Whispers From History: As Bill de Blasio prepares to take office, eerie reminders of the city’s turbulent past

Ladies of the night: Prostitutes also populated the Bowery, plying their trade with johns who wandered in. Here, a man negotiates the price for a prostitute while two others walk past

The good old days in New York, fondly remembered. Ladies of the night: Prostitutes also populated the Bowery, plying their trade with johns who wandered in. Here, a man negotiates the price for a prostitute while two others walk past

Bob McManus writes:  History may not repeat itself, but sometimes it whispers warnings. The wise will pay heed.

Whether the ice-rink shooting at New York City’s Bryant Park, an arduously restored urban jewel at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, was an aberration or a harbinger remains to be seen. But the gunplay prompted unhappy recollections of the not-so-distant past, when the enclave was known as Needle Park and the New York Times described it as “a cesspool of crime and vice” only sporadically patrolled by police, if at all.

It took massive private-sector intervention—largely by the Bryant Park Corporation, a pioneer business-improvement district—to rescue the park. And also, of course, the active support of a mayoral administration determined to reclaim New York for its citizens. And reclaimed it is, or largely so. But memories linger of a time when New York had truly lost its way, when it couldn’t summon the will to resist dysfunction or even articulate a right to self-defense—to say nothing of self-respect.

Soon Bill de Blasio will be mayor, the first Democrat to hold the job since 1993. And so the next several months will tell New York a lot about whether its dystopian past is truly in the rear-view mirror, or whether the Bryant Park shooting will become the new normal. Perilous times, in other words; certainly the gods are waving a caution flag. The news has been full lately of portentous reminders of what city life was like two decades ago—a period no honest citizen wants to revisit. But sometimes things just happen.

Things like Bernie Goetz on the Downtown No. 2 train, on Dec. 22, 1984—the night he opened fire on four black teenagers who he said were menacing him with a screwdriver. The episode touched off a debate on race, crime, and the right to self-defense that seethed for years. Nobody was neutral on Bernie Goetz. He was the man who refused to be victimized, or he was a racist gunman—pick one. Goetz did eight months on Rikers Island, then drifted off into semi-obscurity. But there he was last month, smirk and all, back in court on a minor drug-peddling charge. He’s no longer a threat of any sort, just a timely reminder, as the debate over the future of Pax Giuliani in the age of de Blasio gains energy.

Things like Sonny Carson, an architect of the racist boycott of a Korean grocery in Brooklyn that shamed the city for six months in 1990—an event that then-mayor David Dinkins couldn’t bring himself even obliquely to criticize. Ugly stuff, not to be repeated. But there was the beyond-bitter entertainer Harry Belafonte, channeling Carson in a Brooklyn church the Sunday before Election Day. Conservative political contributors Charles and David Koch, he said, are “white supremacists . . . men of evil . . . [similar to] the men who would belong to the Ku Klux Klan.” Americans are entitled to their views, of course, even haters in their dotage. And this outburst would have scant significance—except that soon-to-be-mayor-elect de Blasio sat smiling as Belafonte sputtered on. Much as Dinkins, with his silence, encouraged Carson’s racist rants.

Things like “urban art”—the graffiti vandalism that contributed so substantially to the city’s demoralization in the seventies and eighties. Rare indeed was the unmarked outdoor vertical surface; a festival of benighted “self-expression” thrilled the cultural elite, while broadcasting to the world a servile unwillingness to impose even minimal behavioral standards in New York’s public spaces.

Now, some pathologies never go away, which doubtless explains the city’s just-concluded Banksy carnival—the media celebration of an anonymous, high-endgraffiti vandal who may or may not be a competent artist, but who sure knows how to turn a buck off defacing property. Banksy, a Brit, recently returned home after a month in the city creating “art” that sold for six figures (perhaps boosting de Blasio’s argument that some people just need taxing.) It was all harmless fun, except that the city has been there, done that, and doesn’t need a return trip. Not to endemic graffiti vandalism, not to Sonny Carson, not to Bernie Goetz, and most certainly, not to Needle Park.

New Yorkers elected Bill de Blasio with their eyes wide open; they wanted change, de Blasio promised it, and nobody can fairly deny that the new mayor has the mandate he requested. As he moves to implement it, as he assembles an administration and converts campaign pledges into concrete policies, he must focus on the future. But he would do well to heed history’s whispers, too. For while Bill de Blasio has earned the right to walk the path of his own choosing, history is where wisdom resides. He’ll ignore it at his peril, and New York’s.

Bob McManus is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in New York politics, policy, and public life. He was formerly editorial page editor of the New York Post, and he resides in Manhattan.

City Journal


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