A self-described “lifelong New Yorker,” former gubernatorial candidate, and award-winning actress known best for her role on a show that captured life in New York City like few others, Cynthia Nixon recently crystalized the sense of profound resignation overtaking the city’s most influential figures.
“The CVS on my corner has started locking up basic items like clothing detergent,” she recently observed. This was not a lament over the moribund state in which New York finds itself on the eve of the pandemic’s end, nor a reflection on the headaches endured by the business owners who continue to operate in it. It was an indictment of civilization’s commitment to applying the law evenly. “As so many families can’t make ends meet right now,” Nixon continued, “I can’t imagine thinking that the way to solve the problem of people stealing basic necessities out of desperation is to prosecute them.”
Though she likely thought she was expressing compassion, what this sentiment reveals is abject hopelessness. This city, which has time and again reinvented itself and endured through immeasurable hardship, is all but spent. The vitality that typified this metropolis throughout its existence is over now. It’s now time to divvy up the spoils—take what you can while you can before it’s all gone.
This is not Nixon’s sentiment alone. In the month of April, overall crime across New York City increased by 30 percent compared with the year prior. That hike was driven by a 66 percent rise in episodes of grand larceny, a 35 percent surge in episodes of felony assault, a 28 percent increase in robberies, and a 166 percent jump in the number of shootings. The issue of crime has overtaken the debate over who should take the reins after Mayor Bill de Blasio, a man who cannot help but project miserable fatalism about the future of the very city he leads. And it doesn’t feel as if that dynamic is going to change next year.
One of the few candidates who has expressed support for a renewed commitment to enforcing existing law, Andrew Yang, was subsequently excoriated by his opponents for “criminalizing poverty.” Some candidates have lamented the “tremendous financial cost” associated with arresting and processing lawbreakers in the city’s subway system, while others have insisted that the remedy to crime rates that spiked when the de Blasio administration pared back the NYPD’s funding and its remit is to hire more social-service workers “to create trauma-informed care in our schools.” Still more want to cut the city’s police budget further because police “don’t prevent crime” and “safety is not synonymous with police.”
Voters in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary have been tasked with selecting a candidate to best manage the city’s decline.
The city has endured periods of pessimism before, driven primarily by a pervasive sense among people with no attachment to it that its time had passed. And through it all, the city had endured. It endured through the 1930s, after a decade of grafting Tammany con men had wrung New York dry and New Dealers in Washington stripped it of revenue in the effort to create competing power centers around the country. It endured the 1970s. Bankrupt, destitute, riven by social violence and crime, and literally burning itself to the ground, the city was briefly denied a federal bailout and was compelled to reform its profligate ways and rediscover the community spirit effete urban planners had sought to crush. And it endured the 2000s, when the most spectacular terrorist attack in the country tore the heart out of the financial center and threatened to shatter confidence in the vertical architecture at the heart of its very identity.
Through it all, the city’s commitment to its own reinvention persisted. This impulse isn’t an unalloyed good. The appetites that led New York to transform itself from a trading hub quilled with finger piers into a manufacturing center peppered with small factories and, eventually, a financial powerhouse and cultural mecca are the same appetites that devoured old Penn Station and replaced it with catacomb that somehow signified progress. But today, we don’t discuss progress in terms that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the word’s dictionary definition. Progress is measured in vengeance; Vengeance against upscale neighborhoods that should be denied access to city services, the city’s “fair-weather friends” whose instinct toward self-preservation compelled them to leave, and those fortunate enough to make outsize contributions to the tax base that funds the city’s notorious licentiousness.
Today, New York City is staring down the barrel of another challenging decade. New families cannot afford to put down roots in the neighborhoods where they spent their young adult lives, and they’re getting out. Businesses are fleeing the city in droves. The disaggregating pressures of high taxes and the sudden feasibility of remote work have left behind a blight of unlet commercial and office space. This isn’t a crisis facing New York alone. It is a crisis endured by cities everywhere, forcing its custodians to confront a familiar question: Why should there be cities at all?
Dozens of articles and countless hours of discussion and debate have been dedicated to New York’s predicament, and the general sentiment among the city’s most influential officials is that entropy will save their hometown. “I’m not going to beg people to stay,” Mayor de Blasio said last year. “I know this city will rebound. I know it. And I know others will come. They have for generations.” But why did they come? Did they do so because of the city’s social safety net or the promise that they would be the beneficiaries of confiscatory wealth-redistribution schemes, or did they come here for the opportunities it provides?
If there is any discussion among the city’s elite around creating that opportunity, it is buried under a mountain of fashionable persecution complexes and dripping with the contemptible jargon familiar to identity-studies departments. They imagine the city must commit itself to “transformative” politics that reject the old normal because “normal wasn’t good enough.” But the city doesn’t need to be transformed into an engine for change—it was always that, and they don’t mean any of it anyway. What they mean is that the city cannot go back to being a place of opportunity for all anymore, in part, because they don’t believe it ever was. It was only ever a mechanism for producing inequality, want, and persecution. The task now is to mute the city’s dynamism and replace it with predictability to provide for those who cannot navigate its infinite complexities without the beneficence of an overweening government holding their hand.
This is not the language of restoration. It is the talk of the defeated and beaten down. The city doesn’t need to worry about the factors pushing potential newcomers away and forcing the upwardly mobile out. The city doesn’t need to attract new businesses or creatives. It can muddle along, applying palliative care to the remaining few for whom the promise of New York is just a pleasant memory. The heirs of New York City’s legacy don’t really believe the city can deliver for everyone anymore, so it is time to break it down for parts, distributing that which is valuable to their constituents and scrapping the rest. New York City cannot be saved, they tacitly admit; it can only be administered.
The city has proven its doubters wrong many times before, and it will again. But whereas those doubters once belonged to the far-off reaches of the country’s interior, they’re now in firm command of New York’s levers of power. Given that, recovery may be a long way off.