I have just seen Ken Burns’ stirring film "The Central Park Five," dealing with the complicity of the city’s police, courts, and media in the unjust railroading of five Harlem boys, all of them vulnerable to police manipulation and coercion, for a crime they didn’t commit. The boys spent a number of years in prison, and though their convictions were overturned when the real rapist confessed, that never could make up for the time they had lost. The police had left an indelible mark on them by heartlessly robbing the boys of a large chunk of their lives. In fact, the police still remain unwilling to take responsibility for their actions, for years stalling the settlement of the multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against them.
Watching the film brought back memories of New York in the late ‘80s, when one felt that one inhabited a crack-ridden, gang banging, intensely violent city where garbage overflowed the curbs; garish, multi-colored graffiti engulfed the subways; racial tensions were high; and homelessness was epidemic. That was far from the whole urban story, for the financial markets were booming, new housing was being built, and New York was still culturally and aesthetically exhilarating. However, crime, the fear of crime, and a feeling of general decay dominated the city’s public image, which was continually reinforced by blaring tabloid headlines that exploited every calamitous event to increase circulation.
The city of 2012 is obviously a different place from New York of that era. When I walk through Manhattan neighborhoods like SoHo during the holiday season, I see more trendy, upscale stores opening, part of the relentlessly growing retail boom that has engulfed what was once a neighborhood of painters, galleries, and arty, inexpensive eating places.
For me, the atmosphere of the old SoHo where my wife and I often ate and took long walks has been destroyed. But what has replaced it clearly attracts foreigners, out-of-towners, and just people who avidly embrace the world of luxury goods. I find that SoHo’s repainted, and often-sparkling cast iron buildings still excite my eye, but the commercial offerings on ground level can also be found in many affluent suburban malls, arousing no interest for me.
Walking on the same day in the East Village, I notice that the garbage cans are neatly arrayed, with no refuse spilling over on the sidewalks, and many of the tenements have been renovated. However, though the East Village may be gentrifying, it’s still no tourist-ridden, consumer’s paradise like SoHo. Except for the homeless young and the old men sleeping under building scaffolding or congregating in Tompkins Square Park, the neighborhood conveys a feeling of relative well-being.
Given the affluence of many Manhattan neighborhoods, it’s no surprise to discover that an Upper East Side Zip code (10065) is the country’s priciest, that Fifth Avenue is still the top retail strip in the U.S., followed by Times Square, Madison Avenue, and East 57th St., and that the rental market is up. There is also a hotel building boom, sustained by occupancy rates and revenues that have rebounded close to pre-recession levels. And ground has been broken in the long delayed far west side 26 acre mega-project on Hudson Yards (Tenth Avenue and 33rd Street). The project will cap the yards with an $800 million concrete roof and top it with the country’s largest and densest real-estate development.
Then there is also the recent item about the hedge fund manager John H. Paulson announcing a $100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy, the largest monetary donation in the history of New York City’s park system. Nothing wrong with the gift, but it would have been turned to better use if given to some dilapidated, badly maintained outer borough park. So the exquisite jewel of a park that serves many people who like Paulson live nearby received what it doesn’t quite need. But I must admit that for people like myself, who are not plutocrats, the park is a place that I can take pleasure exploring.
It’s no news that in 2012 big money is the dominant and controlling force in the city. Other interest groups -- unions, minority groups, and community organizations -- struggle to modify the goals of the developers and corporations, but at the end they usually win only minor concessions if any. I can’t say the corporate sector’s ends are always destructive, for what they build and invest in can help the city’s revenue base, and even change neighborhood life for the better. But more often than not the corporate rich ruthlessly serve their own interests, and the welfare of the city and the community is sacrificed in the process.
The city in 2012 is no utopia: crime and poverty still exist; there isn’t sufficient affordable housing; and the public education system fails much more often than it succeeds. But it’s a less dangerous, more prosperous (if a more inequitable) city than New York of the late ‘80s. I have little nostalgia for that earlier city where anomie reigned. In fact, I find today’s gentrified city more pleasurable to wander about, though the danger of moneyed homogeneity lurks in every new luxury box that is built and chair store that opens. What I seek is some magical balance between a safe and thriving city, and one whose just, idiosyncratic, and diverse character has been maintained. I suppose that’s just a fantasy.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org