Losing The Plot

It’s impossible not to see – and to marvel at – the near-miraculous transformation has come about in New York City over the past few decades. Bankrupt, with a collapsing infrastructure, hemorrhaging jobs and population – a million people abandoned the city in the 60s and 70s – and beset by endemic crime, failing schools, and a pervasive sense of futility and hopelessness, few would have predicted that New York would somehow revive itself to become, by the early 21st century, America’s safest, most successful, and even, one might dare to suggest, most loved metropolis.

Quite a turnabout from the days when the city was widely reviled – even by many of its own citizens – as a hopeless failure, with a future at best dystopian, but more likely Mad Max apocalyptic, as envisioned in films like Escape From New York, Fort Apache, The Bronx, and The Warriors. As you’d expect, New York City’s success has many putative fathers, among whom former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has received the most credit, and it must be said, the most blame. Even among New Yorkers who agree that the city has improved substantially, there are many who insist that it would have happened anyway, that Giuliani had little or nothing to do with it. And of course there is a significant minority who remain unconvinced that the present day state of the city represents an improvement at all, who long for the days of cheap rents, relaxed or nonexistent law enforcement, ubiquitous sex clubs, and what they saw as an invigorating edginess and chaos.

The eye-watering housing prices that have resulted from the city’s renewed desirability notwithstanding, most New Yorkers, native or newly minted, seem pretty happy with the way things have gone, evidenced by their having given five consecutive terms to Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, the two mayors who have presided over this remarkable turnaround. Even when the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, crime rates continued to fall, city services continued to function at more or less the same levels, and apart from some empty storefronts in a few normally thriving neighborhoods, the city seemed to weather the economic upheaval remarkably well.

There are ominous signs that this may changing, though. For the first time since the 1990s crime is increasing, not decreasing, and by a fairly significant margin. What’s more, it’s the type of crime – murder, rape and robbery – that most unsettles people, and it’s taking place in some of the locations – the subway and Central Park, for example – where people feel most vulnerable. There was a time when the subways and the park were considered legendarily dangerous, were made the butt of cynical jokes that resonated around the country, but that was ancient history, or so New Yorkers thought. For those of us old enough to remember the bad old days, the sight of people – women as well as men – blithely playing with their iPhones or laptops as they rode uptown in the middle of the night still seems slightly incongruous after all those years in which a subway ride entailed a desperate attempt to appear impoverished or, better yet, invisible.

So what’s going wrong? Is the current spike in crime a temporary blip – we’ve had them before, after all – or does it represent a real sea change? The indicators are not encouraging. In the past, upsurges in crime have tended to be confined to limited areas, and were quickly snuffed out by the simple but effective tactic of flooding that area with cops. The present problems seem to be popping up across the city, with no particular rhyme or reason: witness, for example, this Times account of a “string of shootings” that left 20 wounded on Friday night and Saturday morning. Saturday night saw a 2 am block party in Harlem turn into a shootout that left one dead and six injured, including two cops; another unrelated shooting took place only blocks away.

It’s not as though shootings and gang fights ever vanished, but they were infrequent enough to be newsworthy, infrequent enough that people were often surprised to hear of them. Now they’re disturbingly close to becoming routine again. Some might point to the recession, but as noted, crime continued to go down when economic times were at their worst. Besides, nobody is seriously arguing that the uptick consists of desperate fathers stealing loaves of bread to feed their starving families: the great majority of it is the same old mindless and often pointless violence that used to plague the city in the old days.

The one most obvious variable is a dramatic reduction in police numbers, by somewhere between 15 and 20%, depending whose numbers you believe. This has been going on since the turn of the century, when NYPD strength peaked at 40,000, and until recently, it seemed reasonable to believe that the city was now so well policed and governed that it could safely get by with significantly fewer officers.

It seemed possible to obtain the same quality of policing with fewer cops based on the quality of life principles that brought about New York City’s transformation. When people feel safe, the streets, parks and subways tend to be used at all hours; even when there’s not a police officer in sight, the eyes and ears of dozens of citizens serve as an equally effective deterrent to crime. If current trends continue, however, and people begin to be afraid again to the point where they avoid certain area, there are no longer enough police officers available to take their place.

Case in point: the 2 am block party that degenerated into a shootout: at one time it would have been shut down long before the crowd – and levels of drunkenness – grew to a point where it became dangerous. But increasingly, the kind of disorder that’s fun for some, but a nightmare for others – parents with young children, the elderly, people who have to get up early for work – is being left unchecked because there just aren’t enough cops to deal with anything but crisis situations.

This will be explained away by city officials with the all-purpose excuse of “budget cuts,” as have the service cuts and fare hikes that have been undermining the MTA, and which, if allowed to continue, also risk returning the city’s absolutely essential public transportation system to its dysfunctional bad old days. The two issues are not unrelated: during New York’s long decline, subways were criminally neglected, to the point where fewer than half the riders paid, where anyone intent on wreaking mayhem on other passengers was free to do so, and where sane New Yorkers often went to considerable lengths to avoid using the subways if at all possible.

We’re nowhere near that point now; the subways – and, to a lesser extent, the buses – are still in better shape than they’ve been in decades, but current policies virtually guarantee this will not remain the case. The cops have all but vanished from many trains, and now station agents are going as well. Turnstile jumping has not yet come back into vogue, but it’s routine now for people to exit via the emergency gates, even when there’s an open turnstile mere feet away, and it’s only a matter of time before more passengers start entering that way as well: after all, there’s no longer anyone to stop them.

Even more threatening are the continuing service cuts and fare increases. Making the subway a safe, reliable, and affordable means of transportation means that people come to view it as their first and most logical means of travel, which means that the trains are routinely full of people: the result is that they not only remain safer, even without a police presence, but also that New York continues to develop the culture of public transportation that has arguably made it a more civilized place than almost any car-oriented American city.

We’re now taking a giant step in the wrong direction, pursuing instead the policy of trying to discourage transit use outside of commute hours and extracting an ever greater share of the cost from the farebox. This benighted philosophy has spelled ruin for transit systems across the country, initiating a vicious cycle of ever dwindling service and constantly rising prices that eventually succeeds in eliminating so many passengers that the system itself begins to seem irrelevant.

It’s highly unlikely that New York’s MTA will reach that extreme, since this city simply couldn’t function without public transportation, but it could deteriorate dramatically, and take with it a great big chunk of New York’s quality of life. MTA and city officials are overlooking the fact that public transportation is a benefit not only to those who ride it, but to the entire city, especially including those from the outer boroughs and suburbs who drive into town on a regular basis. Even a 5 or 10% increase in traffic would reduce the city to gridlock, and for this reason alone, not to mention concerns about air and noise pollution, climate change, and, once again, quality of life, everybody – and especially automobile drivers – should be paying to not just maintain, but expand and improve the MTA. Congestion pricing is one solution; an even more effective one might be a hefty increase to the gasoline tax throughout the tri-state area.

New taxes alone will never be enough, though; sooner or later, and hopefully sooner, the city will have to come to grips with the legacy of its big-spending ways, when a seemingly never-ending boom provided so much revenue that common sense no longer need to be applied to budgets. Among other things, this means we can no longer afford the incredibly generous pensions – and the many ways they are manipulated – that see many city employees making more in retirement than they did while working, and, because they’ve retired in their 40s or 50s, doing so for far longer than they ever worked.

I’m not talking about starving Grandpa and Grandma here, merely reining in the benefits that were granted based on the notion that the Wall Street bubble was going to become a permanent way of life. There was more than enough to go around, it once seemed; it’s now painfully clear that wasn’t the case. Taking money away from cops and public transportation disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable, but ultimately it impacts on us all. Quality of life is not just a political slogan or a catch phrase, it is the oxygen which enables all of us to subsist and thrive in this marvelous and complex city. Let it start to dwindle again, and there will be hell to pay.

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