“The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs is revered as an urban prophet, but key facets of her prescription for how to keep streets safe and maintain thriving urban neighborhoods are increasingly being ignored in New York today.
Key to safe and thriving sidewalks is what Jacobs called “eyes on the street”: people taking an active interest in what’s happening around them. Citizen vigilance, she believed, was even more important than the police. Public peace, she wrote, was “kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” Some eyes on the street were more important than others—especially those belonging to local business owners. “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves,” Jacobs observed. “They hate broken windows and holdups; they hate having customers made nervous about safety.”
As sensible as this sounds, we’re not practicing it today with anywhere near the breadth and consistency that we should. Instead of policing the sidewalk in front of their establishments, shopkeepers have been reduced to hapless bystanders, begging for someone to help them deal with aggressive, mentally ill vagrants, who accost their customers, camp out in front of their establishments, and urinate in the street. Families visit New York and take their kids to Times Square, where naked ladies—and at least one naked cowboy—hit them up for cash. Young boys have eyes on that street, I’m sure.
The New York Times recently profiled an Upper West Side street vendor who puts out as many as ten tables of books to sell on the sidewalk. He even leaves his books out overnight, covering them in plastic. Neighbors have complained about him for more than a decade at local police precinct council meetings. He has received up to 200 summonses from the police, frequently getting them dismissed—and even collecting $80,000 from countersuits that he filed about improper summonses. His real business appears to be trolling for reasons to sue the city.
How can these people operate without any sort of permit? We’re solemnly told that all this is constitutionally protected behavior. Naked ladies, the mentally ill panhandlers cursing at women on the sidewalk, and street vendors without permits taking up over a block of sidewalk frontage have their rights. There is nothing to be done.
It’s not that social control over antisocial public behavior has broken down. Nor is it purely a legal matter. Rather, social control over anti-social behavior is becoming delegitimized. Many urban boosters, in fact, cheer this development. Some even support decriminalization of certain illegal behavior, such as fare-jumping. It’s a strange inversion. Today, it’s aggressive panhandlers and touts who have become what Jacobs called “the natural proprietors” of the street. And they act like it. Other citizens, along with tourists and businesses, are forced to adapt to and comply with the standards that they set.
No wonder that, in New York as in other cities, a perception grows that disorder and unease are increasing on the streets. High-profile incidents—ranging from a mentally ill man hacking at a woman with a machete in Bryant Park to a knife-wielding man killed by the police in Midtown—increase the anxiety. No, New York is not going back to 1975. But it’s clear nonetheless that antisocial behavior is seeping into the mainstream. For example, there’s an epidemic of “box blocking”—stopping in intersections—including by the city’s own bus drivers, often directly in full view of traffic control agents. I’ve often seen it happen myself.
Being homeless, or even panhandling, isn’t a crime. Some of the homeless have even become what Jacobs approvingly referred to as “neighborhood characters.” We certainly need to spend more money on treatment for the mentally ill. “People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other,” Jacobs said, but she knew that this was a two-way street that included complying with and enforcing neighborhood standards of public behavior. Tacitly supporting the forces of disorder over the rights of ordinary citizens is a prescription for what Jacobs described as “mountain on mountain of trouble.” New York is still a strong, thriving city. But that’s no excuse for not taking forceful action against antisocial behavior on its streets.
Photo by NYCstocker/iStock