This is an edition of Xochitl Gonzalez’s newsletter, Brooklyn, Everywhere. Sign up here.
The early days of the Eric Adams administration have been pretty dark. From last week’s tragic murder of Michelle Go, who was shoved to her death from a subway platform, to the killing of two officers responding to a call regarding a domestic dispute in Harlem on Friday, the newspaper headlines about New York City’s self-proclaimed tough-on-crime mayor have been … tough. As New York edges past its Omicron peak, the chatter about the mayor’s future among New Yorkers has been skeptical at best.
The New York Times recently quoted some residents comparing this moment to the crack-blighted ’80s, and others to the mean streets of fiscally strapped ’70s-era New York. Forbes has warned that fear of New York’s dangerous streets will make it that much harder to lure COVID-wary employees back into offices. This year has already seen a 39 percent increase in crime from the same period in 2021. For a mayor who campaigned on returning safety to the streets, this has hardly been a running start.
Adams has, at least, been reactive. He has been attentive to the victims and their families. He has been publicly present, a step up from the Invisible Giant he replaced. For better or worse, he has vowed to bring back a version of the controversial plainclothes unit the NYPD created to keep “bad guys” on their toes. He has convened several anti-gun roundtables. And yet the terrible headlines keep coming.
I can’t help but feel that some of Adams’s wounds are self-inflicted. Yes, it is true that crime in the city is rising, but the ginned-up narrative that New York had begun a descent into ’90s-era criminal chaos the likes of which only a “Tough-on-Bad-Guys” leader can clean up? Well, that yarn was spun and amplified by candidate Adams himself. And why not? It’s a model that worked perfectly for Rudy Giuliani: Inherit a crime-ridden city and use zero-tolerance policing to impose order. And, in the process, transform oneself into Gotham’s hero of the hour.
The problem is that both the city and the nature of what makes us feel unsafe have changed. In the New York of my youth, nearly all aspects of life—from home security to sartorial choices—were designed to mitigate the risk of theft in some way or another. Doors had dead bolts and chain locks, ground-floor windows required gates, necklaces would be tucked into sweaters on the subway, and the only “good” purse was one that could be held under an armpit. If you were lucky enough to get the “hot” new sneaker or jacket for a birthday or Christmas gift, you might not choose to rock it on days when you were heading to school alone.
It’s hard to explain to residents who have only known a post-Giuliani or Bloombergian New York, but the city was a much less swanky place in those days. Yes, the ’80s and early ’90s were notorious for drug-related violence, but there was also higher unemployment. Crimes like burglary and robbery, for instance, were upwards of 80 percent higher in January 1993 than in the same period this year. For the average New Yorker, a healthy fear of being robbed wasn’t paranoia as much as it was common sense.
It’s also easy to see why a large swath of the populace, living in a state of high alert, bought into the Giuliani promise of “cleaning up our streets.” The subtext of “for whom” those streets were being cleaned should not be lost on anyone. The racial dynamics exploited in that campaign helped solidify the coalition of white voters that put Giuliani over the top. And if that didn’t make it clear enough, the gentrification that came after the “clean-up” work was done tells the next chapter in the story.
But now, here we are in 2022, living in a city where crime across the board is 80 percent lower than it was when Giuliani was elected, and 35 percent lower than when Giuliani handed the reins over to Michael Bloomberg. It is true that crime has ticked up in New York recently, but to nowhere near the levels it was when the city was inarguably more dangerous.
And yet, facts and statistics aside, New Yorkers clearly don’t feel safe: We just elected a former cop whose dominant platform was restoring law and order by locking up one “bad guy” at a time.
But is it really the “bad guys” that we should be after? What does a “bad guy” look like in New York these days, anyway? It was easier to say when the dominant felony in this city was theft: A person who stole your purse or broke into your car must be a “bad guy” (and even that is likely an oversimplification). But what about when the crimes being committed—the infractions that make people feel “unsafe”—don’t have such clearly cut villains?
A closer look at arrests in the city today paints an interesting picture. The misdeeds that dominated our collective psyche when I was a kid—robbery, burglary, grand larceny? Those are all down or flat compared with their ultra-low levels five years ago. The major area of growth? Assaults. According to the Daily News, last year saw the highest level of assaults on the subway in nearly 25 years. Aboveground, assault was higher than it had been since 2016. This data, coupled with growing media reports of random acts of violence and a barrage of hate crimes—particularly against Asians—suggest that we’re not so much a cutthroat city out to get “more” but a city suffering from a kind of sickness, one that results in a tendency to lash out.
I would be remiss not to point out another trend of the past decade that our mayor has inherited: our growing homeless population. And while I am absolutely not equating homelessness with violent crime, New York’s population of unhoused single adults has nearly doubled over the past decade, and it is a demographic with higher rates of mental illness and substance-abuse problems.
It’s been well reported how many parts of New York’s subway stations and streets have become gathering spaces for this subset of the city’s population. Midtown in particular has been struggling, and the open use of drugs in the streets, while not necessarily a direct harm to anyone, does little to convey a sense of public safety. But are people experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness “bad guys”? No.
I love my city, and because I love it, I want to see my mayor succeed. And for that reason, I will offer Mayor Adams some unsolicited advice: Stop using a playbook from days of crime gone by and take this moment to look at the systemic problems—including the racism and xenophobia driving hate crimes—that are making your constituents feel unsafe. New York in 2022 does not need borrowed ideas from the Giuliani era. New York needs a modern police force that is trained to de-escalate encounters with the mentally unwell, the intoxicated, and those in the grip of addiction. New York needs housing for the homeless.
While I would urge him to think differently about public safety, there is one aspect of our city’s history that I would love for Mayor Adams to revisit: the wealth gap. In researching this piece, I stumbled upon a headline from The New York Times that I thought was recent, only to realize it was from a more crime-ridden 1994: “Gap Between Rich and Poor in New York City Grows Wider.” In 2021, no city in the world had a higher number of ultra-wealthy homeowners (people with incomes of $30 million or more) than New York City, all living side by side with the largest homeless population since the Great Depression. If we’re wondering why the city is seeing more random acts of violence, I can’t help but feel this might be at least a part of our answer.