15.

DEFINING DEVIANCY UP

IN SEPTEMBER 1993, Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor then taking his second run at the mayoralty of New York, gave a speech in which he said that residents of the city had come to feel consumed by “a sense of dread”—about the ubiquity of the homeless and the mentally ill, about garbage-strewn streets, about crime both petty and grave. And he vowed to act in the face of these numberless incivilities. He would, he promised, not only crack down on serious crime but imprison panhandlers and “squeegee operators” who try to extort or intimidate passersby into giving them money. David Dinkins, the incumbent mayor, snorted that “killers and rapists are a city’s real public enemies—not squeegee pests and homeless mothers.” (Giuliani had not proposed incarcerating homeless mothers.) Elite opinion took Dinkins’s side, but ordinary New Yorkers—middle-class whites, of course, but many minority voters as well—plainly warmed to Giuliani’s message. The challenger narrowly won the election, and then was reelected in a landslide four years later.

Giuliani was speaking out of intense personal conviction, but he was also drawing on a growing body of opinion about the consequences of urban disorder. A few months earlier, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a U.S. senator from New York and a distinguished social theorist, had said that a city in the throes of social disintegration had accepted a defeatist strategy of “defining deviancy down.” Moynihan described a place in which the forces of social control seemed to have surrendered to the forces of disorder. Giuliani cited this resonant expression in his speech, and mentioned instances of it that few could deny. He also drew on the “broken windows” theory, advanced by the criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, who had argued that “serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked pan-handler is, in effect, the first broken window.” Giuliani vowed to reverse the process by arresting the window breakers.

As mayor, he did just that. Crime had begun to drop after Dinkins obtained the funds to increase the police force to unprecedented levels. But under Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, it dropped much further, to levels not seen in thirty to forty years. What was more, Giuliani found ways of characterizing infuriating forms of disorderly behavior, such as soaping up the windshield of helpless motorists, as criminal behavior, and he enforced laws against low-level crimes that had previously been ignored, like public drinking. He moved decisively against pornography. And in those parts of the city where offensive behavior and “quality-of-life” incidents were as pervasive a problem as serious crime—in places like Times Square—the new policy produced immediate effects.

Gretchen Dykstra, executive director of the Times Square BID, says that the BID had tried and failed to wipe out the three-card monte games that flourished all over the area, blocking the sidewalks and preying on tourists unwise enough to trust their luck. But Chief Bratton ordered police officers to arrest violators, and by 1996, the scam had virtually disappeared from the streets. Police officers had almost stopped making arrests for street-level drug sales after a series of corruption scandals; Giuliani and Bratton reversed the policy. “It was a more aggressive style of policing,” says Detective Adam D’Amico, the veteran of Times Square. “It used to be, if we stopped someone for a quality-of-life offense, like urinating on the street or drinking beer, we’d give them a summons and they’d go their own way. Now we would bring them into the station house and ask them to produce ID, and then make a phone call to verify the ID. If they didn’t have ID, or couldn’t prove it, they could spend a night in jail. We found out that a lot of people were using fake ID. Or maybe there was a warrant out for a much more serious crime.”

Giuliani believed that he was waging a battle not only against the forces of social disorder but against an ideology that legitimized that disorder, and that had paralyzed New Yorkers from acting in their own interests. And some adherents of that position now concede, grudgingly or not, that he was right. Gretchen Dykstra, a self-described ex–sixties lefty, succinctly describes the attitude of the bienpensant classes when she says, “There was a tendency to romanticize the gutter.” But it is not enough to say that the critics of the cleanup of Times Square refused to recognize that the “street culture” of the area was predatory, or that it drove “decent” citizens away; it was, rather, that they bridled at the very language of decency and at the idea that some citizens were more decent than others. The argument over social control was really a debate about who it was that urban spaces like Times Square belonged to—who deserved to be considered its “authentic” dwellers and users.

There is a history, stretching back at least to the time of Baudelaire, the bard of mid-nineteenth-century Parisian life, of cherishing the city as the great bulwark against overweening bourgeois propriety, and as home to a culture of deviance and eccentricity. In “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire writes, “The spectacle of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—criminals and kept women—that drift about in the underworlds of a great city . . . all prove to us that we need only open our eyes to recognize our heroism.” “Fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences”—that is Times Square to a TWhat is the poetry of Times Square but one long celebration of the human impulse to subvert propriety—from the glittering underworld of Damon Runyon and Texas Guinan to the penny-ante chiseling of Liebling’s Hymie Katz, and from Allen Ginsberg’s “atomic disease” to the country-boy hustling of Joe Buck and even the sexual Olympics that Josh Alan Friedman narrates? In the Times Square mythos, it is the lawman and his accomplice, the bluenose, who play the heavies. And so it is all too easy to see Rudy Giuliani’s campaign against public disorder as only the latest feverish effort to stem the force of illicit appetite, beginning with Anthony Comstock’s war against prostitution, continuing with Fiorello La Guardia’s against burlesque and, later, the legal assault on pornography; now this. Perhaps the city would be better served by an honest reprobate like Jimmy Walker.

But the analogy is false. By the 1970s and eighties, the Runyonesque, or Baudelairean, characters of another day had exited Times Square and other old urban spaces. The frankly predatory or just plain pitiful figures who came in their stead—the drug dealers and the hustlers, the homeless and the mentally ill—inherited the old mantle of antibourgeois legitimacy. Indeed, in a new twist, their very marginality came to be seen as proof of the failure of bourgeois society; and the impulse to clean up degraded places came to be interpreted as the wish to erase the manifest signs of that failure. As one author wrote in disgust at the rehabilitation of Union Square Park, a few intersections below Times Square, “The same stroke that restored the park’s green statues to gleaming bronze splendor attempted to wipe away the history of homelessness and poverty.” Homelessness and poverty were the park’s—and the city’s—reality; the cleanup was thus a kind of Potemkin fraud.

The habit of mistaking predatory for assertively individualistic behavior—of romanticizing the gutter—is a trope of modern Times Square literature. One scholar, Laurence Senelick, has argued that the difference between the gaudy, bawdy, sporty 42nd Street of days of glory and the supposedly perverse one of our own day has been wildly overdrawn; in fact, the forces of bourgeois propriety have warred throughout the last century against those who wished to test the boundaries of the acceptable. “It is easy to foment outrage about juvenile prostitution,” Senelick wrote in 1990. “Having sex with one’s own children has been a feature of family life since Lot and his daughters, and the mass selling of juveniles for sexual purposes was common in the Eastern Hemisphere from ancient times until very recently.” It was the moral crusade that outraged him, not the sexual exploitation.

The whole argument over “gentrification,” as it applied to Times Square and other neighborhoods, turned on the question of who was an authentic citizen and who an outsider. In 1988, when the New York Police Department rousted the punk activists and homeless people who had taken over Tompkins Square Park, the squatters’ slogan was “Die, yuppie scum.” The squatters had much of the city’s liberal establishment, and virtually all of its urban thinkers, on their side. The park was described as “the site of the first major antigentrification effort” and as the precursor to large-scale urban warfare. Yet when it reopened several years later, its actual users were the working-class mothers, and their children, who lived in their neighborhood and who had been driven away by the homeless and their ideological allies. It was as if urban life consisted only of the marginal and the rich, whereas the truth is that it is the middle class, not the rich, who most need a clean, well-ordered civic life, for the rich have private retreats of their own.

Why have critics on the left insisted so single-mindedly on the higher authenticity of the socially marginal? One such critic, Sharon Zukin, speculates that an entire generation of intellectuals, themselves working-class “ethnics,” experienced a profound sense of loss as the yeasty urban neighborhoods of their birth were abandoned or obliterated by urban renewal. “Wrapped up in the layers of territorial and tribal dispossession,” she writes, “were a political identification with other ‘dispossessed’ groups—the poor and the blacks—and a disillusionment . . . with the promise of modernity.” That deep identification makes any form of “progress” suspect, if that progress makes a formerly neglected area appealing to the white—or nonwhite—middle class. Indeed, Zukin concedes that “many groups claim they support revitalization,” but adds that apparent consensus masks deep conflict.

The problem with this way of thinking is not that public urban spaces belong to the middle class rather than the poor, but rather that they are a collective good to be rendered habitable and pleasant for everyone. There is no “authentic class”: Times Square, Union Square, Tompkins Square, and other such places belong to all New Yorkers, the poor and the marginal as much as the well-to-do. Giuliani’s argument was that only by suppressing behavior that drives New Yorkers away from these places can this collective good be secured; but since that behavior tends to come more from the socially marginal than from the middle class, it is the former more than the latter who will be the target of the kind of enforcement actions he launched. Critics insist on describing this process as the displacement of the poor by the rich—“champagne flutes instead of malt liquor forties, and chorus lines instead of police lineups,” as one puts it felicitously—and yet it is the teenagers who hang out on 42nd Street today who benefit from the new doctrines of social control as much as the tourists from Ohio.

Giuliani’s passion for order blinded him to the Baudelairean delights of the urban street; given his druthers, he might have dispensed altogether with such irritants as the First Amendment. But this is scarcely the only imaginable alternative to an equally single-minded defense of antisocial behavior; nor, of course, would any fair observer describe it as the tenor of today’s Times Square. For a theory of the democratic, individualistic middle course, one need only think of a figure like William Whyte, the social theorist who minutely studied the walking, sitting, and talking habits of people in urban places. Whyte spent much of his career trying to encourage what he called “amiable disorder” by advising on the design of parks, sidewalks, atriums, and other public places. He insisted on the crucial distinction between “oddballs” and “freaks” on the one hand, who constitute “a benevolent presence on the street,” and genuinely dangerous people, whom he did not hesitate to call “undesirables.” Whyte made the case for what one might call the bourgeois city—not because he championed the middle class, but because he cared about such bourgeois values as comfort, neighborliness, and charm. And the Times Square of today, though it lacks much in neighborliness, is surely a place of amiable disorder.

TIMES SQUARE STILL HAS a street culture both of suffering souls and of predatory ones; but it is, effectively, subterranean, and only occasionally impinges on the life above. There are at least fifty homeless people on an average warm day in and around Times Square, but a casual pedestrian barely notices them. A few of the regulars, like “Heavy,” a shambling mass of a man who rarely speaks, never bathes, and drags behind him a battered train of carts filled high with garbage, are almost impossible to miss. But most of the homeless men in Times Square live quietly on the cross streets and do as little as possible to draw attention to themselves, save when they’ve had too much to drink. And even most of the drinkers are quiet. A handsome, fine-boned black man named Mark Harris spends most of his day sitting in the lee of a building on 50th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue. He is forty-nine, he says; his goatee has begun to go silver. He has a rhythm guitar, except when he gets fuddled and leaves it somewhere; if you ask, he will plug it into his mini-amp and play a tune like “I Am a Blues Man.” In his younger days, Harris says, he was a studio musician with the Drifters, Richie Havens, Baby Washington. Now he claims that he has a few albums ready to go; his producers are “in the hospital.” This appears to be a fantasy. Harris says, “A lot of my friends, they’re telling me if I slow down on the alcohol, it’ll help me with my music.” He says this with a rueful smile and a slightly vacant expression; there is no reason to doubt him on this score.

Homeless people like Harris—or even like Heavy—fall well within the permissible boundaries of social control in Times Square: they are not disturbing anyone, and they have a right to their spot of pavement. People who work with the homeless, and the homeless themselves, say that there will always be a vagrant population in Times Square, because the crowds of tourists make for top-drawer panhandling, and simply because the buses and subways seem to disgorge a certain number of helpless or disoriented or addicted people onto the streets of Times Square every year. “Outreach” organizations do their best to help them; but even the most mentally stable among the homeless—like Mark Harris—are rarely willing to trade the fellowship of the streets for “three hots and a cot.” The homeless have thus become a Times Square fixture, harmful almost only to themselves and to one another. They lead the “floating existences” of which Baudelaire spoke. It would be heartless to say that they are part of Times Square’s “local color,” any more than the gang-bangers in the arcades are; but the truth is that they constitute the substratum of the local pageant and a kind of guarantee of amiable disorder.

The other branch of the Times Square street subculture is overtly criminal—the “underworld,” in all senses of that term. Even the heightened degree of social control has been unable to eradicate drug dealing and prostitution from the area, and above all from the tawdry blocks of Eighth Avenue immediately above and below 42nd Street, though the substitution of “good uses” for bad on Eighth Avenue—hotels, restaurants, the new headquarters of The New York Times—is likely to reduce crime there, as it has on 42nd Street. Yet even this rampant activity has been contained, for Eighth Avenue is not in the least ominous even quite late at night, and visitors are even less likely to notice drug deals than they are the homeless. And on 42nd Street, where at least a dozen police officers are posted many nights, you are unlikely to notice either. There may be trouble inside the Broadway City arcade, but it rarely spills out into the street.

Certainly the instruments of control are, if not powerful, then at least numerous. The area is patrolled not only by the New York Police Department but by security officers from the Times Square BID. The BID, a private body made up of local property-holders that performs what are normally thought of as public functions, both cleans up and patrols (and offers services for the homeless) in an area stretching from 40th to 53rd Street, and east of Broadway to west of Eighth Avenue. At any one time, the BID fields as many as thirty-two officers on both fixed and walking posts throughout the area. They wear uniforms, with big-brimmed Smokey the Bear hats. (One officer said that she had been offered $500 for her hat.) But they do not carry weapons and they are not empowered to make arrests; their job is to serve as “the eyes and ears” of the police, and mostly to be a comforting and friendly sight to tourists, who constantly stop them to ask directions, or just to pose for a picture.

One Friday evening in the early summer, I took a tour of Times Square with Eric Rivera, a veteran security officer with the BID and a genuine connoisseur of street crime. Rivera was a fireplug, self-confident and voluble and fond of action: he had enlisted in the Marines as a kid, and though he alluded vaguely to some youthful misconduct, he would be joining the police department the following week. At about ten-thirty that night, Rivera brought me to the Burger King at the southwest corner of 40th Street and Eighth Avenue. We stood across the street, our backs to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and Rivera said, “This is one place I would never tell anyone I know to go to. You got more gun-related incidents here than anywhere. Look at all those people hanging out in front; they’re selling guns, drugs, girls, you name it. It all comes in through the Lincoln Tunnel.” A knot of men stood on the sidewalk, dark silhouettes against the lighted storefront. A police van was parked in front of the restaurant, and an officer was moving from one loiterer to another. “She’s telling them they’ve got five minutes before they have to move along,” Rivera explained. “But they’ll be back.”

As we walked north along Eighth Avenue, Rivera, gesturing around the bus terminal, said, “You got the low-level prostitutes here, the fiftydollar hookers; they’ll turn tricks for a rock of cocaine if they’re hard up. Then you go all the way up to the four-hundred-dollar hookers who hang out at the bar of the Sheraton on Fifty-third.” Without turning around, Rivera said, “The guy in the black-and-white shirt behind us, he’s selling crack. This guy right in front of us here is a pimp. From Fortieth to Forty-eighth, we call it the coke and hooker stroll. They’ll just go up and down all night, looking for action.” The stroll was on the west side of the avenue, which was still chock-a-block with sex shops and strip clubs. We crossed over to the east side between 43rd and 44th and stood among the parked cars, looking back across the street. Rivera picked out his marks like an expert duck hunter peering from the blinds. “See that guy in the red jersey? Certifiable pimp; they call him Little Joe. And there’s Soap-man.” This was Rivera’s own nickname for a dealer who sold crack that turned out to be soap flakes, leaving the unwary buyer sending bubbles up from his pipe. But all the dickering and the dealing vanished into the torrent of the avenue’s racing life. “You can walk around here, and it’s like nothing’s going on,” Rivera said. “The buyer drops a five-dollar bill on the ground, the seller covers it with his shoe. A third guy comes and drops the rock or the gel cap on the ground. The seller hands the money to a kid, who vanishes. And it all happens in a second.”

Rivera pointed out the subway landing where a gang leader had gotten his throat slashed in the midst of a chain snatching, and then the path he had staggered down until he had bled to death in front of Chevys. But I had gotten the same tour way back in October. It had been a long time between murders. In fact, Rivera said, even chain-snatching and petty thievery were rare. Violent crime was almost unheard-of. Bob Esposito, the BID’s chief of security and a former police officer who put in many years in Times Square, says, “The kind of call I get now is, ‘The musician’s too loud,’ or, ‘I don’t like what the Black Israelites are saying.’” Rivera said that when he was in junior high, twenty years ago, he used to cut school and watch dirty movies on 42nd Street. “In those days,” he said, “you could never go to Eighth Avenue unless you had a weapon, or you came with twenty of your guys.” Now, forget it. Rivera was hoping, once he became a cop, to be assigned to the most crime-infested neighborhood around. He had just about had it with Times Square; it was too tame.

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