Gotham is in the throes of disorder. Law-abiding New Yorkers, no matter their race, ethnicity, sex, or socioeconomic strata, find themselves harassed by growing vagrancy, petty criminality, and social decay. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York City’s public and quasi-public spaces.
I wrote this from a Starbucks on the Upper West Side, where the average price for an apartment is $1.2 million. Just to your right as you enter is an area with five small tables, each with two accompanying seats. On the afternoon I came in, vagrants—not a Starbucks cup or pastry between them—had seized three of these tables. The most assertive of the lot had four paper and plastic bags filled with various items. She was slipping in and out of consciousness. A “crust punk” was harassing some of the paying customers, and was told to leave, apparently for the second time that day.
Starbucks is a private business, of course, and is free to serve as a tacit adjunct to New York’s and other cities’ shelter systems. (And it has set itself up to do so, after facing criticism last year for evicting some non-paying customers.) But in Bill de Blasio’s New York, the air of menace and disorder is palpable, whether one is in a café, on the streets, in a park, or riding the subways. Today’s New York is dramatically different from the New York of Michael Bloomberg or of Rudolph Giuliani’s second term. Under their leadership, public safety and public order were the top priorities. When citizens claimed police officers violated their rights, civil rights attorneys litigated these constitutional claims in federal and state courts. No responsible civil libertarian, though, would advocate surrendering public order wholesale because of individual instances of police misconduct.
Manhattan is a crowded, anxious, generous, ruthless modern metropolis, where more than 1.6 million people make their homes and well over 3 million people spend their working days. These bustling conditions make public and quasi-public spaces an attractive reprieve for the city’s many inhabitants. If people feel uncomfortable or unsafe in these spaces, they will avoid them. Quality of life is diminished when drug addicts, vagrants, and the untreated mentally ill commandeer these spaces. When a hardworking Manhattanite boards a crowded subway on her way to work and is confronted with a panhandler aggressively asking her for money while invading her already-minimal personal space, she feels less safe, less welcome, and less enthusiastic about being in New York. In recent years, more and more New Yorkers have had such experiences.
Residents of New York’s poorest communities are paying the steepest price for the mayor’s neglect. In the Bronx, for instance, the New York City Parks Department revealed that between May 1 and October 24 of last year, its employees collected almost 60,000 syringes discarded in 14 public parks by intravenous drug-users. Rather than crack down on flagrant drug use and the public-health risks that attend open displays of lawlessness, de Blasio chose to install drop boxes where environmentally conscious users could deposit their needles. Not only have these receptacles not worked; they have also signaled that public intravenous drug use is acceptable. Indeed, in Mott Haven, one of the city’s most economically depressed areas, the Parks Department recovered over 21,000 discarded needles in St. Mary’s Park. Less than 1 percent had been deposited in de Blasio’s bins.
The mayor’s virtue-signaling policy prescriptions sound compassionate, but in practice, their effects are cruel. Lower-income residents deserve to enjoy their public parks and spaces as much as those living on the Upper East Side. They do not need the added stress of a police officer informing them, as Marco Lopez was told when taking his six-year-old son on a bike ride in St. Mary’s Park, to “keep moving” because there was “a lot of shooting up and a lot of needles” in the area, as the New York Post recently reported.
Rudy Giuliani ran for mayor in 1993 on the promise “one city, one standard.” From this neutral principle, he, along with his first police commissioner, William J. Bratton, implemented the now-famous criminological theory of Broken Windows policing, which emphasized public-order enforcement not only as a crime-fighting strategy but also to improve and maintain quality of life in the city. Bloomberg continued his predecessor’s policy, driving crime down further—and, as de Blasio justifiably boasts, his NYPD has recorded the city’s lowest murder rate in at least 50 years. How long that crime picture can be maintained, however, remains in question under a mayor so inattentive to the mounting presence of disorder in public spaces, especially the subways.
De Blasio can still reverse course. He need only instruct Police Commissioner James O’Neill to direct NYPD officers to eject or, where appropriate, to arrest anyone engaging in disorderly conduct, harassment, defecation, lewdness, aggressive begging, fare-beating, obstructing pedestrian traffic, trespassing, or intravenous drug-use. I can assure him that many thousands of New Yorkers would be grateful to him if he did.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images