Sunday, January 12, 2014

A New Year - A New Mayor

   An era ended two weeks ago for New York City.  Twenty years of Republican mayors are over and for the first time in a long time this city, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one, is being governed by a Democrat, a Democrat for whom I voted with much hope and confidence.  When I vote for Republicans, which I do more often than I’d like, I vote for them with a heavy heart, knowing that if they win I and other liberals (there, I just said the L-word) would have to watch them like a hawk.  We are coming off eight years of Rudy Giuliani and twelve of Michael Bloomberg.  Their record is mixed, but far more positive than I would have expected from Republicans.  Giuliani entered City Hall with a city awash in crime and a deteriorating infrastructure whose middle class tax base was leaving in droves.  We all were resigned to double locking our doors, driving our cars in summer with windows locked and gas-guzzling air conditioners at full blast, and not letting our children out of our sight in a city which we simply assumed was ungovernable.  After Mayor Giuliani’s first term the city had done an about face.  Crime rates were the lowest in memory, children played outside, and we still double locked our doors but more from force of habit than fear of actual danger.  The city was never ungovernable; it was merely ungoverned for too darn long.  Giuliani appointed several get-tough police commissioners and a novel “broken windows theory” of policing; sweat the small stuff and you don’t get the big stuff.  Arrest petty vandals, grafitti “artists,” turnstile jumpers and such and they don’t graduate to armed robbery, rape and murder.  At the first sign of any trouble in Crown Heights, which suffered a terrible pogrom a year and a half before Giuliani took office,  a phalanx of riot-equipped police with a mobile command post and the whole nine yards descended on the neighborhood and did not leave until the trouble was over.  Cynical New Yorkers pooh-poohed the new policies but they worked.  Serious felonies took a nose dive and there were no Crown Heights riots in Crown Heights or anyplace else.  The City became a safe place to live and work, the exodus to the suburbs ended and people who had fled actually started coming back; there is little to recommend a long automobile commute on snowy highways and with gasoline prices sky high.  Freshly minted energetic and creative college grads flocked to New York and reinvigorated deteriorating neighborhoods like North Williamsburg, the Lower East Side and even Harlem.

   Giuliani’s second term brought still more reduction in crime, but there were stirrings of too much of a good thing.  Law-abiding people were being gratuitously harassed by the police, some of whom seemed to actually enjoy harassing them.  Being a teacher in an inner-city school, I would overhear the horror stories of students and teachers of color about being randomly stopped by cops and asked for ID (which no American civilian is required to carry), thrown up against a wall, invasively searched without a warrant, and the like.  Certain neighborhoods in the City were turning into a police state and affluent New Yorkers who held the power didn’t seem to care.  You did not even have to be black to be harassed by Giuliani’s cops; it happened to me.  I was attending teachers’ meetings in a high school in Bensonhurst, and was running north at lunch time to a kosher Dunkin Donuts to grab a bite when I was stopped by two people.  They asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood.  Being Jewish I answered their question with another question: What’s it of your business?  They showed me shields that identified them as police and resumed their intrusive questioning.  When I told them that I was in the neighborhood for teachers’ meetings at the high school, they told me the schools were closed for Election Day.  I replied that the schools are closed for students, but teachers have meetings and they can check that with the Board (now the Department) of Education.  What do you know about drug dealing over there (pointing south toward Coney Island)?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Why are you running?  I like to run.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  Never mind that I was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned on both sides with “New York City Marathon” and it was the week before the Marathon.  What freaking planet were those guys on?  They asked me for ID and I gave them my driver’s license.  What’s your address?  I told them.  That’s not the address on your license.  I recently moved; that was my old address and I filed the required form with the Department of Motor Vehicles.  One of them took the license into his car and ran it through the computer; of course it checked out fine.  Then one of them told me to open my mouth, and when I did so he swept the inside of my mouth with his finger (I don’t remember if he was wearing a rubber finger cot or rubber gloves), “checking for drugs.”  Of course he didn’t find a thing.  Only then did they let me go my way.  Several years later I recounted my experience to a lawyer acquaintance who told me that if the statute of limitations had not run out he would advise me to hire a lawyer and sue the city and the police department, as I had been subjected to an illegal and invasive search.

  Then came Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire Manhattanite aloof from New Yorkers in the outer boroughs who actually had to work for a living.  Never having had to deal with unions in his businesses where he made his billions, he made an art form out of demonizing the city’s unions and not bargaining with them in good faith, when he bargained at all.  At the end of his tenure he deliberately forced the unions into time-consuming and unwieldy impasse procedures so as to “kick the can” to the next mayor.

   This analysis would not be complete without mentioning a sea change in quality of life in New York’s public places, besides the dramatic reduction in crime.  A city that was choked with pollution from automobiles now encourages people to ride bicycles, both for fun and to travel to and from work.  Bike lanes and even bike rental stations are now a common sight.  Herald Square and other heavily trafficked public places now have protected areas where pedestrians can sit down and enjoy a snack and unrushed conversation, weather permitting.  We no longer have to inhale poisonous cigarette smoke as a condition of holding a job, shopping for groceries, waiting on line in a bank or being in any other indoor public space.  Prospect and Central Parks are free of automobile traffic much of the time; Transportation Alternatives is trying to make that all of the time.  Organized running and bicycle races are now common in those and other parks on weekends and summer weekday evenings.  Children and adults now enjoy the parks without having to inhale automobile exhaust and dodge speeding automobile traffic.  New Yorkers resisted all of these improvements at first, but eventually got used to them and even began to like them.  

   After 20 years with the same party in power, Americans usually vote for change.  So it was in New York, as Democrat Bill de Blasio was sworn in January 1.  He lived in Brooklyn (as mayor, he will live in Gracie Mansion) and has a son attending prestigious – and public – Brooklyn Technical High School, “Brooklyn Tech” to New Yorkers.  Like most Democratic public officials in New York, he is union friendly.  He can be expected to drive a hard bargain, but he will bargain in good faith.  Perhaps the greatest change we can expect to see – and soon – will be in the quality of policing.  One of the major issues in de Blasio’s election campaign was Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy, whereby police could detain anybody they deemed suspicious and frisk him for weapons.  Very few weapons were found or arrests made, but very much distrust and animosity was created between the police and the people they are supposed to protect and serve.  In theory the police had to have “reasonable suspicion” (a lesser standard than the “probable cause” required to obtain a search warrant) to perform a stop and frisk.  In practice “reasonable suspicion” could mean that the cop didn’t like the way somebody looks, the way he is dressed, or that he walks with a swagger (they should have seen me in the summer of 1967; I walked with the granddaddy of all swaggers).  In other words, breathing while black was enough to get you stopped and frisked in majority-black neighborhoods.  The new mayor pledged to end all that, and we have the technology to do so without sending crime rates into the stratosphere.  Policemen can be outfitted with cameras on their uniforms (the courts have held that there is no right to privacy on a public street) that can show a suspicious bulge in somebody’s pocket, gang signs or colors and similar bases for reasonable suspicion.  Another likely change will be “community policing,” whereby cops are taken out of their patrol cars and put on their feet, getting to know the area and its people, who the troublemakers are, who bears watching and so forth.  It works in most places where it was tried.  I don’t place much credence in fears of a return to the crime-ridden 1970s and ‘80s; New Yorkers simply won’t allow it.  For example, before Mayor Giuliani took office, “squeegee men” would hang out at key intersections offering to wash motorists’ windshields for a fee and harassing them if they declined.  Giuliani cleared them out.  During Bloomberg’s administration they tried to make a comeback.  The news made headlines in the tabloids, and the next day the squeegee men were gone.  We like our safe, people-friendly city and no official who values his political hide will allow a return to the bad old days.


תכלה שנה וקללותיה.  תחל שנה וברכותיה.

May the old year with its curses end, and a new year with its blessings begin.


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Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Don't forget that under Bloomberg, rents escalated to a point at which only the wealthy can now afford to live in or near Manhattan.

I and other liberals

And they allow you to daven in a Modern Orthodox shul? ;-)

Mon Jan 27, 10:54:00 AM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

There is a downside to making rents artificially low. Landlords are not in business for love and if they can't afford to maintain their buildings for the rents they are getting, they will abandon the buildings, which will decay and contribute to the growth of slums. There has to be a middle ground somewhere.

Thu Feb 06, 02:46:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is more important to you, that some would be criminals feel their rights to bear illegal arms and murder innocent people has been infringed by the police, or that the murder rate in this city is down?
I'm white and I get stopped by the police when I've driven through East New York, Brooklyn, at night. It's annoying! Big deal!! It's an investment in a safer city. Put that ahead of your bleeding heart priorities.

Thu Apr 24, 07:35:00 PM EDT  
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