DISPATCH FROM AN UNCIVIL CITY
New Yorkers Don't Let a Few Laws Get in the Way
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
NEW YORK -- Banker Ernest Aning has grabbed a sandwich and he's in a hurry to get back to his office and -- what? He should walk to the corner and wait at the light?
Aning cuts across the middle of 34th Street (four lanes, lots of trucks, buses and maniacal taxis, accompanied by recreational beeping) without a backward look. Four jaywalkers pass him going the other way.
"Rules like no jaywalking don't work," Aning explains without stopping. "It's the nature of this city -- you're in a rush, the cabdrivers are in a rush, everyone's in a rush."
The uncivil city roars, and somewhere a New York mayor shudders. For a decade Rudolph W. Giuliani and his successor, Michael R. Bloomberg, have tried to tame the raucous city. They've thrown up concrete barricades to stop New Yorkers from jaywalking and tried banning vendors of hot dogs and assorted mystery meats from 44 blocks of Midtown, outlawed smoking in bars and cracked down on cellphone-carrying middle-schoolers and beer-guzzling gents at the beach. Once Giuliani even sent his personal police bodyguards scampering after marijuana smokers (the stoners got away).
And what's happened?
If eyes, ears and a twitching nose are correct, the jaywalking, hot-dog-munching, cellphone-talking-while-driving, pot-hoovering masses are holding their own. Marijuana-possession arrests have dropped by nearly half from a Giuliani-mandated high in 2000, the concrete barriers are gone, and taxi drivers and passengers persuaded the Taxi and Limousine Commission to drop those infernal recordings of celebrity voices -- Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Jackie Mason, Judd Hirsch, et al. -- commanding everyone to buckle up.
Standing at the more or less gridlocked corner of Eighth Avenue and 54th Street, a reporter counted 14 out of 20 car and truck drivers on cellphones. And that's not counting the two bicycle riders running red lights while chatting on phones.
Bloomberg is no softy in the field of mayoral-driven behavior modification. His cops once handed out a blizzard of tickets for beer drinking at a party on the beach in the Rockaways (as it turned out, it was a fundraiser for World Trade Center victims). A few days later, he was photographed sitting in Central Park listening to the New York Philharmonic as fellow concertgoers sipped chardonnay.
Bloomberg, however, did allow Giuliani's "decency commission" to sunset in 2003. The former Hizzoner appointed that commission to monitor and perhaps revoke public funding from museums that exhibited too much risqu? art.
" Decency? No j aywalking ? C'mon, this stuff just boomerangs," said Norman Siegel, a civil liberties lawyer and lifelong New Yorker. "The worst thing that can happen to an authoritarian personality is to have people laugh at him."
So New York's inner anarchist smiles. Speaking of which, in the evening on East Ninth Street, self-described 44-year-old anarchist Juan Gone takes a lonnnnng drag on something that looks illegal and smells rather sweet.