Why We Can’t Ignore that New York City is Having a Hard Time
My ex-boyfriend told me he’s coming for a visit in a few weeks, and honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to handle his emotional overflow. He’s going to be coming to a completely new city than he has known; one that’s foreign, filthy, and sad.
New York City is in some trouble. All my friends seem to want to remain in denial over it because they want to combat the lies the president is spewing on TV about it being a “ghost town.”
No, New York City is not a ghost town, but it’s hurting, and denial about it isn’t serving anyone.
There are giant skyscrapers sitting half empty. Nobody thinks about the impact of where or when people work until it’s time for those people to leave the office and spend their money. Businesses, where they would dine and entertain themselves, are hurting. The pandemic has led so many once-thriving New York City staples to close.
Neighborhoods that once were filled with bougie boutiques are becoming dilapidated. Closed businesses have fallen into disarray, and the landlords do not arrange for upkeep. Crime is rising. There’s poop all over the streets.
I told my mother the other day that I believe we are headed back in the direction of NYC during the ’80s, and I hoped I was wrong. I told her that this kind of thing happens so gradually that people scarcely notice, but one day, everything is just garbage, and you look around and think “what the fuck?”
I want to use the corner of my street as an example of urban decay. People are just now noticing it, but it really started five years ago when a gas explosion took down three buildings.
While that was a huge event, nothing happened after that until roughly January 2019. Then, the decay seemingly happened all at once.
At the beginning of that year, a brand-new building went up on the site of the explosion.
Across the street, the long-standing Bar Virage had recently closed. A new business was supposed to move into the spot, but Bar Virage had a liquor license that defied the law that a business could not sell liquor if it was 200 feet from a church. (There must have been a stipulation when they initially applied for the license.) The new business learned they would only be able to sell beer and wine, so they backed out.
By early January 2019, both corners of the north side of 7th street and 2nd Avenue were vacant. Then, tragedy struck. The building on the southeast corner erupted in fire, and the residents had to vacate. Both long-standing businesses on the ground floor had to permanently close.
This was a gorgeous building that housed the famous restaurant Via Della Pace, which was sometimes used for film sets because of its aesthetic. It had a quaint urban feel to it. Now it sits, filthy and empty.
When the pandemic hit in March, the restaurant on the lingering occupied southwest corner was forced to close. It had one of those “outer vestibules” that restaurants put around their doors to keep in the heat during the winter months. The vestibule remained after the closure.
The pandemic caused construction to cease on the new building going up where the gas explosion was. The scaffolding around the building remained, though, so an encampment of homeless people sprung up. They began defecating on the side of the building and in the seasonal vestibule of the restaurant across the street. Nothing was open in the way of public restrooms, so they didn’t have much of a choice. Now, things are opening again, but there are still fresh feces there each day, and they are obviously not from a dog.
Daily, I see tissue and used masks lying on the sidewalks smeared with feces.
A homeless woman was living under the Orpheum theater, the home of Stomp, for as long as I can remember. Someone booted her out, so she moved to my corner. She’s old and frail, so last week, I made several attempts to help her. None of them were successful.
I started to notice after about five or six days of her being there that more and more feces started to appear in her immediate area on the corner.
I’ve been walking through and around shit for months, and it’s starting to bother me. I’m just going to assume I’m immune to whatever diseases you can catch from it.
Thankfully, NYU has come back, so with the boost in the student population in the neighborhood, there are fewer dead rats. I used to see one every morning, pancaked on the street or lying dead in the bike lane along the East River.
People always talk about New York in the ’80s. I’ve seen photos from under the FDR from that time and I think “that’s so disgusting. How did it ever get that way?”
The answer is “one day at a time.”
I started seeing this filth accumulating months ago, and now, the spiral has started. We’re bound to have a high crime rate for a while. I’m already feeling the implications and I’m barely middle class, nevermind wealthy.
Before COVID, we all respected the natural order of things.
There were always homeless people here, but they had an easier time before COVID. They slept on the subways. I used to ride the train home late night after closing the restaurant I worked at, and it was just understood that the “two-seater” at the end of the car was for the homeless. They would sleep there, and in the morning, as rush hour began, they would get up and go live life.
Now, the subway stays closed all night. Here’s what’s fucked up, though. The subway stays closed, but the trains still run! Turns out, New York City doesn’t have a place to put the trains, so they run them on a schedule nightly, empty.
It was sometimes unpleasant to ride the train next to homeless people, but we did it and didn’t complain because that was the natural order of things.
The same thing goes with the restrooms at Starbucks. Almost any time I ever went to pee in a Starbucks, a homeless person was using the restroom to wash up. It was unpleasant, but it was the natural order of things. It was part of city life.
When the natural order of an environment is disrupted, what happens? People don’t just cease to exist. Their order has to change, and the adaptation isn’t always for the better.
Why not just let the homeless sleep on the subways? Who is that really hurting?
Crime is also rising in New York City. In fact, in August 2020 alone, the spike in crime rates, particularly for shootings, was astronomical in comparison to the same period of time in the previous year.
People I know want to remain blissfully ignorant about this because it’s unpleasant, but the corner of my street is an example of how in just a year, a thriving street corner can turn into a dilapidated, mess of urban decay.
I’d be willing to wager, especially with the closures of so many businesses from COVID, that this isn’t the only place such a thing is happening.
And what happens when the city falls into disarray? Crime rises.
Here’s where things get a little sketchy in our modern-day conversation:
If you think back to the ’90s, New York City was still a shit hole from the ’80s. History repeats, right? High crime. Dirty. All of that.
So, in comes Rudy Giuliani, and he says “I’m gonna clean it up.” (Not verbatim.)
And wouldn’t you know it, he cleaned it up. He did this by modeling his strategy around a theory from the early 1980s called “Broken Windows Theory.” A lot of you are going to immediately start thinking about race right now, but Broken Windows Theory initially had nothing to do with race. (I’ll explain.)
In its essence, it said that when an environment was disordered, crime would rise. That’s the nuts and bolts of Broken Windows Theory, and it’s accurate.
A huge step in getting crime under control was cleaning up the New York City subway. The massive undertaking was aggressive, and the result was a drastic drop in crime. Giuliani also cleaned up the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which was home to hustlers and all sorts of surly types you probably had it in your best interest to avoid.
The problems started happening when Broken Windows Theory turned to “Broken Windows Policing,” and that turned to “stop and frisk.” Stop and frisk is what led to the giant problem we have today regarding race relations with police in America.
This isn’t an article about race or police, though.
This is an article about how things get to be a certain way.
So, back to urban decay happening “one day at a time.”
I don’t live in a bad neighborhood. I live in a relatively affluent neighborhood (or “Middle Class” by global city standards.) However, presently, my neighborhood is getting to be kind of shitty. It’s not dangerous, but I can tell that little things over the last few years, specifically the last 18–24 months, have led to the beginning of its decay.
I see this happening all over New York City.
Everyone is focusing on the empty real estate that’s now sitting because of COVID’s impact, but that’s just what’s happening today. New York City was already hurting from the raising of the minimum wage in 2019.
I saw so many businesses close when the minimum wage was upped to $15.00 an hour. Starbucks closed a whole bunch of locations, as did many other businesses. I’m sure the Starbucks situation was just a result of corporate greed, and people will be kind to remind me of that, but the situation with small businesses was different. A lot of them just couldn’t keep up.
A well-known café in my neighborhood closed. The owners just decided it was “time to retire.” I saw a lot of that; long-standing businesses cashing out because it was “just time.” Every day, there was another empty storefront.
All of this empty real estate isn’t helping when it comes to neighborhood upkeep.
Knowing that the Broken Windows Theory is valid (as crime does rise when a neighborhood looks disordered) then what makes the most sense would be to eliminate the source of the disorder and keep neighborhoods looking clean and vital.
In the ’90s, we initially began doing this by trying to target the “social disorder” of a neighborhood. (And we know now that Broken Windows Policing ultimately leads to targeted racial profiling and police brutality.)
I would argue, however, that most of the “social disorder” in a neighborhood is caused by the physical disorder. There’s a ton of social disorder happening on my street corner right now (i.e. homelessness.) All of that social disorder is a direct result of the physical disorder, and the physical disorder happened “one day at a time.”
This is WHY it is so very important for us not to ignore the fact, or even pretend that New York City isn’t having a hard time right now.
The kind of shit that leads to the crime rates of the 1980s doesn’t happen suddenly; it happens gradually.
It happens one day at a time, just like everything in life: getting fat, getting thin, falling in love, the planet dying, getting healthy, getting wealthy…. None of this shit happens all at once. It happens one day at a time.
So, what can we do?
The first thing you can do is vote. Everyone loves to discuss the relevance of voting in an election year, and they’ll argue tooth and nail about how much their vote “doesn’t count anyway.”
When it comes to local elections, your vote is the end-all, be-all. You’re the voice that can elect the officials to keep your neighborhood safe and clean. You get a say in policy and procedure.
I think voting for the president is important, and I have never missed a presidential election, but it isn’t the sole reason I go to the polls.
Voting for the governor is important, too. A lot of people are alive today that probably wouldn’t be if the people didn’t go out and vote for Andrew Cuomo. That’s something powerful to think about when the talking heads in the presidential debate have you turned off of the idea of your civic duty.
Next, put yourself in the present, and see what you can fix today.
If something in your immediate community is falling into disarray, make the phone calls to get it cleaned up. If it’s a physical disorder, we have the power to change it. If it’s a social disorder, there are a lot of organizations that are not the police that we can utilize to try to bring services to those in need.
And last, something has to give when it comes to the damn rent.
The rent is just too high, and this sort of greed is running the city into the ground. Small businesses can’t compete, which is steadily dripping gasoline on the embers of an emerging economic crisis.
Something has to fucking give, and it isn’t the small businesses. It’s landlords. They don’t mind half the time if properties sit empty because they’re tax write-offs. That has to change.
I am nowhere near qualified to write about tax law, but as I am educated in Sociology, the rest of what I said I will stand by with full certainty.
We have to live in the present moment and notice that slowly, things are happening. We have to stop moving for three minutes and notice that what we do daily contributes to the sort of future we are going to have. The actions that we need to take to reverse this are actually very minor.
What can we clean up today that we didn’t clean yesterday? Can we help one person today? Can we donate three dollars to an organization committed to community outreach? Can we make sure to educate ourselves about the leaders we can elect that are qualified to tackle the issue of high rents? What can we do today?
New York City is in some trouble right now, but any of us can do small things each day to make sure that 1985 doesn’t happen again. We can do it today.