Delivered at a meeting of the Association for a Better New York on April 15, 1993:
I’m going to ask you to look back and ask yourselves what in New York City is better today than it was fifty years ago.
It will be fifty years ago, this June, since I graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, in the company of Joe Galiber, who later became State Senator Galiber, and a number of other prominent New Yorkers. Now I find myself at this half-century mark thinking, “How much better a city do we have?” and wondering where we went wrong.
If you look at the newspapers from the 1940s, the thoughts just jump out at you. We were a city of roughly the same size-about 150,000 more people than now. We were still in the Depression, but the city was able to respond positively to what was happening. We had half a million people on relief in 1935. By 1943 we were down to 73,000, of whom only 93 were claimed as employable by the city. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was a wonderful man, got FDR to get the Brooklyn Navy Yard going, and soon thousands of people were at work building Iowa-class battleships. In time, the city began its ascent to the incomparable heights that followed just after the war. But we were a city that already had a social structure, an infrastructure that included the finest subway system and housing stock in the world, the best urban school system, and, in many ways, the best-behaved citizens.
Over on the West Side we made a fuss about Hell’s Kitchen and its street gangs, but in truth the neighborhood was, in a way, almost idyllic. In 1943 there were exactly 44 homicides by gunshot in the entire city of New York. Last year there were 1,499.
Delinquency scarcely existed. When Mayor LaGuardia, who was concerned about the city’s youth, visited our new school on 116th Street, I interviewed him. His message was this: “Take your lessons seriously, but never forget how to have fun.” But he didn’t mean too much fun. When the mayor heard about young people in Yorkville who were hanging about “cider stubes” drinking soft drinks, he thought we had had enough of that, and directed that they be closed down. In his annual report, Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine would describe with shock the juvenile delinquency cases, whose numbers seem paltry today, that made their way to the police blotter. The number of abandoned children seemed to have sharply increased, perhaps owing to the drop in morals associated with wartime. There was a headline in the New York Times: “Abandoned Babies Increasing in City-74 Brought into Foundling Hospital This Year.” Seventy-four.
The decline since then in our social institutions is really without parallel. Most important is the decline of family, without which a society this large just cannot function. In 1943 the illegitimacy rate in New York City was 3 percent. Last year, it was 45 percent; in some health districts it is as high as 80 percent. Parts of the city are overwhelmed by the social chaos that has resulted from our inability to socialize young males, and it grows worse every year.
I have been corresponding with Judge Edwin Torres of the New York Supreme Court, who was raised in the barrio, in the neighborhood where my high school was located. Here are his words: “The slaughter of the innocent marches unabated: subway riders, bodega owners, cab drivers, babies; in laundromats, at cash machines, on elevators, in hallways.”
Judge Torres decries society’s acceptance of this violence. Victims in his courtroom will say, “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t have been out at that hour of the night,” or, “It’s probably my fault that I got in the way of the bullet.” He writes more in his letters: “This numbness, this near-narcoleptic state, can diminish the human condition to the level of combat infantrymen, who, in protracted campaigns, can eat their battlefield rations seated on the bodies of the fallen, friend and foe alike. A society that loses its sense of outrage is doomed to extinction.”
This winter in The American Scholar, I published an article entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.” I wrote that there is always a certain amount of deviancy in a society. But when you get too much, you begin to think that it’s not really that bad. Pretty soon you become accustomed to very destructive behavior.
This subject came to me the morning after the Democratic Convention. My wife and I were driving upstate, and I was reading. The paper reported that there had been another execution-style murder. The story was noteworthy not because there had been an execution-there’s one every night. But in this case, a male, female, and teenager were ordered to lie down, and shot in the back of the head. When the stink of human flesh began to make its way into the hallway, the police arrived. They found a little baby, dehydrated but alive, that the woman had hidden under the bed. A new twist.
When I settled down to work on my article, I remembered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. I got out the World Book Encyclopedia, which is a wonderful thing, to look it up. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 in Chicago has two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia. Two. Along with the Battle of Thermopylae and other important events. The country was outraged. Al Capone had sent four of his men, and, dressed as police, they rubbed out seven of Bugs Moran’s men. All were adults, to be sure, who knew what they were up to. But it shocked the country. How many of us have never heard of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? We even changed our Constitution as a result of it. We said: This is not acceptable behavior.
This St. Valentine’s Day in our city, we had a massacre that was eerie. Six people were found lying on a floor; five were shot in the back of the head. One young woman, who turned her head, was shot in her eye. The following day, a seventh, who was a witness, was murdered in the Bronx County Courthouse. This is civilization slipping away. This is what George Will meant when he recently observed that “we are experiencing in America today something without precedent in urban history: broad-scale social regression in the midst of rising prosperity.”
New York was a much poorer city fifty years ago, but a much more stable one-one that prepared you better for the uses of prosperity when it came. I learned about Pearl Harbor from a man whose shoes I was shining on Central Park West, next to the Hayden Planetarium. On Sundays, you shined uptown, around the Museum of Natural History, where the people were. Saturdays were spent downtown. Five years later, I was an officer in the United States Navy. Benjamin Franklin High School did that for me. They thought it was routine. And it was. Joe Galiber went on to become a state senator. Many others rose to prominent positions.
Is that behind us? New York City once had the finest urban housing stock in the world. We could do things in no time at all! In the dear old days of Jimmy Walker, we could build the George Washington Bridge in four years and one month, and think far enough ahead to make it structurally capable of carrying a second deck when the traffic grew. When Mayor LaGuardia’s plane was forced to land in Newark because Floyd Bennett Field was fogged in, he took out his ticket and said, “Mine says Floyd Bennett Field; what am I doing in a place called New Jersey?” Twenty-four months later, LaGuardia Airport opened. We can do such things again. But it seems to me that we dare not lose the memory of what we have lost.
I was hugely encouraged by an address which Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly gave to the FBI’s Second Symposium on Addressing Violent Crime Through Community Involvement. His address was entitled “Toward a New Intolerance.” In it, he called for an intolerance of violence, an end to what Judge Torres describes as our “narcoleptic state” of acceptance. I would like to end my remarks today by quoting from Commissioner Kelly’s speech:
There is an expectation of crime in our lives. We are in danger of becoming captive to that expectation, and to the new tolerance of criminal behavior, not only in regard to violent crime. A number of years ago there began to appear in the windows of automobiles parked on the streets of American cities signs which read: “No radio.” Rather than express outrage or even annoyance at the possibility of a car break-in, people tried to communicate with the potential thief in conciliatory terms. The translation of “No radio” is: “Please break into someone else’s car, there’s nothing in mine.” These “No radio” signs are flags of urban surrender. They are handwritten capitulations. Instead of “No radio,” we need new signs that say “No surrender.”
Societies under stress, much like individuals, will turn to painkillers of various kinds that end up concealing real damage. There is surely nothing desirable about this. If our analysis won general acceptance-if, for example, more of us came to share Judge Torres’s genuine alarm at the trivialization of the lunatic crime rate in his city (and mine)-we might surprise ourselves with how well we respond to the manifest decline of the American civic order. Might.