. It was disturbing at best, dangerous at worst. They were paying a pretty penny to live in their building, mind you.

They found themselves in Central Park, listening to Curtis Sliwa talk about neighborhood safety. That, they never could have envisioned. Sliwa is the leader of the Guardian Angels, which he founded in 1979. Their purpose is to fight crime where the police can’t. Sliwa had been asked to speak by a newly formed group called “Upper West Siders for Safer Streets.”

If Sliwa and the Guardian Angels had been summoned; if they were needed — then the old days had definitely come back, at least for a while.

Christoph and Ann, my dear friends, moved from 77th and Broadway to a different neighborhood of Manhattan.

I myself moved to New York — 69th and Broadway — in November 1998. For more than 20 years — November 1998 until June 1, 2020 — I did not look over my shoulder, once. You may not believe me, but it’s true.

How can you be aware that you’re not looking over your shoulder? I would occasionally visit other cities: Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco. Then, I would look over my shoulder. And it would occur to me: “I don’t have to do this at home. Isn’t that remarkable?”

I mentioned a specific date: June 1, two summers ago. You will recall the national atmosphere. Riots, looting, and other criminality had broken out. This was an offshoot of peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd, in Minneapolis. (He was killed while in police custody.)

On June 1, after dark, I walked from West 69th to 50th and Ninth. And back again. (Why, I will not bother to explain, but I felt it necessary to do so.) On my way home, I was stalked and threatened and even did some running.

I can’t tell you how weird this was — how jarring — given what life in New York had so long been.

Sometime later, I jotted a few notes on Twitter, and several people responded along these lines: “Oh, poor, privileged whitey, getting a taste of what others have to endure routinely.” Okay. Think and say what you wish.

As I stated at the outset, I’ve got stories. Incidents. How many do you want to hear? There was the time in a 7-Eleven when a street person went nuts, on being asked to wear a mask. He threatened the people working in the store — humble immigrants, trying to make a living — and threatened customers as well. This might be par for the course elsewhere: but it had not been in New York.

A co-worker and I found ourselves taking cabs home from Midtown Manhattan. We had always walked, happily — without a thought. But suddenly it was dicey. We felt our stomachs tighten, which was such a strange sensation, given what we had been used to.

In the 1990s, some people complained of the “Disneyfication” of Times Square. The area had always been gritty and “edgy”; now it was nauseatingly family-friendly. “You might as well be in the suburbs!” Well, here is a headline from June 28, 2021: “2nd Times Square Bystander Shot in Broad Daylight in 2 Months, Mayor Vows More Cops.”

How do you like Times Square now? Better? More “authentic”? Less suburby?

Mass social protests, and accompanying criminality, are rare. Pandemics are rarer. It is only right to cut governmental authorities some slack. But I can tell you that life in my part of New York had been going down, down, well before the onset of the pandemic.

There were ever more vagrants. There was a lot more camping out. More begging, including of the aggressive sort. More urination and defecation, out in the open. Obvious, tragic mental illness — people literally barking at the moon. Trash piled high, and scattered about. Overall degradation.

It was as though the authorities — the police, primarily — had withdrawn. Been ordered to withdraw, or “stand down.” They were not present. There was a sense of “anything goes.”

Here is something small, but maybe telling: For the first time in my experience, people started camping out in the vestibule of my bank, after hours. The vestibule is where the ATMs are. This was not when the weather was cold, I should say, but when the weather was nice. Sometimes you wanted to bank and thought twice about it.

One night, I wanted to bank and saw that a man was in the vestibule. I was hesitating whether to go in. But then I noticed: The man seemed to be wearing an insignia of some sort. He was a security guard.

I went in and conducted my transaction. As I was leaving, I said, “Sir, I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I’m glad you’re here.” He said, “Everyone is saying that.”

Next door to the bank was a French bakery and café. It closed sometime last year — to be replaced by a cannabis dispensary. Have I mentioned the weed yet? It is everywhere, choking New York. Not the pot of the dorm rooms of yore. New stuff, “skunk weed,” I think they call it. It is harsh, obnoxious, repellent. I don’t think the dispensary, unlike the bakery and café, will be closing anytime soon.

Let me give you a tiny quality-of-life issue — no big deal, but still. When I was in college, Americans (especially young ones) would always say how great Europe was, in contrast with their home country. They were always praising Europe at the expense of the United States — which irked me.

I’m going to tell this story anyway.

In August of this year, I had to take trains in Germany and Austria. There were several announcements over the public-address system, and these were important. I thought, “How weird: You can hear these announcements. Clearly and distinctly. Why can’t it be that way on trains in New York?”

Not long after I returned home, I had to take a subway train from 72nd and Broadway to 125th and Broadway. It wound up taking an hour (about the time it takes to walk). Something had gone wrong, obviously, and passengers were being given information and instructions over the p.a. But there wasn’t a chance of understanding them — not a chance. The sound system was too poor, and the announcers were too careless. They were just shouting indistinct words, fast.

And no one minded, really. Well, we minded, but it was absolutely normal. Expected. On the platform there at the 72nd Street station, there was an air of resignation, futility, and submission.

I thought of William F. Buckley Jr.’s famous essay of 1960: “Why Don’t We Complain?” He wrote it after taking a train trip in the winter. Though it was freezing outside, it was boiling inside — in the train car. Everyone was sweating and uncomfortable. And, as the conductor came through, no one said a word.

Waiting at the 72nd Street station, I thought, “New York is one of the richest, most visited, most important cities in the world. Why isn’t it possible to hear announcements in train stations and on trains? Why does everyone think it’s normal not to be able to hear or understand these announcements? Why do we all shrug at it?”

Once upon a time, No Radio was the ultimate sign of futility in New York. A literal sign, I mean. People put it in their car windows: No Radio. In other words, “Don’t bother breaking into my car, to get a radio. Try the other guy’s car, maybe.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan cited No Radio in his famous essay of 1993, “Defining Deviancy Down.”

In a September 2013 issue of National Review, I published a piece called “Freedom from Fear, for Now: A personal reflection on living in New York.” I expanded that into a four-part series, online: “The Fate of New York.” (I, II, III, and IV.) For 20 years — under mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg — the city had been a model. A model city, demonstrating broad peace and prosperity. Now we were on the eve of another mayoral election, bringing the Giuliani–Bloomberg era to an end. What would happen?

When I moved to the city, back in ’98, people would regale me with tales of the bad old days. I knew about them already, actually: through newspapers, magazines, TV shows, movies, a Tom Wolfe novel . . .

Outside my window, I’m looking at Verdi Square and Sherman Square, which are in the general area of 72nd and Broadway. These squares, together, were once known as “Needle Park.” In 1971, there was a movie, The Panic in Needle Park, starring Al Pacino.

By the time I got here, “Needle Park” was heavenly — no needle park at all. The biggest danger was being bumped by a baby stroller, pushed by a happy young mom (or her nanny).

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 urban dangers. They had been given no occasion to learn.

There are occasions now. With crime a concern once more, many people are blaming the mayor, Bill de Blasio. He, in turn, puts the blame elsewhere.

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday blamed the city’s high crime rate on courts across the five boroughs, in the process revealing that they have rendered just 18 criminal verdicts in the first half of this year.

The astoundingly low number compared to 405 during the same pre-pandemic period in 2019.

“Whether it’s something as horrible as a murder or gun violence, you need a culture of consequences,” de Blasio said Monday . . .

“The court system not functioning is having a bigger impact than almost any other factor right now. The absence of those consequences for a whole variety of crimes is undermining public safety,” he said.

I have quoted from an article in the New York Post, published on August 30, 2021: here. Say what you will about Mayor de Blasio — and he has presided over this reversion in New York — the phrase “culture of consequences” is a good one. That is sorely needed: a culture of consequences.

A colleague sent me a different article, published in the same paper two days after the other one: here. The article begins,

A serial pervert has been terrorizing a Brooklyn neighborhood by repeatedly exposing himself to kids — but keeps getting cut loose thanks to New York’s lax bail reform laws . . .

Swell. Can’t anything be done?

Let me tell another story — nothing remarkable, but merely interesting, and symbolic. You could even say poetic. I know a married couple who had an apartment in New York for 20 or 25 years. They gave it up at the end of August. They were through with the city.

On the last day, the lady of this couple was in front of their building. A rat scurried across her foot. She took it as a kind of sign: “Yes, it’s time. No need to be wistful. Just leave and move on.”

When I wrote my piece in 2013 — and the accompanying series, online — I had a question. It was on many other lips, and minds, as well. Would New Yorkers go back? Now that they had seen what a city could be, would they again “tolerate the intolerable,” in a phrase of Norman Podhoretz?

Some said no. There is no going back to staying in your apartment, out of fear, or putting a No Radio sign in your car. I had a different view. “People can be convinced to tolerate the intolerable,” I wrote. “Convinced they have to. After all, it happened before.” And “everything Giuliani and Bloomberg have done is reversible. None of their gains is permanent.”

Government is important. (Forgive an elementary-school point, which will turn into a homily.) Government makes a difference, whether that government is good or bad. We can debate, as we always do, what government is for. What the scope of its responsibilities is. But almost everyone agrees that government is responsible for law and order. And when government sleeps on the job?

Back in 2013, I quoted the Bible (which you can do in National Review): “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.”

A broken window here, a graffito there; a jumped turnstile here, an encampment there — pretty soon, you’re talkin’ real trouble.

In New York, I am a single-issue voter: crime, or public order. Everything else flows from public order: commerce, tourism, vibrancy, beauty (or at least non-ugliness) — all the things that inhabit a phrase that I used above, “quality of life.”

I have given you a lot of impressions in this piece, not data. Here is one more impression: The decline in New York has been arrested. You look over your shoulder less. You may not like what you see around you — or hear or smell — but you look over your shoulder less. Moreover, there will be a new mayor next year: Eric Adams, an ex-cop who has promised law and order.

“Nothing is inevitable,” said Charles Krauthammer in a famous 2009 speech. “Nothing is written. For America today, decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” He was talking about this country’s position in the world: its foreign policy, its military strength, its security strategy. The same is true, I think, of city life.

And here’s something encouraging: If people choose — in some vague, collective sense — to decline, they can choose, after being fed up or rousing themselves, to un-decline.

If you would like to receive Jay Nordlinger’s Impromptus column by e-mail — links to new columns — write to [email protected].


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