The murder rate has halved; taxi drivers will soon speak English. But, says Michael Pye, New York is losing its pointby Michael Pye / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
All the old warnings have a hollow sound nowadays, or so our Manhattan guests say. They don’t need to be frightened. New York is Clean City. They sense the change from the gossip columns. Drew Barrymore felt free to leave a bra at Hogs and Heifers, a show-biz redneck bar on streets where once there was only the after-midnight drama of gentlemen beating each other for fun, in the blood-and-gristle heart of the meat market, on premises controlled by senior mafiosi. They read that the squeegee men at the Holland Tunnel used to be the world’s most intimidating welcome ceremony (at least the highwaymen outside Kinshasa, while scary, weren’t on crack cocaine). But the squeegee men are gone now, and it’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s most famous single victory. It goes with a new kind of policing, which bothers when people piss on the street, or sell off pushcarts on the avenues: “quality of life” stuff. Things are improving all over. There were a horrifying 1,158 murders in the city last year, but in the early 1990s there were twice as many. You can buy milk from the cornerstore in Washington Heights at midnight again, even though it’s the prime Manhattan drug market. And quite often a parked car doesn’t lose its battery, its radio or its airbags-so you don’t always have to know which chopshop will sell your spare parts back to you. But all this order has a debilitating effect on New Yorkers; we feel improved to death. We used to be proud of surviving this city. We’d answer any critique of our manners with: “This is New York.” Those squeegee men proved that the city was a test we were passing every day. Nowadays, there’s talk of making taxi drivers not just Anglophone but polite and modestly knowledgeable-which wipes out decades of cabbies who thought sideways was just another direction, and may make unrepeatable that memorable journey across night-time Central Park with a driver planning his wife’s murder out loud (his uses for simple kitchen equipment are with me still). We have draconian anti-smoking laws, and a mayor who says, blandly: “If you regulate people’s behaviour somewhat differently, they’ll respond to it.” “Regulate?” This was once Liberty City-the place you came to take risks. It’s a sanctuary for difference, which is why such a range of people come here-Hasidic Jews and Brazilian transsexuals, artists, seriously greedy brokers, male models and Ukrainian nationalists. The other side of disorder is that people could get lost, become someone else, change, and take chances. And the city’s glory is that, walking the streets, you run into this drama and difference. Without it, New York is just the name of a rather inconvenient and expensive show-the city as tired old Broadway. Consider the Russian Tea Room, at the back of Carnegie Hall. Consider, but don’t try to book; the tea room is closed for remodelling. Once it was for ?gr?ussians, then for the friends of ?gr?ussian ballerinas, then for theatre people, and then their agents. You took a booth, you did a deal, you got seen; Madonna worked coat-check, and there was a vast Siberia where civilians were parked with a sideways chance of seeing showbiz at work. What happened there made the name of the restaurant so valuable that it could be shut, gutted, expanded and re-opened as just another franchise. A workplace became heritage. But Times Square has a stock market tickertape. 42nd Street is family entertainment. The New Amsterdam theatre, where you can still just make out the chorines painted on the lobby walls, belongs to Disney. We’ve agreed to applaud, but this sanitised deuce entirely lacks the sexual frisson that made it alive in the days before burlesque and dance halls gave way to sex shows and massage parlours. Go any time, any day: your chances of any unlisted excitement-of being surprised-are greater in the lobby of the average corporate tower. City fathers have forgotten that 42nd Street used to welcome people out of the bus stations, the docks-the first bit of warmth on Manhattan. Vice has its uses. More, they’ve forgotten that the streets come alive from the electric seconds when eyes catch on eyes, when glances catch fire. The energy of a city is sexual energy-all the possibilities, the risks, and sometimes the horrors; it helps a city cope with all those differences between people which, in suburbia, could not be allowed. Once dance clubs and sex clubs were where a whole city was jumbled together, and gargoyle lady editors met people busy extending the meaning of sodomy. Nowadays, you break a rule-you close. Limelight, the dance club, was padlocked after a drugs death; it wasn’t the death, but the drugs that mattered. Neighbours complain about noise, even on streets where the clubs arrived first. Assorted sex clubs have vanished, although for some reason S&M clubs survive. All this policed health sounds reasonable and desirable, and it may well save our lives; but try living with it. Our heroic city is becoming a vertical suburb, complete with suburban stores.We won’t have to warn our houseguests soon; they won’t even bother to come.