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Ed Driscoll

Bipolar Manhattan

June 12th, 2011 - 11:58 am

Back at the start of 2005, Daniel Henninger wrote in the Wall Street Journal that a surprising number of New York’s bourgeois-bohemian artistic elite longed for the epic horror of the city’s mid-’70s nadir:

This past Sunday a New York Times feature in its City section asked famous New Yorkers to identify New York’s golden age. At least four identified the 1970s as the golden age. This is worth notice because in the 1970s banks said New York had spun its credit rating into dross and refused to lend more money to a city whose accumulated deficit reached $8 billion. Today its budget office reports that starting in FY2006, per-annum deficits for three years will be $3.7 billion, $4.5 billion and $3.7 billion. There is a mayoral election this November when we’ll get the opinion of all New Yorkers on the city’s current alchemists. But perhaps we should regard the famous Times’ commentators yearning for the 1970s as canaries in the gold-plated mine shaft.

The actor John Leguizamo: New York in the ’70s “was funky and gritty and showed the world how a metropolis could be dark and apocalyptic and yet fecund.” Fran Lebowitz, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair: The city “was a wreck; it was going bankrupt. And it was pretty lawless; everything was illegal, but no laws were enforced. It was a city for city-dwellers, not tourists, the way it is now.” Laurie Anderson, a well-known New York artist and performer, admits the ’70s were considered “the dark ages” but “there was great music and everyone was broke.”

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One of the better-known artifacts in the archaeology of New York is the movie “Death Wish.” Released in 1974, it stars Charles Bronson as a Manhattan liberal who snaps under the burden of New York’s violence and goes into the subways to mow down thugs the cops can’t or won’t catch. Back then the city’s audiences cheered and screamed as Bronson smashed one civil-liberties platitude after another.

Peter Hall, in his magisterial study of history’s great urban centers, “Cities in Civilization,” remarks offhandedly that “not for nothing did New York develop so rapidly after the first subways . . . brought their trains into the center of Manhattan.” The subways, of course, aren’t for the tourists but for unwealthy city-dwellers. Starting in 1970, fires, collisions and derailments routinely wrecked New York’s subways, injuring and even killing passengers. In August 1973, a chunk of concrete fell from the roof of the IRT Steinway tunnel and killed a passenger. A 1975 fire trapped 12,000 evening rush-hour passengers. But the cars were colorful. They were covered with graffiti, celebrated by Norman Mailer in a famously provocative paean to the graffiti painters.

The ’70s golden-agers in the Times story don’t deny what was going on then–but they kind of miss it. The photographer Mary Ellen Mark remembers “it was a time of costume and excitement, a time of youth and great energy.” Caleb Carr, the novelist of old-time New York, thinks the city has been “sterilized by the Giuliani years.” He says that “like a troublesome child taking Ritalin, New York may be more manageable now, but it has also sacrificed its personality.”

These comments raise the question of just what liberalism believes makes a city great or even golden, rather than just . . . interesting.

While New York’s reactionary avant-garde, Democrats all, long for the hell of the 1970s, another Democrat, Mayor Bloomberg, has a more sterile and utopian vision in mind, as Brendan O’Neill writes this month in the UK Spectator, noting that “What was once the most exciting city on the planet has turned into the world capital of health-obsessed control-freakery.” And pace Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, when New York can top California in that department, you know the city’s government has gone far, far, off the rails:  

If you had to think of one city on earth where the rulers should not try to impose a standard of ‘good behaviour’, it would surely be New York. Who in their right mind would seek to sanitise this concrete jungle, to sedate the city that never sleeps, to demand conformism and obedience from the inhabitants of a place which, in the words of a popular tourist T-shirt, is known as ‘New York F**kin’ City’?

You’d be surprised. New York is currently governed by a gaggle of health-obsessed bigwigs who believe they have a duty to grab New Yorkers by the scruffs of their outsized necks and drag them towards lives of bicycle-riding, non-smoking, booze-avoiding, fruit-snacking conformity. City Hall, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is awash with that new breed of psycho-politician known as the ‘nudger’, who believes that he has the right to use psychological techniques and brute censorship to manipulate and ‘improve’ human behaviour.

The Bloombergers have become world-beaters in the banning of public smoking and the demonisation of junk food. It is testament to their successful colonisation of these islands that the banning of smoking in all public parks, pedestrian plazas and beaches passed without incident, and even without much angry commentary, on 24 May. Under the Smoke Free Air Act (it is clever, in an Orwellian kind of way, to use the word ‘free’ in an act of law that diminishes freedom), New Yorkers can no longer light up in Central Park, Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Promenade, the Coney Island concrete walk or even Times Square, that flashing, noisy advertisers’ paradise where you can still watch naked cowboys play guitar and buy Sarah Palin condoms from streetsellers — so long as you don’t puff on a ciggie at the same time. ‘Where can I smoke now?’ one New Yorker said to a newspaper. ‘In an underground fortress of shame?’

In 2003, NYC became one of the first cities in the western world to outlaw the evil weed in bars, restaurants, workplaces and theatres. But the outdoor smoking ban is of a different, more jaw-dropping order. It gives the lie to the idea that bans on public smoking are driven by a good-hearted instinct to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke. (How could that possibly be a problem in a space as vast and airy as Central Park?) Rather it exposes the Bloombergers’ desire to monitor more closely what people ingest, not only at work or on the bus, but now in Central Park too, a place that was originally designed, in the words of David M. Scobey’s book Empire City, to ‘enhance the experience of freedom’ and allow New Yorkers to ‘lose themselves’. The outdoor smoking ban has stubbed out something of the spirit of New York. As one smoker who was reprimanded by the NYPD for daring to light up in Union Square on the day ‘Smoke Freedom’ was enforced, put it, ‘New York is kind of lame now.’

Not content with policing what New Yorkers puff, the Bloombergers want to control what they scoff, too. City Hall banned the frying of food in transfats in all restaurants in 2007, which was bad news for those of us for whom half the attraction of visiting NYC was to tuck into the deliciously unhealthy fare served up in its diners. And in 2008, the city forced all chain restaurants and foodsellers to publish the calorific information of their food, in the same-sized font as the label for the food itself. Walking down Fifth Avenue, I saw a huge poster in a Burger King window advertising two burgers for the price of one, alongside an equally huge notice saying: ‘1320 CALORIES.’ Even the temporary stalls that hawk hot dogs and ice-cream in Central Park and elsewhere display calorific facts. That salted pretzel you buy as you stroll back to your hotel (‘500 CALORIES’) now comes with a side order of inner turmoil and gym fantasies.

It is hard to convey the impact of this state-enforced calorie-counting. It effortlessly zaps the fun from eating out. It is designed to induce caution, even guilt, in New Yorkers, to make them stop and think before snacking or dining, to make them treat calorific consumption as something akin to snorting cocaine — an act that can have grave consequences. As a regular TGI Friday’s patron told a reporter when the display law was introduced, after she noticed that the Brownie Obsession dessert had ‘1,500 CALORIES’: ‘I’m so upset. I wish they wouldn’t have done this.’

Some restaurant chains tried to assert their First Amendment rights in opposition to the calorie law, arguing that they were effectively being forced to publish a government message. They’re right, and the government message was this: ‘Do you really want this muffin? It will make you even wobblier than you already are. Go home and snack on lentil seeds instead.’ But the restaurant rebels lost and now you can’t go anywhere in NYC without having your brain invaded by gut-busting food facts.

And remember, this is a city whose government became so obsessed with social re-engineering that it forgot the basics of snow removal this past winter. But then, as Victor Davis Hanson sagely warned in January:

It is a human trait to focus on cheap and lofty rhetoric rather than costly, earthy reality. It is a bureaucratic characteristic to rail against the trifling misdemeanor rather than address the often-dangerous felony. And it is political habit to mask one’s own failures by lecturing others on their supposed shortcomings. Ambitious elected officials often manage to do all three.

The result in these hard times is that our elected sheriffs, mayors, and governors are loudly weighing in on national and global challenges that are quite often out of their own jurisdiction, while ignoring or failing to solve the very problems that they were elected to address.

Quite simply, the next time your elected local or state official holds a press conference about global warming, the Middle East, or the national political climate, expect to experience poor county law enforcement, bad municipal services, or regional insolvency.

In that sense, maybe the Woody Allen movie to reference isn’t Annie Hall, with all its New York versus California riffs, but its quasi-sequel, Manhattan, which the Woodman suggested was ultimately about “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about — the universe.” Or in Bloomberg’s case, all of the nanny state obsessions allow him to avoid thinking about how to prop up a city’s economic infrastructure and basic human services during a lengthy and seemingly intractable recession, which could ultimately leave New York with a remarkably bleak future.

Incidentally, you’d think that a safety-conscious man like Mike Bloomberg would prefer that his city be traversed in the back of nice big Ford Crown Victoria taxis, rather than the bike lanes he’s so obsessed with (along with the smoking bans and calorie-counting). As Tim Blair writes, “By the looks of things, [bike] lane observance may be the final risky activity permitted in NYC:”

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Finally, to get an idea of how far we’ve traveled in the space of 70 years, check out David Gelernter’s great “Dynamite, Manhattan, 1939″ essay from the Spring 1995 edition of City Journal, on the morals and mores of New York long-since lost, which reads today as he were observing life on another planet, let alone the Manhattan of the past.

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