When I came to New York eight years ago, it was a much tougher town than it is today. A recent report on the collapse of crime in New York sent me back to read my first impressions—recorded in a different journal—of the city's “Hogarthian rawness.”
“There is much about Manhattan,” I wrote in 1989, “that offends both the senses and elementary notions of decency. It is incessantly noisy, unspeakably filthy. Because there are too many people in too close contact with each other, the most common attitude New Yorkers adopt toward their fellow citizens involves an admixture of distracted indifference, incipient hostility, and impersonal rudeness. Most people most of the time do not even look at each other. To make eye contact in a public place is to risk the sending of an inadvertent message: a proposition, if one is female; a challenge or threat, if one is male. Perpetually overwhelmed by the presence of uncountable others, one constructs an invisible refuge of psychic isolation. As one of the characters in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities puts it, the essential need for the New Yorker is to ‘insulate' himself from and against the existence of all those other people. . . .
“If New Yorkers typically exhibit the demeanor of those who have seen it all, it is because they have. There are crazies everywhere. Not as in eccentric, but as in—to employ one of [then] Mayor Koch's favorite terms—wacko. The unhinged rant on streetcorners, scream obscenities in crowded subway trains, carry on extended conversations with unseen partners. (Though the carrying on of solitary conversations is so widespread a practice that it cannot in itself be taken as evidence of derangement; perhaps because they are so leery of speaking to each other, New Yorkers have a striking propensity for conducting audible public discussions with themselves.) People regularly fall asleep (pass out) in full public view: in parks and playgrounds, on subway landings and platforms, propped up in doorways, sprawled out on midtown sidewalks. . . .
“All this edges one toward the conclusion so often reached about the city: that it is, as they say, unlivable. Nor is this a judgment peculiar to tourists or new arrivals. New Yorkers do not deny the city's unlivability; indeed, they insist on it, wear it as a badge of honor. It is difficult in New York to think of life in other than Darwinian terms, and so the conceit comes easily that survival here marks one as among the fittest in the great struggle for existence. If New Yorkers had a motto, one lifetime resident told me, it would be ‘I can take it.' And so they can, and do. Even if, as some critics would insist, at a terrible cost. Callousness develops naturally in New York; it is in some ways simply a necessity. How else endure the routine horror?”
As I wrote those words in 1989, not the least of the “routine horror” involved the specter of violent crime. New York's crime rates have never been as bad as those of, say, Detroit or Washington, but the city's central place in the nation's imagination ensured that a situation that was quite bad enough in reality took on the aspect of a nightmare. In 1989 the case of the “Central Park jogger,” a young women raped, beaten, and left for dead by a gang of teenagers, became the symbol of crime out of control in a city reverting to the savagery of a Hobbesian state of nature.
I had come to the city, it turned out, as it reached the nadir of its reputation and self-confidence. National newsmagazines ran cover stories on “The Worm in the Big Apple,” describing with barely hidden schadenfreude the city's presumed descent into chaos. Even New York enthusiasts, those for whom Manhattan was the center of the universe and who had always assumed that civilization disappeared west of the Hudson, grieved over the city's decline and entertained heretical thoughts of escape to Connecticut or New Jersey.
It was my good fortune never to have personal experience of crime in New York—not even any close calls—but you were always aware of the possibility. If you did not walk the streets in fear and trembling, you did maintain a commonsense wariness, especially after dark. And there were constant reminders of crime's ubiquity, even in forms so petty as the signs, “No radio in car,” then regularly posted in parked automobiles. (It was not unusual to see people making good on their claims by installing and removing their radios on a daily basis.) When I moved to Roosevelt Island after a year on the Upper East Side, it was not because of fear of crime, but as I noted here two years ago, the Island's attractions included the fact that it was “two . . . things most of the rest of the city isn't: clean and safe.” (I have, incidentally, since moved back to Manhattan, but that's another story.)
Well, now, it seems, everything has changed. Peace has come to Happy Valley. Over the past few years, New York's crime rate has dropped radically—so much so that it accounts for a full one-third of the total national decline. In 1989, there were more than 2,000 murders in the city. We finished last year with 983, the first time the total had dropped below 1,000 since 1968. According to the most recent figures compiled by the FBI, New York's crime rate placed it 144th among the nation's 189 largest cities. You're safer here, the New York Times recently reported, than in Beaumont, Texas, Independence, Missouri, or Anchorage, Alaska.
Increased numbers of police and improved police practices have brought a decline not only in major crime categories but also in minor, “quality of life” violations. The once omnipresent “squeegee” people (you do want your windshield washed, don't you?) have disappeared, aggressive panhandling on the streets and in the subways has dropped off sharply, and reduced toleration for public drinking has (not surprisingly) reduced the incidence of public urination.
All this has made a palpable difference in the conditions of life in the city. People feel good about New York in ways they haven't for a long time. Little things occur that would have been unthinkable when I first came to the city. As I was walking to work one morning during the Christmas season, I had the extraordinary (for Manhattan) experience of having two separate people—total strangers—smile at me and wish me holiday greetings. The old “I love New York” theme—for years only a sour joke—has a new plausibility. Our very unlivability may be in question.
Real New Yorkers, who think that happiness—like civility—is for out-of-towners, know better than to trust good news. They worry about losing their edge. This isn't, after all, Minneapolis. Manhattan safer than Beaumont? The humiliation. New York without an edge of danger is as unnatural as New York without its Dostoyevskian citizenry.
You want nice, you could live in Scarsdale.