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The City That Can’t Sleep

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eye on the news

The City That Can’t Sleep

Once a joyous memory-maker, fireworks in New York are now just another symptom of civic decline. July 23, 2021
New York
Public safety

“Another night in Fallujah,” I joked to my husband as we endured yet another evening punctuated by the fsst-pop-BOOM! of illegal fireworks. The pyrotechnic plague, which has hit all five boroughs of New York City, is not just keeping residents awake but causing injury, property damage, and even a death.

When I was a child, fireworks invoked feelings with which only Christmas could compete. My eldest brother, who attended college in Indiana, where the glorious goodies were legal, acted as our “fixer.” When he came home to Illinois for summer break, we would marvel at the loot he brought us: double-sided firecrackers (the rat-a-tat-tat! ones), bottle rockets, fountain-shooters, and, of course, the MOAF: the M80.

Our parents allowed us to indulge our pyromania in the middle of our suburban cul de sac only on the Fourth of July. I loved tagging along with my brother and his motley crew of neighborhood friends. Candle-lighters in hand, we lit the wick and ran as fast as our young legs could carry us, only to whip around just in time to watch the magic. The eldest would sit back, basking in the joy he brought; the neighbors were either out or didn’t care; my grandma would sip her whisky sour on the porch next to my parents, who issued the occasional “Be careful!”

I write all this not to brag about following The Guide to Safe Illegal and Illicit Behavior for Children, in contrast with today’s coddled kids, but to show that I understand the prepubescent thrill of engaging in such behavior and the fun of watching things go boom, or else shoot in the air, ending in a drooping umbrella of stars so brightly green they must have been made in the Emerald City of Oz.

So when New York’s fireworks craze began during the Covid-19 lockdown last year, I was a bit tickled at first. I almost wanted to follow the sounds and watch as my eldest did, with a sly, knowing nod to the little match-strikers. But now things have changed.

You may have read over the past few years how spikes in calls to the police about fireworks have skyrocketed over a given time period. Using the NYC OpenData spreadsheet, which meticulously tracks every 311 call (where most 911 fireworks complaints are forwarded), I counted 733 calls for the period from May 1, 2019 to July 13, 2019. For the same period in 2020, there were 45,969 calls—an increase of 6,171 percent. In 2019, there were only 915 calls for the whole year.

So New Yorkers are not crazy for feeling like they have been “living in a war zone.” (And as this video shows, these are often high-grade explosives we’re talking about.) Last summer, when the scourge was at its peak, the New York Times quoted former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe, who seemed resigned to the situation: “It’s as bad as anything I can remember. . . . The police have had their hands full with major issues—demonstrations, looting and Covid—and they just don’t have the time to respond to quality-of-life issues like this.”

Ah, “quality-of-life issues.” These are what serious criminologists—as well as anyone who has lived in New York at any time in the past 40 years—call “broken windows” issues: the not-so-little things like graffiti, fare-jumping, and pickpocketing that create an atmosphere of lawlessness that invites more intense, violent lawlessness, creating a vicious cycle.

Fixing “broken windows” is something Mayor Bill de Blasio has never cared for much. That’s why a group of fed-up citizens drove around Gracie Mansion honking their horns at midnight in June of last year. “We came out here not to get involved in any political discussions. We came out here because we don’t feel safe. . . . We don’t sleep, nobody sleeps,” one activist said. The next day, the mayor ordered a task force to deal with fireworks.

But as City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas subsequently reported in the New York Post, that task force’s actions—or lack thereof—belied any real concern on the mayor’s part:

The NYPD won’t attempt to stop anyone setting off illegal fireworks. “They have many other things, particularly, the NYPD, dealing right now with other profound challenges,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week. Yes, he has set up a task force to try to cut off supply by arresting large-scale sellers—but the streets themselves will stay lawless.

De Blasio said that after a three-year-old in the Bronx suffered burns and stitches on his head from injuries caused while watching fireworks from his apartment window. It’s one thing to light off vertical explosives in an empty field or parking lot, and another to do so right next to people’s skyways dwellings (not to mention near pedestrians and ground-level businesses).

What city dwellers should find most troubling is likely future mayor Eric Adams’s approach last year to the escalating problem. He said that people shouldn’t get law enforcement involved but should instead tell the pyromancers to knock it off themselves. “This is proactive policing, where you don’t want uniformed personnel with a gun and billy club to come. You want everyday people to talk to the people in their community,” Adams said. As every good progressive knows, once you call the cops, they don’t stop, ask questions, and assess the situation, but instead come out with billy clubs flying and guns blazing, Rambo-style.

Thirty-three-year-old Shatavia Walls took Adams’s advice and tried talking to local perpetrators of this “non-violent act,” as Adams called it, only to be shot to death for her “proactive” approach. Undeterred, Adams stood by his advice, saying that he only meant to promote communication between people. “If someone you know is letting off fireworks, communicate with them,” he urged. “If you believe it’s a dangerous situation, you should call 911, as you should always do that. . . . I would never put a New Yorker in harm’s way because I spent my life not having New Yorkers put in harm’s way.” Shatavia Walls’s family might feel differently. One hopes that Adams, who campaigned promising to crack down on crime, has changed his views on fireworks.

I should note here that what is also different from my youthful remembrances of Fourth of July is who is lighting off most of the fireworks these days in New York. Judging by the evidence from YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter videos, it appears to be mostly post-pubescent teens and young men—in other words, those who are no longer children but who haven’t left childish things behind. As a local Fox affiliate reported of a major bust of sellers: “All of the suspects arrested were males, with the majority in their 20s and 30s.”

In 2021, there is good news and bad news on the fireworks front. The good news: calls to 311 were down 59 percent from last year’s May–July time period, at 18,548. The bad news: that’s still an incredible number, representing a 2,430 percent jump from the peaceful days of 2019. And New Yorkers remain in harm’s way from fireworks-wielding thugs, who know the power and danger of these easily obtained explosives. This may be why a truck full of Palestinian activists tossed fireworks at Jews in the Diamond District this past May, sending one woman to Bellevue Hospital.

There’s not much that 311 can do but tell perps to stop and confiscate whatever contraband they’re dumb enough to leave out in the open. I got a disturbing lesson in how little my local precinct on the Lower East Side is doing when I popped in for a visit. The friendly beat cop at the door said with a laugh, “I don’t know anything about fireworks!” (The Lower East Side is ground zero for them.) A detective from Community Affairs told me, with considerable annoyance, that 911 will show up if you know the perpetrator or can physically catch him in the act but will otherwise route the call to 311.

Since lighting fireworks is considered a quality-of-life problem under Albany’s bail-reform law, and since progressive prosecutor Alvin Bragg will most likely be Manhattan’s next district attorney, don’t expect the ne’er-do-wells putting your safety and sleep at risk night after night to suffer any consequences.

In more peaceful times, fireworks have been a wonder show of beauty at night, often a patriotic one, as well as a delightful childhood memory of breaking the rules “just this one time.” But over the past two years in Gotham, thugs and their suppliers have made the sound of fireworks a violent symphony of civic and civil decline. The windows—figuratively and literally—are broken.

Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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