Straight Into The State of Nature

Myron Magnet, in The City Journal, writes of Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet and reminds us of what New York was like in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Some excerpts:

Fear was a New Yorker’s constant companion in the 1970s and ’80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of medieval ironmongery. We barred our ground-floor and fire-escape windows with steel grates that made us feel imprisoned. I was thankful for mine, though, when a hatchet turned up on my fire escape, origin unknown. Nearing our building entrances, we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging procedure. Only once was I too slow and lost my money. A neighbor, who worked at a midtown bank, lost his life.

…And now that we live in New York’s second golden age—the age of reborn neighborhoods in every borough, of safe streets bustling with tourists, of $40 million apartments, of filled-to-overflowing private schools and colleges, of urban glamour; the age when the New York Times runs stories that explain how once upon a time there was the age of the mugger and that ask, is New York losing its street smarts?—it’s important to recall that today’s peace and prosperity mustn’t be taken for granted. Hip young residents of the revived Lower East Side or Williamsburg need to know that it’s possible to kill a city, that the streets they walk daily were once no-go zones, that within living memory residents and companies were fleeing Gotham, that newsweeklies heralded the rotting of the Big Apple and movies like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy plausibly depicted New York as a nightmare peopled by freaks. That’s why it’s worth looking back at Mr. Sammler to understand why that decline occurred: we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

A septuagenarian Holocaust survivor who lives on 90th Street near Riverside Drive (my turf for most of the last 45 years), the novel’s main character, Artur Sammler, sees disorder and decay wherever he looks. Out in the public realm, vandals have cut the receivers off pay phones and turned the booths into reeking urinals. In the parks, dog waste has killed the grass, and bums are everywhere. In one park, Sammler observes a wino “sullenly pissing on newspapers and old leaves,” while a homeless woman sleeps on a bench, her “sea cow’s belly rising, legs swollen purple.” Even the freshly opened daffodils show smudges of soot on their pure yellow petals. Central Park promenaders who now savor the lush Great Lawn or the sublime Bethesda Fountain should know what a heroic effort of philanthropy and policing it took to reclaim what less than two decades ago was a dusty, sterile, graffiti-marred wasteland where dope dealers and muggers reigned. Nothing you see today is the pure production of nature but springs instead from civic will and vision.

…How wonderful it would be to have “the privileges of remoteness” that $50,000 a year could buy, Sammler thinks—“club membership, taxis, doormen, guarded approaches,” all of the insulation that only 17 years later, as Tom Wolfe calculated more lavishly in Bonfire of the Vanities, took an income of $1 million a year. (Since Dickens, our best urbanologists have been our novelists.) But, Bellow points out, even the “opulent sections of the city were not immune. You opened a jeweled door into degradation, from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature.”

…Since the nineteenth century, bohemians, writers, and intellectuals have toyed with the “romance of the outlaw,” as Sammler puts it. “He thought often what a tremendous appeal crime had made to the children of bourgeois civilization. Whether as revolutionists, as supermen, as saints, Knights of Faith, even the best teased and tested themselves with thoughts of knife or gun. Lawless Raskolnikovs.” But in Sammler’s New York, and in elite culture generally in the sixties, that romance of the outlaw focused primarily on blacks, whose status as social victims and outcasts transformed their criminal acts (ex officio, so to speak) into manly, quasi-heroic revolts against oppression, however inchoate. Another of Sammler’s nieces, a rich, pretty Sarah Lawrence grad, embodies this prevailing worldview: she regularly sends money to “defense funds for black murderers and rapists.” Her uncle has no patience with this attitude. You can’t excuse a crime by saying it has been committed by a victim. “To whom would this not apply, if you start to say poor creature?” he dryly objects.

…America’s elites, at least the most vocal among them, no longer believed in the importance or legitimacy of policing their own streets—or the world. As we only later came to grasp clearly, all the resultant disorder that Bellow cataloged—public spaces despoiled by drunks, drug dealers, addicts, and madmen; unchecked vandalism; the stench of human and canine waste everywhere; the sordid parade of prostitutes of all genders around Times Square (whose modern romanticizers either weren’t there or else have a rarefied taste for the squalid and perverse)—all these so-called victimless crimes turned out to be the great incubator of serious crime. Potential wrongdoers accurately concluded from the lack of order-keeping policing that the authorities didn’t care, so they could rob, mug, steal cars, and so on with impunity, right up to a gang of black 14-year-olds shooting another kid to death, as Sammler’s nephew casually reports. To the elites, in fact, all the “victimless” disorder wasn’t just harmless but healthy: drugs were mind-expanding, madmen were marching to the beat of a different drummer, blasting boomboxes were the exuberant expression of what we hadn’t yet learned to call multiculturalism, and restraint was oppression.

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