City Journal Autumn 2014

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Eye on the News

Bob McManus
Remember the Permanent Panhandler?
Gotham’s next mayor could dismantle 20 years of progress in establishing public order.
1 October 2013

Tony was the neighborhood’s permanent panhandler, in the early 1990s, when it seemed that someone like him stood at every major street corner in Manhattan. Tony’s haunt was the northeast corner of 86th Street and Columbus Avenue on Manhattan’s liberal Upper West Side, where the pickings were rich. The automatic latch on the heated ATM vestibule was usually broken, too, offering a warm spot in the winter. Not surprisingly, there was competition for such a plum spot. Turf squabbles were raucous and common. One sunny weekend afternoon, a crack-addled woman pulled a knife on him. He retreated and passersby scattered.

Odd as it may seem today, none of this was unusual back then. Nobody knew exactly how many vagrants there were in the city, but they were everywhere: on the street corners; in the subways; in mass-transit terminals; in parks and plazas and slumped under bridges, elevated highways, and sidewalk scaffolding. Bright blue construction tarps marked their encampments, which were otherwise dark, dank, forbidding, vermin-infested nuisances. The vagrants themselves often stank. They were potentially contagious and often armed. The cops wanted no part of them.

Who would have guessed, in 1965, that a civilized city such as New York was about to descend into three decades of violent street anarchy? But John Lindsay’s permissive liberalism, along with shifting national norms, conspired to fracture both the city’s institutions and its citizens’ expectations. Ill-considered mental-health treatment “reforms” and the emergence of crack cocaine, among other factors, set the ball rolling downhill. By the time it stopped, the lower level of Grand Central Terminal had become a reeking flophouse, and crime was practically out of control everywhere else.

Things reached their lowest point in the late 1980s. It wasn’t so much that nobody wanted to restore order as it was that nobody knew how to. The politicians were ineffective. The NYPD itself was a big part of the problem. Its leaders had no blueprint for dealing with disorder and its rank-and-file had no appetite for engaging the disorderly.

Then, a new mayor, Rudy Giuliani, assembled a remarkably talented group of people. Together they formulated a coherent strategy for reclaiming the streets. It was a policy of zero tolerance for social disruption, coupled with command accountability. From the commissioner’s office down to the rookies in patrol cars, it was understood that orders would be followed or supervisors would suffer.

What emerged—and continued throughout the Bloomberg years—was an enlightened and humane policy of firm but insistent pressure from cops and social workers to persuade street-dwellers to come in from the chaos. The new approach brought an end to the encampments and rapid reductions in petty crime and other manifestations of disorder. The city says that it has placed some 4,000 vagrants in permanent housing since 2007, and it will spend $372 million this year in support of the program. This is a substantial sum, given that the number of people living on the streets at any given moment, by City Hall’s estimate, is just 3,200.

It’s been a bumpy road, true, and much remains to be accomplished. But Tony has been gone from 86th and Columbus for years now, and he hasn’t been replaced. No one needs to tip-toe around prone bodies at Grand Central anymore because there are none. And those sky-blue construction-tarp lean-tos are now but a memory.

New Yorkers are moving into the post-Giuliani/Bloomberg era facing at least three critical questions regarding vagrancy: Is there anything a new mayor must take from the experiences of the past 20 years? Will he have the courage to stick with what has worked? And, given the burgeoning judicial and political interference in the NYPD’s governance, will he even have the discretion to embrace past successes?

U.S. District Court Justice Shira Scheindlin effectively put the department into federal receivership this summer. Though her decision ostensibly related only to the NYPD’s so-called “stop-question-and-frisk” policies, it was startlingly expansive and thus wide open to mischievous interpretations.

Meanwhile, the city council has inserted itself directly into NYPD operations by mandating the appointment of a department inspector general. The new council, to be elected in November, is not likely to be any more responsible in these matters. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch is already counseling his members to stand back and avoid confrontation whenever possible, especially in situations with racial implications. Such caution may make sense for his members, but it’s bad for the city.

Former police commissioner William Bratton, an original member of the Giuliani brain trust, summed up a command officer’s basic challenge earlier this summer. Twenty percent of rank-and-file cops will run through walls to get the job done, he said, and 20 percent can’t be bulldozed into doing real work. The successful commander, continued Bratton, is the one who can motivate the 60 percent in the middle to do their duty. In this critical regard, Lynch’s hands-off advice will be of no help.

In the end, of course, it will be the new mayor’s responsibility to maintain the progress of the last two decades. Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio has dangled Bratton’s name as a possible successor to current commissioner Ray Kelly. But there’s nothing in the de Blasio resume to suggest that he would actually hire Bratton, or that he would be a hard-nosed, public-safety mayor in any other respect. Republican Joe Lhota—the Bronx-born son of a cop—would seem to be the better bet. But he hasn’t made his case convincingly, and there isn’t much time left for him to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine that the Upper West Side, as liberal as it can be, would welcome the return of a permanent panhandler—just as it’s inconceivable that anybody misses the lady crackhead with the knife. That goes, too, for the city as a whole. But the defining decisions will be made in City Hall starting in January. New Yorkers must choose wisely.

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