Irving Kristol wrote that a neoconservative is a “liberal mugged by reality.” Well, I was “mugged” in New York City last weekend, and I am still a liberal. Here’s what happened, and it is, admittedly, much less dramatic than a real mugging. I was trying to enter the subway, and my fully loaded ($20) fare card wouldn’t swipe. A small line was forming behind me, and I could feel the surge of impatience. I turned around, and the man behind me offered to swipe my card. In an instant, I handed it to him. One swipe and I was through; you probably know what happened next. He took the card and remained on the other side of the turnstile. I asked for it back, and he looked at me for what I was: a rube. Seeking further opportunity, perhaps, he helped himself to another swipe of my card and followed me down the tracks. My embarrassment and anger turned into mild fear, as he started hassling me in a mostly empty, downtown local train stop. He waved the card close to my face, and as I backed up he came forward. My card in exchange for my money was his deal, which is kind of funny when you think about it. I didn’t have any cash on me, and before it got uglier, he moved away, returning twice more to brandish the card. The train came, and my little trauma was over.
My subway adventure was the only flaw in a glorious weekend. A visit to the Frick. Four uneventful subway rides with my young daughter (with her as the navigator) to be transported from Tribeca to the Upper West Side and a remarkable store that sells exotic birds raised in its own aviary. Our first time seeing “Wicked,” and a family dinner in a taqueria where you go through an unmarked door, guarded by a bouncer, downstairs, through the kitchen, “Goodfellas”-style, and into a booming basement of a bar-restaurant. Randomly, I asked the waiter whether people did a lot of shots in this restaurant. “Mister,” he said, “they do everything.” New York City has always been “an adult dose,” as one of the members of the Band put it in “The Last Waltz.” Cities across America are enjoying remarkable renaissances — just look at Washington. But New York remains in its own category of excellence and vibrancy. Your city takes one step forward; New York takes two.
In the late ’70s, I had a similar minor brush with crime in New York. I was walking home alone and surrounded by a group of teenage boys. They shoved me around a little bit and asked for my wallet. One guy took it, emptied the money out and threw it on the ground while the other kids kicked it down the curb. One yelled that I was cheap, which made everyone laugh as they went on their merry way. When I lived in the city 35 years ago, it was broken and bankrupt. Basic services barely functioned. Today, when one rides the subway or walks through Central Park, it is hard to imagine what kind of shape New York was in 35 years ago. Some things do get much better.
How New York saved itself and became, again, one of the greatest cities in the world creates interesting political debate. To grossly oversimplify, the “liberal” point of view, perhaps embraced by current Mayor Bill de Blasio, is that the city returned to prominence by too often neglecting its poor and middle class. The conservative viewpoint holds that the city improved because it embraced the “broken window” theory of society, the idea that if you stop “little” things such as graffiti on subway trains and purse-snatching, you slowly restore a respect for order, which ladders up to systemic improvement.
So, two incidents, more than three decades apart. One happened when the city was about to enter a period of prolonged, if unequal, prosperity; the other when it has just elected a new mayor promising to change direction. What will the city be like under a de Blasio administration, or at least the part of the city where the wealthy live and the tourists flock? On my recent trip, I noticed fewer public displays of policing above and below ground. More homeless in the streets; more mentally disturbed people in the subways. Could the liberal mayor be starting the reversal of the city’s emphasis on order? Indeed, his new budget rejected a city council request for more police. But his budget also included more funds for treatment of addicts and the mentally ill, more job training for young adults. My “mugging” has kept me a clear-eyed liberal. The mayor’s emphasis on treating the causes of disorder while expanding opportunity is exactly right, but he shouldn’t tolerate the “broken windows” either.