I looked out my window the other day and saw a man urinating in the street. He had the decency to stand between two parked cars and partly obscure the view of passers-by, but the sight was still unnerving. It was a reminder of what New York was like in the bad old pre-Giuliani days. Public urination was hardly the worst of the city's problems then -- the worst, of course, was crime -- although as a symbol of urban decay, it was right up there with the squeegee men, broken park benches, and subway graffiti. So, if you see someone urinating in public now, you instinctively ask a question: Are the bad old days returning?
And the answer is, no one knows, and you can only look for signs and portents, with the start of the new year an appropriate time to do this. Obviously the man I saw from my window was a bad sign. On the other hand, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics, New York is now the safest big city in America. In fact, not only is it the safest of the nation's 25 most populous cities, but its crime rate ranks 197th among the 216 U.S. metropolitan areas with populations of at least 100,000. Indeed New York, once the butt of late-night television jokes, now ranks dead last among big cities in burglary, auto theft, violent rape and larceny, and close to the bottom in murder, robbery and assault.
On the other hand -- and there is always an on the other hand in these matters -- the city streets are dirtier now than they were. New York is a facing a budget deficit of at least $4 billion, and it has cut back on municipal services. There are fewer garbage collections than before. At the same time the city has given up on mandatory recycling, and this has had unintended consequences. Vagrants tear garbage bags apart now when they search for bottles they can return for five-cent deposits, and they strew garbage all over the street. But when recycling was in effect, bottles and cans were kept in separate bags, and the retrieval process was much neater.
On the other hand, the city is still a place of infinite possibilities, and as the New York Times keeps reminding its readers it simply reeks of glamour. On the other hand, the Times is edited for people who make $400,000 a year, and its concerns are not those of most New Yorkers. A columnist in last Sunday's paper, for example, wrote this:
"Am I hallucinating, or are people getting louder about telling me that St. Barts, South Beach and the Hamptons are way too loud and that they prefer Maine or Connecticut for real quiet?"
Stuff like this is harmless, and if you do not take it seriously it may even be fun to read. Nonetheless it does show the city's bifurcated reality. The Times, its high editors and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (whom we will get to later) think one way, and most of the rest of New York thinks another way. Consider, for instance -- and there is no delicate way to put this -- the question of dog s--t.
On the Upper West Side, where I live, dog s--t is a big issue. There is more of it on the streets now than before, but no one is quite sure why. Are there just more dogs now than before, or are dog owners growing more careless about cleaning up, or what? People argue about this, and grow angry when they do. But I have never heard anyone say St. Barts is too loud, and that they really prefer Maine or Connecticut.
The dog-s--t issue, however, is unlikely to make it to either the Times, or to Bloomberg's City Hall. Their concerns are more ethereal. The Times's publisher and high editors, along with Bloomberg, may be in the city, although they are not really of the city. Rudy Giuliani, however, an Italian-American from Brooklyn, was very much of the city, and that was why he was able to turn it around. He understood the neighborhoods and what happens on the streets.
But Bloomberg lives in a different sphere. It is not so much that he grew up in a Boston suburb, but that he is the epitome of a rich, self-made man, supremely confident in his own judgments, but isolated by his own insularity. When New York was threatened by a transit strike in early December he bought a 24-speed mountain bike and related accessories for $663, and apparently thought everyone else should do the same. All of New York could pedal to work.
Meanwhile at year's end Bloomberg also pushed one of the nation's most rigid anti-smoking laws through the City Council. It is snoopy and intrusive, and prohibits smoking virtually everywhere in New York except in homes, cigar bars or the open air. Bloomberg said then that "Because of this legislation, it's literally true that something like 1,000 people will not die each year who would otherwise have died from second-hand smoking."
But this was bogus science, and the figure of 1,000 had been plucked from mid-air. Then on Monday, when Bloomberg signed the anti-smoking legislation into law, he said it would save not just a thousand but tens of thousands of lives. Bloomberg is sure he knows what's good for us, and it shows. He also favors the perfectly hideous proposal by the faux artist Christo to drape Central Park in saffron-colored fabric, and ruin it for everyone else.
So these are not good signs for the city, and neither is the fact that we now see more people camping out on church steps or in doorways or other public places than before. Under Giuliani, of course, the cops would roust them, and that made New York a much pleasanter place. But a mayor who is only in the city, and not really of it, is less likely to know that, and he is less likely to ask the cops to act, or to support them when they do.
So, are the bad old days returning? Yes, certainly in part, but then again, who knows?