Rarely is the adage “be careful what you wish for” more applicable than in terms of longing for the day when the news cycle wouldn’t be dominated by the coronavirus. As I write this, there is even worse news: looters and violent agitators, interspersed with sincere protesters, are flooding the streets of America’s major cities, most troublingly, those of New York.
That mighty New York City has fallen victim to an unruly mob greatly concerns me, both on emotional and practical levels. It’s where I was born and raised. Where I attended college and law school. Where I spent most of my years working, and where I frequented countless great restaurants for decades. It will always be my beloved hometown, and I ache to see it hurting.
From a practical perspective, it is disconcerting, if not alarming, that the City has let down its legendary guard against riots. In 1989, then-Cincinnati Bengals (football) coach Sam Wyche, during a home game in which frustrated fans pelted the referees with snowballs, said: “you don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!” The reference was to the Bengals’ intrastate rival, the Cleveland Browns, whose fans were notorious for throwing objects onto opposing team players. Similarly, when riots would break out in other cities, whether because of Rodney King’s violent arrest or exuberance run amok after a sports team’s championship win, New Yorkers rested assured such nonsense wouldn’t be happening in their city.
New York had its fair share of bad mayors, including most during my lifetime. There was the Bill de Blasio prototype, John Lindsay. The forgettable Abe Beame followed, along with a long tenure by the flamboyant, personable, but overrated Ed Koch, who fancied himself as “New York feisty” but whose excuse for the City’s problems was the awful:
“well, that’s New York.” As if there are some New York issues beyond remedy. Koch’s successor, David Dinkins, was the City’s version of Jimmy Carter: a quintessential nice guy but a largely hapless chief executive, under whose watch lawlessness got even worse than it had been under his three predecessors.
Growing up in the City’s Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, I remember hearing stories from my aunts and uncles about a bygone era, during which people would leave their doors unlocked and could walk home from a friend’s or relative’s house at all hours of the night without fear of being mugged. Yet, the New York City I grew into was best depicted in the Charles Bronson Death Wish films. In particular, I recall 1977: Reggie Jackson had arrived, Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever topped the box office, and I got my first 10-speed bike. But it was also the infamous Summer of Sam (when David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz went on a serial killer rampage), and the streets weren’t safe for riding that bike alone after hours.
Then came 1994 and it was ‘Morning in New York’ again. Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, and the city was saved. To be sure, Giuliani was lambasted for not spreading hearts and flowers often enough, but he accomplished the unthinkable: under his watch, New York became a safe city again. I remember telling many friends at the time: “for what this man has done to bring down crime, I’d gladly show up to City Hall every day, have him curse and berate me and throw eggs and tomatoes at me, and I’ll smile and say, ‘thank you, Mr. Mayor.’” (Come to think of it, I can say the same about President Trump.)
A few months before the end of Giuliani’s second and final four-year term, terrorists attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and Giuliani, because of his decisive leadership that day, became known throughout the country as “America’s mayor.” But for us who lived and worked in the area, it wasn’t so much about that day as it was about the eight transformational years before that. In fact, many clamored for Giuliani to be granted a waiver from the two consecutive term limit. He didn’t pursue it. He graciously stepped aside.
In stark contrast, his successor, Mike Bloomberg, managed a way to serve for a third term when his eight years were up. An ill-conceived and monumentally expensive presidential bid earlier this year that quickly imploded should not define Bloomberg’s contributions to public service. Plain and simple, Bloomberg was no Giuliani, but was leaps and bounds better than what the City has now.
Over the years, I’ve devoted some space in this column to Mayor de Blasio. Most notably, shortly after he was elected to his first term, in November 2013, there was an outbreak of car vandalism in Washington Heights, which had tremendously benefited from Giuliani’s and Bloomberg’s crimefighting prowess. I worried that de Blasio’s progressive ways wouldn’t keep New York’s crime rate down for long. Even as he ran for reelection four years later, de Blasio was able to flaunt favorable statistics about the city’s crime rate, but those pesky intangibles hinted that trouble was on the way.
Sure enough, numerous of my acquaintances in the city’s police department complained to me in the past year that they are powerless to make arrests – let alone ones that would lead to convictions – in the mayor’s latest marshmallow approach to law and order. And now, given the rampant rioting the City endures, Giuliani has wondered aloud why in the world de Blasio has essentially handcuffed his own police force, which Giuliani dubbed “the finest there is,” insisting they’re even better than the National Guard to halt the melee.
Leading a city that is, for all intents and purposes, the center of the world, and on matters as vital as life and death, is not a game. It’s not about lofty “better angels” speeches that sound good; it’s about cracking down on lawlessness. The current mayor is all wrong to be in charge of my beloved hometown.