Fear City

One of the most fascinating parts of my job is meeting people from all over the world.

And with this, I get to see firsthand the perceptions that people have of New York. The trends, the thoughts, the questions.

For instance, New York was remarkably safe during the 2010s, which somehow lead to a trend of photographers asking me if it was safe to photograph Harlem.

‘Yes, but I’m not sure the people living there would like hordes of tourists traveling there to photograph them as they’re being priced out of the neighborhood.’

I started to think about these questions more deeply when De Blasio became mayor. Suddenly, everyone started talking about how New York was becoming more dangerous, despite the opposite being true.

New York was statistically becoming safer, all while the NY Post suddenly started reporting much more on crime and homelessness in the city.

The reporting came strictly as a result of who was suddenly mayor. And I’m not a De Blasio sympathizer, he was an awful mayor. But it was the first time I was very conscious of a perception shift like that, completely divorced from reality. So many people I took on workshops suddenly started asking me more and more about crime.

Let’s diverge quickly to talking about when New York became more dangerous, as a result of the white flight that began in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a response to desegregation. And this danger peaked in the ‘70s and then the ‘80s with the crack epidemic.

I did an interview with an older East Village policeman, Christopher Reisman, in 2014He said:

“The early ‘70s was at a time where the police department as a whole was very passive. If you were in uniform and arrested a man for narcotics, the cop would be investigated automatically. If you had too many of these they assumed you were a crook. The official orders would be, if you see narcotics, do not take action. So the public sees me walking by a drug dealer and thinks I’m corrupt. Out of an effort to be genuinely pristine, the job inadvertently created a mass corruption image.”

“The drug organizations became bigger and they got meaner. They became more organized. The neighborhood had already started to be crushed. The housing was diminished by fire and neglect. So we had the guy who might have been selling small bundles of heroin out of his apartment and now he’s moved to Brooklyn and he’s connected with another guy, so instead of selling a small bundle of dope, now he’s got a kilo of dope. He’s got an organization, and the moment you’ve got an organization and the moment you’ve got a lot more money, you in turn are much more vulnerable.

It’s true of all crime. The thing that the criminal needs more than anything else is a police department. This is what the Mafia does. There’s no such thing as a sit-down where they plot bank robberies. There’s a guy who controls the area and it’s understood that if you ply your trade in his area you have to pay tribute, and if you pay tribute then nobody else can rob you.”

“It was the same with narcotics. The very fact that it became a much bigger business and there was much more money at stake, encouraged more sophisticated firearms. I have no way of proving this, but I often wonder if reduced homicides were just due to the drug business becoming more efficient. There is always a certain number of homicides that will never go down. Husbands will always stab wives and vice versus, somebody will just be stupid, and lots will happen in a neighborhood, but homicide is bad for the drug business.”

Giuliani became famous as a mayor who was ’tough on crime.’ Then 9/11 turned him into ‘America’s Mayor,’ and reversed his image from being widely disliked (his approval rating went from 36% percent in 2000 to 79% six weeks after 9/11).

But it’s easy to be tough on crime when you’re an asshole. And it’s important to note that Giuliani also rode the wave of the reversal of white flight from cities when the wealthier suburbanites moved back in the 1990s. You simultaneously had more money coming back to New York along with a lot more eyes.

Jane Jacobs used the phrase ‘eyes on the street,’ when more people (and importantly businesses) are around to monitor, and light up, the streets.

East Village - Best locations to photograph New York

But it takes a more measured approach to effect the root causes of crime than to just strong-arm people into submission. As Reisman stated:

“We used to wonder whether there were more than five television sets in the entire precinct because they would be stolen and resold every day, which was particularly savage because it was almost always poor people being robbed. The poor people were at the mercy of the vestiges of the middle class and the upper class. Polite solutions were imposed on situations that just didn’t work.

Everybody has watched television, and so everybody knows about crime and how that works and how institutional corruption works, but they don’t have a clue. It’s not their fault. They’ve been educated to think that they know. So this also created problems for us, not the least of which was that none of us have a 26-minute solution to a problem. It’s much more dull and much more unsatisfactory.”

I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert on crime and policing, but it’s important to look at the statistics.

And yes, New York has had more crime since the pandemic, how could it not? But it’s a lot less than you think when you look at the historical comparisons, and a lot of the feelings people have are certainly manipulated by what they’re reading.

There are people who want to make New York look like a crime-ridden hellscape, which is not the case. 

Consider this Washington Post article, New York City is a Lot Safer Than Small Town America.

But there are a lot of other issues that are masked by the crime conversation, which should be had alongside it.

Unlike DeBlasio, Bloomberg ran the city extraordinarily efficiently under his reign (and yes, I think it could be considered a reign after he weaseled his way into a third term when only two terms are allowed).

Under Bloomberg, the city became much stronger financially, but at the same time, harder to live in. Tourism exploded, going from 35.3 million when he began as mayor in 2002 to 53 million in 2013, ultimately reaching 66.6 million (superstitious anyone?) in 2019 before the pandemic.

Gentrification turned into hyper-gentrification as neighborhoods were transformed in 5 years, and instead of being slowly squeezed out, people were shoved out under the weight of sledgehammers and rezoning.

Bloomberg famously stated in 2013, “We could get every billionaire around the world to move here. It would be a godsend.”

Who was he focusing the city’s effort on pleasing?

And Penny Arcade famously said, “The ten most popular kids from every high school in the world are now living in New York City. Those are the people who most of us who came to New York came here to get away from.”

And as Jeremiah Moss explained in his book Vanishing New York, 9/11 turned New York from a city that was thought of as an outsider in America, to suddenly, America’s City. So much so, that in 2014, Taylor Swift wrote Welcome to New York. and was named an NYC Global Welcome Ambassador, despite having just moved here, a move that was widely derided.

Global Welcome Ambassador meant she recorded videos explaining what words such as Stoop and Bodega meant, and how to pronounce Houston Street (HOW-ston, not You-ston).

These were often streamed in the back of NYC taxis that no longer exist because of Uber and a predatory lending scheme and inflated medallion prices that soared under Bloomberg.

And Swift constantly talked about New York lattes, whatever that is, as if it was the best thing the city had to offer.

“I just go around like, ‘Everybody! New York is amazing!’ So I think they just picked up on that and gave me a title.” – Taylor Swift

Take a look inside Taylor Swift’s old place.

Swift rented a carriage house in the West Village on Cornelia Street for $39,500 a month (now $45,000), which was a friend of a friend’s house where I spent one particularly drunken Halloween in my 20s in a last-minute sexy bunny costume bought at Ricky’s. Wow, I wish I had a photo of that to share with you now.

Unfortunately, it sort of looked like this.

The short-term rental was glorified in the Swift song, Cornelia Street, which I just choked through a partial listen.

The song is a love song that talks about never walking Cornelia Street again if they broke up.

But it starts out with the lyrics, “We were in the backseat, drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar. I rent a place on Cornelia Street. I say casually in the car.”

I wonder if she actually never walked Cornelia Street.

Because it’s walking, walking is the best thing about living in New York. Not lattes.

Finally, we have Mayor Adams, who got elected as a former police officer with a tough-on-crime message, which particularly resonated during the depths of the pandemic.

And unfortunately, his parroting of New York crime has attributed to this recent perception of danger, to his personal benefit. Clearly another mayor who cares about the people.

*And just an important last note, I love tourists. I love people who want to move here. Just please come here to walk, and with your headphones off and your phone in your pocket. It’s only our mayors that I hate.

And Taylor Swift posting about New York lattes.

2 thoughts on “Fear City”

  1. Great content James – both words and photos. I’ve experienced the perceptions of others, especially when I moved away for a few years after having grown up through the bad times and then the safer times. It is amazing what people who have never been to NYC think of the city. In my mind I call it the Law & Order Effect because they watch Law & Order twelve times a day and they believe that’s what the city is like.

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