Why Do We Still Fetishize New York’s Violent Past?

c/o blogs.timesunion.com

Amid all the talk lately of loving New York and leaving New York and street art in New York and mayoral campaigns in New York and everything in New York, there has also been a lot of talk about crime in New York. Specifically, there has been a lot of talk about how, once de Blasio gets elected (and, uh, yes, barring anything catastrophic, like de Blasio falling prey to that vicious cat in Park Slope, that’s exactly what’s going to happen), New York is very likely going to spiral back down into the graffiti-covered depths of its violent past. I mean, did you hear about the motorcycle gangs that have been running rampant up and down the West Side Highway lately? Think of how bad de Blasio is going to make New York when it’s already going downhill so fast and he’s not even mayor yet. Crazy!

The latest evidence (and I use the word “evidence” very lightly) that electing de Blasio will signify the coming of the apocalypse is a new Joe Lhota campaign commercial, which refers to de Blasio’s “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime” and concludes that a de Blasio mayoralty will “take New York backwards.” The ad employs lots of violent imagery, at some points there are actual images of corpses along with the more typical urban hellscape of burned-out buildings and old ladies in graffiti-covered subways. Scary! De Blasio immediately fired back at Lhota, accusing him of staging a “divisive, misleading attack ” and of fear-mongering. Which is exactly right! That’s exactly what Lhota is doing! But why is he doing it? And is it even working the way that he wants it to?

Along with all the fetishization of the violence in New York’s not too distant past, there has also been a great resurgence of just flat-out nostalgia for that very same past, violent or not. Notable people like David Byrne have been weighing in lately on how the city has changed, and how it needs to return to something more akin to the creative time period of the 70s and 80s, which, coincidentally, is exactly when David Byrne first moved here and built his career, and is exactly when all the violence that Lhota worries about was in ascendence. And so along with the nostalgia for the cheap rents and fertile, creative atmosphere of the past is an acknowledgment that the New York of yore was a seedier, more violent place. I mean, statistically, there’s no denying that it’s much safer in New York City than it was twenty or thirty years ago. And no one wants a return to the era of high crime rates and pervasive vandalism. Even David Byrne, in remembering the New York of his youth, writes, “I don’t romanticize the bad old days. I find the drop in crime over the last couple of decades refreshing.” Me too, David! I too find it refreshing.

But also, every time I see supposed-to-be-shocking images like the ones in Lhota’s commercial, I’m reminded not just of crime but also of all the things that existed then that don’t exist now, things like affordable rent! And jobs that pay living wages that are not in the finance industry! And so no, I don’t want to return to the times of Squeegee Men and Bernie Goetz vigilantism, but there were other things about New York back then that are hard not to miss now, the things that made New York more than just a playground for Russian billionaires. And so while Joe Lhota is busy fetishizing New York’s violent past as a scare tactic, there are just as many people who still embrace those times, not because they want a return to violence or scared old ladies on the subway, but because those times evoke more than just high crime rates, they represent a time when New York had a middle class and affordable rents and a vibrant creative scene. Those are the things worth bringing back. It’s unlikely New York will return to such high levels of crime (there hasn’t even been a murder in ten days!), but we could stand to have a return to some of the policies of decades past. And, hey, with the popularity of Banksy, maybe the subways can even start to look a little interesting again? Though I guess that depends on whether or not you even find Banksy all that interesting? De Blasio doesn’t even know who Banksy is! So, really, who knows what will happen in the next four years? Only time—and Republican campaign commercials—will tell.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen




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