I live in a wonderful place, a Queens garden spot called Middle Village. We have enough people in our modest row house blocks to preserve the amenities of urban life; but we also have trees, and parks, and little front yards with low fences that children can hop over, and back alleys that make perfect ball fields. There is no crime to speak of; I know and like most of my neighbors.
But for the danger of losing some of our scholars to the timeless allure of stickball, I suppose we could have held this issue's Roundtable, Can Neighborhoods Save the City?, in my back alley. For my block is a good place from which to contemplate how much a good neighborhood enriches those who live there, and also how fragile such places are.
Here is part of my neighborhood's value: It has been largely spared what George Kelling calls "the contagion of public disorder." As a result its public and semi-public places serve the common good. If the common good seems too lofty a phrase to apply to my back alley, consider that it is only because we do not have bums, prostitutes, or drug dealers in the alley that the moms on my block can say those rare and beautiful words "go out and play."
What if they could not say those words, as many moms in New York cannot? Two and a half smallish bedrooms are not much space for two parents to raise the two or three children that most of my neighbors have; life can get pretty tense when the solution to an unsafe neighborhood is sitting on top of each other around the TV set, or a harried week full of play-dates and the other stratagems of mothers behind enemy lines. Suppose the children could no longer walk to school in the morning; that would tighten the breakfast schedule and turn up the tension another notch. And because my neighbors would sense that public disorder stands as a warning of real crime, their lives would be permeated, as so many New Yorkers' are, by a constant low-level but haunting fear, the looming absurdity of encountering death on the way to the deli or the donut shop.
It is an odd thing: We all know we do not want to live in a "bad" neighborhood, but few of us imagine in detail just how much we would lose by doing so. Certainly the city often seems to act without much regard for what is at stake. My neighborhood could be ruined tomorrow if the city, under the provisions of the "fair share" rules dissected by Walter Olson, decided that my block deserved a homeless shelter, or a halfway house for troubled "youths."
Under ideal conditions we could absorb these facilities safely: if the homeless were strictly charged not to beg from the neighbors, curse at our children, urinate in our yards, or sleep in our alleys; and if those who did so were promptly arrested, committed, or otherwise removed.
But in today's New York, those ideal conditions do not apply. The city allows the homeless and the "youths" extraordinary latitude. Fred Siegel, in our Roundtable, argues that this is because of our obsessive respect for personal autonomy, particularly among America's "faux bohemian" elites, an obsession that exalts the rights of even destructive individuals and scorns the needs of community. Charles Murray would put it slightly differently: It is not that we favor the individual over the community, but that we favor the wrong individuals and punish those once praised as neighborhood leaders.
Nearly all our Roundtable guests, however, agreed that there is a conflict between the political priorities of those for whom a significant portion of their earthly happiness depends on living in a safe and engaging neighborhood; and those, including a majority of the governing elite, whose lives revolve around more cosmopolitan affiliations. For that reason, most also seemed to believe that city life could be greatly improved by redistributing authority away from city hall and toward neighborhoods.
Are they right? The view from Middle Village suggests they may be. Right now, the biggest problem in Middle Village is $20 bills. Not a shortage but an excess, scattered about the streets, with the one shortcoming that they bear on the reverse not a picture of the White House but a comely young lady, unobjectionable in herself except that she is quite naked and invites the bearer to ring her on the phone and discuss topics unsuitable for people who have not been formally introduced. They are all over; the young lady's impressario has apparently discovered litter as advertising. Sweep them up, and more are spread in their place.
Does this matter? Yes. The real problem is not that the young lady threatens the morals of neighborhood youth; she does, but that threat is already rampant in the society. Far worse is the reminder that my neighborhood owes its bliss largely to luck. That we cannot be rid of this outraging vulgarity reminds us that Middle Village is not a safe haven, that we are not in control of its destiny, and maybe therefore this place is not as desirable as we deemed or worth the effort we put into it.
Maybe, the lady whispers, Middle Village is not even a "good neighborhood"? In good neighborhoods can children pick pornography out of the gutter--every gutter, every day? If there are paper ladies in the streets why won't there soon be real live bums, or punks, or other detritus of undesirable neighborhoods? The lady is in some sense trivial, but she is a subversive symbol of neighborhood helplessness. If we cannot defend ourselves from her, from what could we defend ourselves?
And yet we cannot. There is at present no way we could convince the New York City Police Department that pornographic currency is a threat worthy of its attention. After all, we can't even get the police to make a pretense of investigating auto thefts or house burglaries, so busy are they with more violent crime elsewhere. But if we had a neighborhood police office, as George Kelling suggests, or even neighborhood courts, as the city once had, and other political and administrative supports for the will of the community, I believe we might make them see things our way.
"Seeing it our way"; an idea well worth considering.