The man in the green hoodie wanted to show off his knife. The weapon he flicked open was a large foldaway with a curved blade, illegal in New York City, no matter its length; the setting for his performance was the uptown D train, going express from Columbus Circle to 125th Street. There was a full moon in the sky, and underground, as so often now, there were disturbances: fights broke out, insults were hurled, the air was thick with barely suppressed violence. Protests earlier that day had brought part of the metropolis to a standstill. A group of demonstrators, riled by the accidental death of a mentally ill homeless man with an outstanding arrest warrant and a history of violence, had shut down the subway at East 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue for nearly an hour, blocking doors and occupying the tracks to prevent trains from entering or leaving the station. Now, a late Saturday night was bleeding into predawn Sunday, a fragile metal shell was hurtling through a lighted tunnel under the earth, and in the conductor’s car, a show of prowess was being put on. “My arm doesn’t move, bro.” Holding the knife at his side, the man in the green hoodie opened the blade discreetly, with a small movement of his hand. “If my arm doesn’t move and you’re making eye contact with me, you won’t see shit until it’s too late.” Several times he opened and closed the blade before his friend’s eyes, feinting with it, brandishing it in full view of half a dozen riders. His dreadlocks swung heavily as he moved. He explained with gusto how he might stab someone to death.
The woman in the parka wanted to dry her clothes. Through the long winter, she had haunted, day after day, the area of Riverbank State Park between the skating rink and the athletic field. There, just outside the snack bar, under the eaves, a row of dirty Formica tables with plastic bench seats had offered a place to rest, to set down the overstuffed bags that burdened her. Now, however, a heavily trafficked picnic area lay for her purposes in ideal May sun—and on the backs of half a dozen wooden benches, she draped the contents of those bags, as if on a clothing line: T-shirts, socks, striped cotton panties. Like a peddler who dealt in the leavings of a life, she spread out her belongings. Evil-smelling solvents were clustered on a table; Gatorade empties were dumped on every available seat. There was something off, almost distracted, about the woman’s demeanor; her wrinkled face was fixed in a bitter scowl as she shuffled from one bench to the next, until the whole semicircular seating area was cluttered up. Passersby looked longingly or resignedly at the mess and went on without a word. At one man who dared seat himself on the corner of a bench, she yelled in a heavy accent: “Go ovah deye! Dis one bizz-ee!” Leaning back to admire her handiwork, the woman was a figure out of season. There was the heavy black parka, beneath which she wore a patterned skirt reaching to her ankles and a baby-blue sweatshirt with raised hood. White sandals were her only concession to the day’s warmth. A Parks employee in a green windbreaker told her to pick up her belongings; she ignored him. “It’s not wintertime no more. People want to use the park,” he said. She pretended not to hear. Half an hour later, he was back with two uniformed officers of the Parks Enforcement Patrol. The French-speaking woman in the parka found English enough to protest: “You know me! I here every day. I pay! I pay every day!” The Parks employee shook his head wearily. “You don’t pay nothing.”
The man in the blue fedora wanted his G train to speed up. As it pulled away from the station, he ranted and raved. “You’re moving like snails and turtles in the motherfucking cold, man.” His mind veered, like a runaway locomotive jumping the tracks: “I’ll stay masked up. Don’t go near that cabinet! ‘Cause I’m not takin’ that shot. I’ll smack you so hard, make you piss, fart, and shit on yourself, doctor or nurse. Who you think I am, man? The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice!” The after-work throng shrank back, did its best to ignore him. But his diatribe changed again: “Ladies—if there are ladies! You virgins, lesbians, you celibacied bitches! You’re scared of the Scorpi-o! That’s what I said. What? It’s my time.” For five minutes he kept on, shifting from one hateful remark and threat of violence to the next. His audience was everyone and no one. As the train pulled into Hoyt–Schermerhorn Streets station, he crowded the doors, playing music loudly on his phone, dancing in purple sneakers.
A handful of symbols can suffice, as in Tarot, to tell the fate of a city, or at least the direction of its future. Investors speak of “directional bets,” analysts and consultants of being “directionally correct” in their assessments of an industry or enterprise. Shuffle your experience like a deck of cards and turn face-up a few anecdotes. Where are American cities heading? How lucky does betting on them make you feel?
Consider, first, the new normal for murders. Though down from their 2021 highs, homicide rates in Chicago and Milwaukee, in New Orleans and Pittsburgh and Houston, indeed in most cities around the country, remain sharply higher than before the pandemic. Half of the top 20 “homicide hubs” have suffered, since 2019, spikes of 50 percent or more in their rates for this most violent of crimes. Between 2011, when I moved to New York, and 2021, the murder rate in U.S. cities climbed by 46 percent.
These facts are not in dispute. But even now, for most New Yorkers, it is not a city of murder that we experience. Nor even, for most of us, a city of mugging or looting, though the New York Police Department made about 10,000 robbery arrests in 2022. Beneath these headline statistics, like high-flying banners, what kind of city can we discern? It is a city that reeks universally of weed smoke, a city of loitering and farebeating, of scofflaws and rough sleepers, of untreated mental illness and unhoused—or expensively housed—migrants, in record numbers. Eight years after the end of stop-and-frisk, NYPD arrests for firearm possession in 2022 reached their highest level in 27 years.
To live in New York today is to experience, on a regular basis, visibly and abrasively, the element of crime. By this, I mean more than run-ins with the “criminal element,” that is, serious offenders, though such encounters are more frequent. I mean not only, for instance, the 25 times that someone was pushed onto subway tracks in 2022—four more times than in 2021—but also the countless small infractions, spit in the eye of the body politic, the casual disrespect for law and common decency: the picnic table covered in food waste and Kool-Aid pouches when a trash can is two feet away; the pharmacy with locked cabinets for such valuables as fruit juice and deodorant; the requirement, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent Van Gogh exhibit, to empty your water bottle before entering the gallery, for fear that some vandal might smuggle in a substance with which to desecrate the art, as has happened at more than a dozen museums over the past year. I mean, in short, all the demoralizing effects of which pervasive crime is the cause, the impact that lawlessness and an inescapable awareness of it—to say nothing of official resignation or indifference—has on society and the psyche.
I dwell on New York because I know it best, have watched it grow and molt and carry on for more than a decade, and have worked and loved and suffered and once or twice nearly died in its unmindful embrace. I have spent 11 of my 12 years of residency in the same two-bedroom apartment in uptown Manhattan. I have seen the sidewalk memorials of cardboard signs and Santería candles washed into incoherence by winter rains, have run countless times the gauntlet of local toughs, farewelled unpleasant neighbors at the end of their lives, and worn a consoling face for the bereaved. The suspension of business as usual, the break in ordinary relations which the pandemic entailed left behind a fractured social contract. At the gym, at a local pharmacy, in my own building it is impossible not to detect a heightened atmosphere of threat and mistrust. Absent internal qualms or external constraints, people are doing in greater numbers as much as they can get away with—as much as society will allow.
Similar stories are playing out elsewhere, too: in San Francisco, where residents, according to a poll, feel less safe than at any time in the past 27 years—“The city often seemed to operate like an incompetent parent, confusing compassion and permissiveness,” a local journalist recently wrote—and in Washington, D.C., where the year-over-year homicide rate is again climbing by double digits and where, of 15,315 arrests made in fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute 10,261 of them, or 67 percent. Among the cases not charged were more than 2,000 felonies.
A fish, they say, has no concept of water, yet a change in temperature or current, a predatory shadow, the presence of a geothermal vent, the revolting taste in the gills of toxic runoff—to all these, the fish is acutely sensitive. Changes in one’s environment can raise to consciousness the hitherto-unquestioned environment itself.
Since the days when Ur-Nammu, ancient Mesopotamian king of Urim, declared, “I strike against those guilty of capital offenses . . . I place my foot on the necks of thieves and criminals,” good governance has been seen to require—has at times been synonymous with—public safety. Crime, left unchecked, makes honest trade onerous, nightlife impracticable, and gender equality—since women are at greater risk of violent assault—all but impossible. Caravaggio’s Milan, in the late sixteenth century, was such a place: a hive of conmen and whores, where street crime was common and muggers had bounties on their heads. So was Counter-Reformation Rome, where the young artist fled after getting mixed up in the Milanese underworld, possibly to the extent of killing someone in a quarrel. Marginal notes in a manuscript copy of Mancini’s life of Caravaggio, preserved in a Venice library, give the savage feel of the time: “Prostitute tough guy gentleman. Tough guy hurts gentleman prostitute slashes insult into the skin with knife.”
Rome under Pope Clement VIII was overwhelmingly male, a city of young strivers, whose violence the papal constabulary, aided by curfew and knife-control laws, strove to keep a lid on. Duels were outlawed. Taking Communion at Easter was mandatory: you had to procure a ticket proving attendance, at which time the priest doubled as a census-taker, recording your name, address, members of your household, and any servants you employed. Failure to produce this ticket when asked would land you in trouble with the papal police. Moving by night in their trademark dark cloaks, the sbirri had the power “to stop and search anyone suspected of heresy [or] of bearing arms,” writes historian Andrew Graham-Dixon. Anyone caught wielding a pugnello, a kind of short-handled dagger (think: “pugnacious”), was subjected to the public torture known as strappado:
The victim’s hands were tied behind his back, with another loop of rope passed beneath his joined arms. He was then hauled into the air and left dangling for half an hour, the full weight of his body gradually pulling his arms further and further back and behind him. The inevitable result was dislocation of both shoulders. . . . A painter subjected to the strappado could not work for weeks.
Going beyond the limits of what deterrence demands was a habit that died late in Western history—died a death as hard and prolonged as those of its victims. Punishment, like crime, can coarsen the soul. Yet, more than 400 years later, the punitive logic still holds: disarm a rowdy populace; keep a watchful eye on likely offenders; punish lawbreakers. Lawlessness has been met since time immemorial with the expedient of more laws—and harsher enforcement. America for the past several years, at the urging of activists and the direction of progressive prosecutors, many swept into office following the death of George Floyd, has done the opposite. Fewer acts are criminalized, fewer criminals are arrested, fewer arrests lead to charges, fewer defendants charged are held on bail. Infractions that once called for handcuffs now result in tickets, verbal warnings, or nothing at all.
Even before the coronavirus hit U.S. detention facilities, New York City was working to reduce its jail population, with an eye toward shuttering Rikers Island. In 2015, about 70 percent of all defendants were released upon merely promising to return for their next court date. For Class A misdemeanor cases—including petit larceny (theft of goods worth less than $1,000), forcible touching, and third-degree assault—fully 80 percent of those accused were released without bail conditions. In all, a smaller percentage of defendants were detained pretrial in New York than in other major cities. Allowing so many criminals to roam free after getting charged undeniably gives them the opportunity to commit more crimes, potentially even to intimidate witnesses who might have secured their convictions.
Incarceration has always sounded to me like a portmanteau of “incinerated” and “carcass,” as if prison is where you go, not to burn out the bad in you, but to burn up your very soul. A deterrent, surely. Yet recent efforts to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, to grant those paying debts to society a kind of debt forgiveness, have produced uncertain results at best, failure at worst. In California, where convicts’ sentences routinely wind up cut by half or more, a report by the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that, despite years of prison reforms and millions of taxpayer dollars, only 50 percent of inmates released in 2018—the latest year for which CBS Sacramento could recently obtain data—had taken part, while incarcerated, in any rehabilitation program. Those who did were only 1.6 percent less likely to reoffend. One five-time recidivist, highlighted by CBS, was rearrested in September 2021, charged with breaking into a Sacramento woman’s home, raping her, killing her and her two dogs, and setting fire to the house. In every one of his five prison terms, for an escalating series of crimes stretching back more than 30 years, he had received early release, most recently on December 15, 2020, having served just two years and four months for first-degree robbery. The following June, he was arrested again, for car theft, but was let out of jail due to the state’s new zero-bail policy, which allowed him, just three months later, on the 2200 block of 11th Avenue, to violate and slaughter 61-year-old animal lover Mary Tibbitts.
From 2019 to June 2020, about 300,000 inmates of state penitentiaries, federal prisons, and local jails were reabsorbed into society. A huge crime wave followed: the nationwide murder rate in 2020 spiked nearly 30 percent over 2019, the largest one-year increase the Federal Bureau of Investigation has ever recorded. In Seattle, armed anarchists took control over 16 blocks of the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, declaring it an “autonomous zone” and holding the occupied territory, with the cooperation of city officials, for the next 24 days. On CNN, then-mayor Jenny Durkan glibly described the violent insurrection—during which two people were killed by anarchist “cops” and four others were shot—as a “summer of love.” Jails began filling up again in the second half of 2020—small wonder!—their populations growing 10 percent in only three months; late in the year, local jails held nearly 58,000 more people than they had at midyear.
That American cities remain considerably safer today than at their crime nadir in the 1980s and early 1990s is both undeniable and beside the point. The oncologist prefers not to wait for cancer to metastasize before he diagnoses. Yet because urban lawlessness and widespread fear of crime tend in the voting booth to benefit one political party over the other, and because a disproportionate number of violent offenders belong to a demographic that votes in droves for the other side, a powerful vested interest seeks to excuse the culprits—setting aside their unlawful actions, massaging crime stats, suppressing vital context, and denying the obvious harm that rampant crime causes to society.
Conservative commentators have made hay of the fact that, when you Google keywords pertaining to the months of riots that marred the summer of 2020, you are inundated instead with articles about the U.S. Capitol incursion of January 6, 2021. What gets memory-holed, and who decides; which acts of violence are officially deplored and which downplayed—all this, too, is part of the penumbra of twenty-first-century crime.
My happiest year in New York, in many respects, was my first, from July 2011 to the summer of 2012. Emerging from the doldrums of the Great Recession, young creatives were revitalizing the hearts of major cities—reversing the urban flight of decades before. I was one of them, enrolled in a master’s degree program at Columbia University. While most of my classmates lived near campus, I lived far uptown, in a university-owned building for graduate students and faculty in leafy Riverdale, an affluent neighborhood of families and retirees, one of the safest in the Bronx: former stomping grounds of Willie Mays, Arturo Toscanini, and, for a few formative years starting in September 1927, the boy John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Everything was new. Six days a week, a free shuttle bus ran between my building on 235th Street and the campus at 116th and Broadway, leaving the vast middle zone—Inwood, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights—unexplored. Here, for all I knew, be dragons.
The bus ran only until midnight or so, with still more limited Saturday hours, and ran not at all on Sundays; this meant that I could grab a ride down to 116th Street, when hitting the town on Friday, and take one of several subway lines from there, but that coming back, I was at the mercy of surprise trackwork and infrequent weekend trains, trains which often stopped short of where I needed to go. After frivolity at a bar in Greenwich Village or a warehouse party in Bushwick, I rode the uptown No. 1 train alone, shedding friends at stations dozens of blocks to the south. My building was a reckonable part of a mile from the aboveground station at 231st Street, and there was a stop at street level for buses that could take me home, but in the small hours they made the rounds only once every 30 minutes. If coming back around 5 a.m., I arrived on the wrong side of a half hour—and I usually did—I would walk home, steeply uphill most of the way.
Then came the young chef’s murder. Hwangbum Yang, 26, was walking home in the rain at half past midnight on April 19, 2012, when, just two blocks from his family’s house, at the corner of Cambridge Avenue and West 232nd Street, like the man in the story going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was set upon by robbers. Yang had reason, that night, to hug his luck: a culinary school graduate and green card recipient, he had landed three months earlier a job at The Modern, Danny Meyer’s restaurant at MoMA. Usually Yang called his father, who worked at a dry cleaner, to pick him up from work, but not that night; that night, he rode the train to the 231st Street station, as I habitually did, and set out for home on foot—perhaps wanting, his cousin later surmised, to spare his father from driving in the rain. In his pocket was the iPhone 4 his sister, Sunah, had bought him; in his ears were the trademark white earbuds she had warned him never to wear at night, because they would make him a target for thieves.
A lean black man with a gun named Dominick Davis, who in his 20 years had already managed to accrue three prior felony convictions (two in New York and one in New Jersey), approached and demanded Yang’s phone. The cook refused. Davis fired once, shooting Yang in the chest. He took the phone—leaving his victim’s wallet untouched—and fled with an accomplice, 21-year-old Alejandro Campos, the getaway driver. For Yang, no good Samaritan arrived to help, and what help did come, in the form of paramedics (who found him still wearing the white Apple earbuds that had caught the killer’s eye), came too late. According to an eyewitness who saw the killer rifling Yang’s pockets, “He stopped and sort of squished something with his foot, and then I realized it was a person . . . He did it so casually—that’s what is so scary.” The police tracked down Davis and Campos through a Craigslist post. They were trying to sell Yang’s phone for $400.
The wheels of justice turn slowly; years would pass before the culprits were convicted. Davis, held without bail on Rikers Island, was at last found guilty in late 2015 of shooting Yang, after a six-week jury trial, and received the following January a total sentence of 35 years to life in prison for murder and criminal possession of a weapon, both in the second degree. A key piece of evidence was his videotaped confession. The trial of Campos, a sullen-faced man with a weak chin, concluded on April Fool’s Day of 2016 with a sentence of 26 years in prison—16 for his role in the fatal robbery of Yang and 10 for another robbery he had committed days before.
The murder shattered my illusion of safety. The corner where Yang died was part of the route that I commonly took on my own walks home. In the weeks after the killing, I still stayed out late at night; I still loved the city, but from then on, I went home a different way, and it occurred to me then, as it has many times since, that the overlap in the Venn diagram of people who advance policies that make urban areas less safe and of people who must walk home late at night through wet and empty streets is probably close to nil. There is no world in which the well-meaning bien pensants in their gated communities, their university-affiliated housing, their sheltered and homogenous enclaves are exposed to the full consequences of what they propose—no scenario in which they are made to step, taking their lives in their hands, into the domain of violent crime. The elite of every city carry in their heads a mental map of no-go zones, so ingrained as to be, for many, unconscious: they avoid the block parties and sidewalk barbecues, summering elsewhere, outside the city limits; they decline to ride public transit, often shunning it altogether after midnight, on weekends, especially in the warmer months. They commute to their offices or investment properties or pied-à-terres, imposing on themselves a kind of curfew, or if not a curfew, relying on a car service to take them safely home. From their quiet homes, they deplore the “gentrification” of noise-polluted ghettos. From the height of privilege, they lament the correlation between poverty and criminality, without ever asking whether the two conditions, rather than having a causal relationship, might share a common root.
Top Photo: AlexLinch/iStock