In the September 16 Times, in his piece "When He Was Seventeen," novelist Christopher Sorrentino looks back on the New York of 1980, when he was 17 years old. He recalls an edgy, creative city where crime didn't undermine day-to day life. I remember things differently.
Like Sorrentino, I lived in the Village. In the early Eighties I remember one friend raped and another who woke up to find a strange man inside her apartment. I remember the burglary that left my friend sleeping with bars on his windows and a bat at his bedside. I remember the night I ran my way out of a mugging on Fourteenth Street. I remember friends who had guns pulled on them riding the subway late at night.
And I remember the trial where I served as an alternate juror: the teenage defendant was accused of murdering an elderly woman in Washington Heights who hired him to run errands. It took the jury less than an hour to convict. Later, we learned that the same defendant had also murdered an elderly woman and raped his best friend's mother.
Sorrentino's dead right about the screaming levels of inequality in the city today, but wrong in his assessment of crime. People coped not because crime was no big problem, but because they learned to survive and adapt in harsh conditions. And as bad as things got in the Village, they were much worse in poor, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
The problem of today's New York is that the transforming fall in crime came in the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, who had no worthwhile plan for building on the crime drop to create healthy, sustaining neighborhoods for all New Yorkers. And the Bloomberg administration, which has seen impressive crime reductions of its own, still hasn't found a way to even out the disparities between rich and poor that undermine our city.
Fear of crime once scared away the plutocrats who lately have done much to make Manhattan a less interesting place. And the fall in crime has attracted gentrifiers whose ability to pay high rents has priced many creative types out of once-affordable neighborhoods. But the troubles of gentrification, urgent as they are, should not be used retrospectively to diminish the threat of crime.
The reality of crime in New York City from the Sixties to the Nineties, especially for the poor, was truly awful. It took a terrible toll on the city.