New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.
The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.
It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.
But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.
I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.
A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.
I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.
While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.
After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.
The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.
Traveling to Washington, D.C. for work means taking the Amtrak Accela train from Penn Station. Penn Station was once a gleaming monument to New York’s greatness, but decades ago it was leveled, reduced to a subterranean maze of misery by the powers of commerce without conscience and New York’s Philistine tradition of tearing down some of its most beautiful historical landmarks in the name of progress.
Getting ready for the three-hour train ride to Washington meant stopping by one of the independent delis that still survive there amid the chain concessions. As I approached I saw a man in a red Guardian Angels jacket and red beret, and thought it was probably Curtis Sliwa. It was.
Curtis Sliwa was a night manager at a McDonald’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx when he decided to do something about New York’s Crime problem. He founded the Guardian Angels, an unarmed, unformed crime fighting group that started patrolling New York’s dangerous subways and streets. He didn’t ask permission or get political approval for what he was doing, he just did it. This was at a time when landlords were burning down their old buildings because the insurance money was worth more than the property was valued. The 1970s saw crime explode in every borough as a bankrupt New York City appealed to the federal government for help that never came and was forced to lay off police officers.
The Guardian Angels were the vanguard of resistance to the hopelessness that gripped New York. They didn’t have police approval and politicians dubbed them “vigilantes;” they didn’t care. The unarmed volunteers in their trademark red berets were a sign that people still cared about the city and were willing to put their lives on the line to make a difference.
It was not all straight shooting, though. Sliwa admitted that some of the early stories he told about Guardian Angel heroism were fabrications. Still, Sliwa was an anti-crime crusader before it was cool, a strong voice that cut through the blather of polite talk and gave the criminal class the harsh language it deserved. Even as New York started to turn around, Sliwa’s crime-fighting ways led to an attempt to kill him by the Gambino Crime Family.
Sliwa’s career as a broadcaster has almost always paired him with someone left-of-center to discuss and debate the issues of the day. His pairing with Ron Kuby on MSNBC was a highlight of the network’s earlier days before all of cable television spun into hyper-partisan outposts; they later reunited on AM radio.
I said hello and Curtis Sliwa shook my hand and give me his business card, asking me where I was from. I gave him my business card and told him I was from where I worked.
“No, where are you from? Born and raised?”
“I’m from the city originally and grew up mostly in Yonkers.” I didn’t want to give him my last two decades of history being a city resident, as we were waiting in line at the deli. Our wait was shortly over, and he bid me farewell.
The politicians who once spurned the Guardian Angels later embraced them, and they now operate in more than 130 cities in 13 countries. And Sliwa remains an outspoken personality in New York politics. He’s even vowed to run for New York City mayor next year.
Similar to Ed Koch, Curtis Sliwa is a personification of New York City and will always remain one of the defining personalities of our chaotic metropolis. My encounter with a legit New York City celebrity was brief, but it brightened my day.
News came out this past week that the company I work for will be moving all of its New York offices to Times Square, where we already have a flashy facility. It will be a big to-do with renovation and creating an office of the future and I’m sure the office will live up to the hype and it will be great for the company.
There’s everything to love about it but it means having to work in Times Square, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Times Square has undergone a complete 180-degree transformation over the last two decades. In the mid-1990s, it was still famous for its crime and pornography. I remember walking through as a kid and marveling at the graphic photos advertising the pornographic films, the barely-censored photos of naked women you tried to look at while pretending to ignore.
Times Square today is a tourist mecca that glows with the false light of a thousand larger-than-life screens and signs. It is a backdrop to television shows, a center showpiece of a city that crawled its way out of the financial and social gutter to become a well-regarded metropolis of the future. It’s found a way to personify the state of the five boroughs within its blocks. When New York was in a state of decay, Times Square reflected that. Now that economic interests have invested for the future here, Times Square reflects that also. Whether you love it or hate it, it is our city’s barometer.
Like much of the conversation today surrounding questions of the changing character of New York City, the gritty past tends to get sugar-coated. While I prefer watching pornography to shopping for Disney trinkets, the Times Square of today is no doubt better for New York City and a proud measure of our progress over crime. (Keep in mind that the tremendous makeover never completely washes out the criminal element or the sub-strata of sleaze or grit. There are still plenty of con artists, prostitutes and drug dealers making money in the Times Square area.)
Times Square’s success as an attraction for visitors makes it less appealing for local residents. Slow-moving foot traffic is maddening for someone trying to get to work. Long lines of people at overpriced tourist traps do not make for suitable lunch spots. Friends who have worked in Times Square report that some of the potential upsides, such as going to the office to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, are foiled by strict rules, often dictated by security concerns.
But as with the rest of life, working in Times Square will be an opportunity to adapt and overcome. I’ll find the good lunch spots to go to and I’ll figure out how to move in and out without being caught up in mobs of plodding tourists. Being a New Yorker means being able to find the right path through adversity and make inconvenience into something triumphant.
The midtown canyons of concrete and glass will be calling for me within a year’s time. It will be another chance to embrace the chaos of living in New York, and make a new path to life in the city.
Topless women in Times Square have their bodies painted to retain a bit of modesty and offer to let tourists take their photos with them for money. That can cause a lot of problems as the opportunity to see a topless woman for free is quite alluring (strip clubs are quite costly and a Dad can’t gracefully lead his family to have lunch in one).
But the idea that’s been circulated by the mayor is to actually demolish the Times Square pedestrian plaza, and this idea is lunacy.
As a rule, topless women should be encouraged. Sure, they attract a lot of idiots and earn the disapproval of prudes, but that can be managed. The Naked Cowboy became a Times Square attraction and was quickly copied by more than one Naked Cowgirl. The painted women are not much more revealing than those performers.
There’s definitely a need to regulate the crowds and keep a sane amount of these kinds of solicitation performers to a minimum. When every unemployed landscaper and his brother decided they could rake in cash by being Elmo, chaos ensued. Police put limits on costumed characters. If they have to do something similar with the topless women, so be it.
But don’t do away with the pedestrian plaza. That would be incredibly stupid. The solutions to the overabundance of performers is to put limits on them like has already been done with the people wearing large costumes. A permit-based system is used by the MTA in the subways to make sure there aren’t too many subway musicians making too much noise.
Closing the pedestrian plaza in Times Square would be an admission that the city is one of decay and hopelessness again. I remember when the city was like that and while we may want to romanticize and glorify the past, we don’t want to return to the pre-Giuliani New York, trust me.
New York prided itself on cleaning up and turning itself around. Times Square used to be a notorious place full of criminals, drug addicts and the homeless. Theaters that were once beautiful were run-down porno houses. When Disney announced they were going to be putting a store in Times Square in 1995, cartoons depicted Disney characters passed out drunk or dead with syringes sticking out of their arms. But no one would think that now. Times Square is probably one of the safest places in the city.
Doing away with the current Times Square isn’t a solution to any current problem. It’s what people who can’t or won’t do what needs to be done. When there was too much crime in Central Park, we didn’t pave over Central Park.
The pedestrian plaza in Times Square was created because of the success in cleaning it up. Walking through Times Square used to be an even worse nightmare than it is today because you were dodging crowds on sidewalks that were not built to accommodate that many people. Driving through was no picnic either as jaywalking pedestrians held everything up.
Now Times Square is still an overcrowded hellhole, but not to tourists. If you’re a New York resident trying to get somewhere, you generally already avoid Times Square like the plague anyway during regular waking hours.
Civic duty is much nobler in speech than it is in action. Jury duty is an honorable civic duty that most citizens do everything in their power to avoid.
I received a jury duty summons in the mail to serve in my home borough of Queens. But rather than get a definite day to report, the system keeps you guessing and requires you to call by telephone to see if you must report the following day.
So for a few days I lived with the Sword of Damocles over my head wondering if I was actually going to serve. I called on a Friday after 5 p.m. per the instructions on the notice only to be told to call again on Monday. At 5 p.m. Monday I called and learned I’d have to be in Kew Gardens the next day. Fantastic.
It was a warm Tuesday and I took the wrong subway and ended up taking a very long walk along Queens Boulevard to the central jury room, which is actually in Queens Borough Hall across 82nd Avenue from the large criminal court house.
I arrived a half hour late but was not the last one there, and I filled out a few notices and settled in for a long wait. The waiting room was filled with people that reflected the wide ethnic diversity of Queens, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is definitely interesting and good to meet people from faraway lands and learn about their language and cultures; it is bad when a sizable portion of your jury pool can viably fake not understanding English.
I had my work laptop with me and just as I was starting to make some progress on things, my name was called. About 40 of us were lined up and brought to the court of Judge Gene Lopez. We filed into the audience and the clerk randomly drew names and those called took a seat in the jury box. Both attorneys and the accused were there.
The defendant was an elderly Chinese man who had a Mandarin interpreter with him. He was charged with several serious crimes including assault with intent to maim, causing grievous bodily harm and menacing with a firearm, among others. I almost wanted to serve on the jury just to find out what the hell went down.
Judge Lopez appears to be a distinguished and amiable jurist. He has also probably heard every excuse known to man as to why people can’t serve on juries in his court.
Just about everyone wanted out and was willing to say anything to be excused. One women, a chiropractor, said that if she were chosen to be a juror she would be so emotionally distraught that it would affect her impartiality. Several people requested private conversations with the judge in order to discuss personal or medical issues. Each time both attorneys and the stenographer had to position themselves on the far side of the bench from us. The success rate for these private conferences was very high. Most people got out of being on the jury after one of these.
People who voiced religions objections were let go without any questioning. The first man let go said he was a Jehovah’s Witness and said he couldn’t sit in judgement of another person. He even cited a Bible verse. Good for him if he did the research on that religion to come up with that. I don’t know if it’s possible for jury duty to be so bad as to forgo a lifetime of Christmas and birthday celebrations.
The only juror that got excused on a language excuse that seemed believable was an Asian woman who didn’t recognize her own name being called. She was gone pretty fast. The others hammed it up and got some righteous guff from the judge.
A typical exchange went like this:
JUDGE: Miss Kwan. You say have an issue understanding English?
Ms. KWAN: Yes. I don’t understand some things so good.
JUDGE: What is your profession?
Ms. KWAN: I a nurse.
JUDGE: Are you a licensed, registered nurse?
Ms. KWAN: Yes. Registered nurse.
JUDGE: And you had to take an exam to get your license, yes?
Ms. KWAN: Yes.
JUDGE: And was that exam in English?
This could go on for a while. The results were never different: if you could pretend you didn’t know English that well, you would eventually be excused. Eventually more than half of the potential pool was excused and the rest of us were called to the jury box except one person. By the time we were seated it was 4:30 p.m. and the judge let us go home early with instructions to be back by 9:30 a.m. the next day.
The next day I got to the court house with time to spare. In the lobby of the court building, a gruff female court officer who sounded like Harvey Fierstein directed foot traffic in the main entrance of the criminal court building.
I had no problems getting through security on my first day, but as I entered court on day two of jury duty they discovered the multi-tool knife in my bag, and the key tool and the handcuff key on my key ring. Those court officers on duty are sharper than the police who arrested me (twice), other court officers in every other court I’ve been to over the past 17 years, and countless TSA agents. I’d had that handcuff key on my key ring since 1998. They told me I wouldn’t be getting it back. It’s OK though. I have others (and you can pick handcuffs with a staple as well). They gave me a voucher form so I could get my knife and key tool later.
Eventually we were all gathered and jury selection resumed. The prospective jurors ran the gamut: a NYPD police detective who worked in the department’s bomb squad, a Kentucky-born actress who managed a deft exit after a private sidebar with the judge, a future law student trying to decide between the University of Virginia and Fordham University law schools, a few college students, an accountant, a music producer from Whitestone, and an elderly retired nurse, among others.
After another battery of questions from the judge and the prosecutor and defense attorneys, we were sent out of court to wait for a while until being called back in. And from these 16 last remaining from the jury pool, none of us were selected. Of the 40 or so that were called, only two had made the cut. We were sent out of the court room and a court officer told us to be back in the central jury room by 2:15 p.m.
I got my lunch at a deli and went to Maple Grove Park, a small area on the side of the court building. The small and underused park is basically a wedge between Queens Boulevard and the Van Wyck Expressway. I noticed the park from the third floor of the court building and saw only one person use the park: a homeless man sleeping on a bench. He was gone when I went there. I used a napkin and some of my water to clean away a film of green pollen so I could sit down without looking like I was sodomized by the Incredible Hulk. There was construction going on in the area around the park and construction vehicles came and went under the direction of a flag-waving hardhat worker. A few other people followed my lead and brought their lunch to the park, but it was relatively solitary.
After I was done eating, I had the chance to do something I hadn’t done in a long time: sit on a park bench and read. If nothing else, this jury duty outing gave me a half hour or more of peaceful, unconnected living of the kind we used to take for granted.
I still returned to the central jury room before 2:15. I sat and read some more as my phone charged in a corner along with other smart phones soaking up power from some inconveniently placed outlets. I kept a cautious eye on my phone while it charged and waited for some kind of announcement. I looked around for people I recognized from the panel and didn’t see any. Finally they called up people who had been to court earlier that day and gave people letters signifying that they had concluded their service. After they were given out, I and one man from my panel were left.
“What about us?” we asked the clerk.
She went back to the office and found another stack of jury ballots with two letters. “They called these at one,” she said before handing us our letters. I was one of two lucky or unlucky people who waited an extra two hours. I got to read a book outside in the nice weather and enjoy a leisurely lunch, so I regret nothing.
I made my way home in the pre-rush hour traffic but still couldn’t avoid a packed Q44 bus. I should be safe from jury duty for another four years.
This past week, New York City’s Comptroller approved a settlement reportedly totaling $41 million to members of the “Central Park Five.”
The five men were convicted in 1990 of the brutal rape and bludgeoning of a woman jogging in Central Park in April of 1989. No one who was living in New York at the time could ever forget it. The jogger was so badly beaten that a friend had to identify her by a ring she was wearing on her finger. There was no telling how many people took part in the assault. The five who were convicted were part of a mob that numbered in the dozens.
Four of the five had confessed, and videos of their confessions were shows on the news. They renounced their confessions, claiming they were coerced, and went to trial.
Because several of the accused were juveniles, there was no way they would serve enough time in jail. They were somehow acquitted of attempted murder. They were convicted of several crimes committed that night, including the rape and assaults on other people in the park, and were sent to prison.
Years later, a serial rapist named Matias Reyes claimed that he had attacked the jogger that night and had acted alone. DNA evidence showed him to be guilty. The Manhattan District Attorney asked that the convictions of the Central Park Five be vacated as a result.
Here’s the first big problem with the confession of the alleged lone rapist Reyes: his tale of being the only attacker goes against the medical evidence that indicates the Central Park Jogger was attacked by multiple people. Part of this evidence includes bruising on both legs of the victim indicating she was held down by more than one person and cuts from a blade (Reyes said he only hit her with a rock and tree branch).
After the verdicts were vacated, the New York City Police Department published a detailed examination of the case, the Armstrong Report, which details evidence beyond the confessions that indicate that the defendants were involved in the assault. This includes statements some of the defendants made to police outside of the interrogation, things they said to family members, and details of the crime some of them provided that were not known to police at the time (for example, the NYPD did not know what property had been taken from the victim but two of the five separately described her Walkman being stolen).
The five sued the City and were helped along by filmmaker Ken Burns, who declared them “exonerated” despite the significant evidence of their guilt and made the documentary “The Central Park Five.”
The Burns documentary is an interesting examination of the case, but it is very one-sided and contains glaring omissions.
Fans of the Burns film are buying into a narrative that lets them feel righteous indignation at a supposed injustice, but the evidence in the case does not gel with the idea the Central Park Five are victims of injustice at all.
The documentary presents its case without any of the skepticism required. It assumes that self-proclaimed lone rapist Matias Reyes is some kind of born-again angel for confessing to a crime (after the statute of limitations had expired, by the way), even though his story is full of holes.
Part of the reason that there is a belief in the innocence of the Central Park Five is what is known as the “CSI effect.” People believe that there is always going to be a mountain of DNA evidence with every case, though there often isn’t. Keep in mind also that the use of DNA collection and examination was in its early stages in 1989. Yes, DNA evidence proves Matias Reyes raped the Central Park Jogger; the evidence shows he was not alone in doing so.
But the public wants to buy into the popular story. Earnest and well-meaning New Yorkers are smitten with Ken Burns’ films and want to believe that the violent men about to become millionaires deserve it and are getting some measure of justice. They are very wrong.
Some of us in New York have the unfortunate burden of being Jets fans. The New York Jets were a great team sometime more than 40 years ago. Like the Knicks and Mets, they have made it their modus operandi to find new ways to break their fans’ hearts. They have been described as more of a media circus than a football team. It is often remarked that J.E.T.S. means “Just End The Season.”
The news this past weekend that the New York Jets have given up quarterback Mark Sanchez for Michael Vick will be sure to continue the Jets’ reputation for making foolish moves. This is the same team and coaching staff that paid handsomely for Tim Tebow, who became the NFL’s most expensive bench warmer.
The Vick hire has already brought shrieks of horror from animal rights activists, moralistic sports haters and even decent human beings. The Jets made the announcement on a Friday night, when news is likely to get the least amount of attention. Since returning to football, Vick has been the subject of the most invective aimed at a sports figure since O.J. Simpson got away with murder. And Vick didn’t get away with his crimes.
That’s not to say that the continued campaign against Vick is without merit. Michael Vick is every bit as bad as his harshest detractors say. He heartlessly tortured and murdered defenseless animals and his dumbly parroted apologies in the intervening years convince me that he’s only sorry he got caught. If there’s an afterlife, Vick will spend eternity being torturously gnawed at by Rottweilers with AIDS.
But there are a few things that stand out in the endless Vick hatred that the Jets have stirred up again. One is that there are much worse people still playing professional sports today that do not create half the controversy that rightfully follows Vick. The NFL employs rapists and murderers and thugs of every stripe.
One of the rapists that had a home in the NFL until just now was Mark Sanchez, the Jets quarterback that Michael Vick is replacing. It escaped the ire of football moralists that Sanchez was arrested for raping a woman at the University of Southern California while he was a student there, though charges were never brought. There has been no exodus of people from Pittsburgh Steelers fandom on account of their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, being a serial rapist. Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens is a murderer of people and went on to become a Super Bowl MVP.
The second thing to take note is that the era of the celebrity hero is over. It is hard to face the reality that people we admire for their skills or accomplishments can be bad people. The sports world brings this into focus for us many times over, but the same is true for any celebrated line of work. It’s unfortunate that Lord Byron likely knocked up his own sister and that William S. Burroughs shot his wife to death, but that doesn’t make their writing any less influential.
So I won’t stop being a Jets fan. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first scoreless half to your last fumbled play. I’m used to rooting for a losing NFL team and over needing to like professional athletes. Being a New York Yankees fan, I have read some of the horror stories of how Joe DiMaggio would treat fans. Was Billy Martin a homophobe or a racist? Who cares? No one hired him to sing “Kumbaya” to crack babies; they hired him to play and coach baseball. Baseball’s current home run record holder, Barry Bonds, is such a despised human being that his own teammates could barely bring themselves to congratulate the slugger on his accomplishments.
We can rightfully revile sports figures all we want, but ultimately they will be judged by what they do on the field of play. The New York Jets long ago gave up trying to recreate the magic of being heroes to anyone. Now they just need to win football games.