What I Did on My Summer Vacation in Giuliani's New York
Revolutionary Worker #964, July 5, 1998
A reader sent in the following article he had come across in some travel magazine. It describes some interesting experiences on a trip to New York recently.
Visiting New York City is a rite of passage I'd put off for too many years. I've always wanted to experience the color and excitement of New York--but like other people I had heard so much about New York's crime and craziness.
Then, I started reading that New York was changing. Under Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, the city's bad areas are being cleaned up. Laws are being enforced and crime is reportedly down.
One day, I got my Sunday Parade magazine and there, on the cover, were the smiling faces of Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner. The headline said "Welcome to New York, A Quiet Place."
Clearly, it was time for me to finally visit the Big Apple!
I took the Amtrak train to New York's Penn Station. Though it was late Friday night, I was surprised that there were none of the homeless people I had heard about. No one seemed to be living there anymore. I wonder where they now sleep.
The station had a seating area--but you have to show a ticket to sit there. No unauthorized people allowed.
In the washroom were men who may have been homeless, surrounded by their bags and belongings, trying to wash up at the sinks. They kept looking over their shoulders nervously. I think they were avoiding the police patrolling the concourse.
I was struck by the music broadcast throughout Penn Station, some kind of classical music. And it was especially loud when I went into the restrooms. As I washed my hands I had a thought race through my mind. The death camps pumped classical music as Jews detrained at the concentration camp.
What an odd thought! I obviously needed to get some rest.
On street level I hailed a cab to my hotel. The driver zipped across 34th Street. Bad luck--he was pulled over by a cop who wrote him a speeding ticket for driving 40 mph. The cab driver, who said he came from Bangladesh, told me that nobody even knew New York had a 30 mph speed limit before the police started ticket writing "blitzes" on the busiest streets of Manhattan. Now the city has speed limit signs for the first time. The driver told me that this is part the Mayor's "civility" campaign. "We work in this sweatshop-on-wheels," he said, gesturing at his cab. "And now they want to declare war on us with all kinds of rules and insults." Then he laughed, "They make thousands of people get fingerprint checks for desk appearance tickets these days, so I guess I'm lucky I'm not waiting overnight in jail right now."
The driver mentioned that bike riders were getting stopped all the time too. Especially the immigrant bikers who deliver food from restaurants. He said he saw dozens of food delivery bikers being loaded into a police van on the Upper West Side--while the bikes were loaded into a truck. Apparently they were breaking some traffic laws--perhaps driving on sidewalks, or not wearing helmets.
I decided against ordering takeout when I got to the hotel.
The Sights of New York
The next morning I was up bright and early, to take in the sights. New York is a city full of wonderful ethnic neighborhoods. So I looked into all the literature I had gotten to see about ethnic festivals. One flyer describing the Chinese community events carried a large warning: "Attention: New York City Police now strictly enforce laws against firecrackers." Strange, I thought, aren't firecrackers a Chinese tradition going back thousands of years? Well, it's the wrong month for their New Year's anyway.
I asked a maid in the hallway about other festivals, and she mentioned I had just missed Puerto Rican Day. I was disappointed, but joked, "Well, I guess the ban on firecrackers didn't hurt that march too much." She gave me a look, and said, "Giuliani banned hot dog vendors from the Puerto Rican Day parade and starting in July vendors are banned from 144 blocks of the city."
Maybe street festivals aren't the thing to visit in New York these days. How about the Empire State Building!?
I headed down Fifth Avenue to the famous landmark, bought tickets for the top and headed for the elevators. And I ran straight into guards herding people toward a checkpoint. Everyone wanting to see the view of New York now has to be scanned by a metal detector. All bags are x-rayed and the suspicious stuff is searched.
I finally made it to the top, the view was spectacular. After taking sufficient pictures, I headed back down.
Out on the street I was looking for a curbside snack--a famous New York potato knish. But suddenly I ran into a plain-clothes officer writing a vendor a ticket and dumping his merchandise into a green garbage bag. The vendor was yelling, "It's all I have, what am I gonna do now? Where are people gonna get cheap food here in midtown?" I walked on by.
"Gee," I thought, "Security sure is tight." Suddenly I got a great idea. Let's head for Greenwich Village--home of poets, beats, hippies and folk singers. A few hours among the free spirits would lift my mood. Next stop: Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village.
In the Village
Since I was in high school, I'd heard about how all kinds of people go to Washington Square to watch, perform and just hang out. I'd heard about the standup comics, mimes, and even people smoking pot in the open!
I have to admit, I was kinda tingly as I passed through the famous Washington Square Arch. In my hometown, you don't see too many nose rings, and no one just sets up drums on the street and passes the hat for money.
I entered the park just in time to see a man doing some masterly juggling with lit torches--impressive stuff. While I was watching his act I suddenly noticed there were clumps of cops here and there, moving in and around the people. On the south side of the park I noticed a Winnebago-size police van with "COMMAND POST" stenciled on the side.
I wondered, why all these cops? Is this some kind of dangerous neighborhood? I checked my handy Fodor's tour guide. It said, "By the early 1980s, Washington Square had deteriorated into a tawdry place only a drug dealer could love. Then community activism motivated a police crackdown that sent the drug traffic elsewhere and made Washington Square comfortable again."
But somehow the scene was not making me comfortable. I found myself wandering around trying to find the police cameras I had read about. Then I noticed a glass-ball mounted on top of a lamp post. I moved away and immediately felt more comfortable.
There was a guy nearby with artwork spread all over a blanket. I asked him if that really was a police camera. He gave me that New York look (like I'm an idiot) and said: "The city surveillance technicians openly tell people, `If you can see the Empire State Building, then we can see you.' They started in the housing project first--then major intersections--now they've got their spy cameras all thru the city. I live in Grant Homes in Harlem with 38 cameras. Now they've got cop cars with mobile video cameras cruising Queens and Brooklyn." A woman standing next to us chimed in, "That's not all, now there are microphones at City College listening in at the meetings of student organizations."
Suddenly the park felt uncomfortable again. It was starting to get dark, so I headed for the brightly lit nearby streets of famous nightclubs and coffee houses. People were walking around in groups, laughing, eating pizza. Suddenly I passed by policemen setting up barricades across a street. I couldn't resist asking if this was a manhunt for some dangerous criminal.
The officer told me that police checkpoints were now a regular thing in the Village. The area attracts people who cruise the streets, he said, sometimes violating "quality of life" laws by playing loud music. Police checkpoints create an atmosphere of respect for the law. If the music's too loud in a car, they confiscate it (not the music, the car).
I didn't sleep too well that night, but woke ready to give the city another try.
Cross on the Green, Not in Between
First stop: the famous Rockefeller Center, jewel of Midtown and home of David Letterman's show.
On my map, it looked like an easy walk to get to 50th Street and 5th Ave. But there were metal barricades at every intersection. I kept crossing the street to get around them. As I stepped into the street a man next to me whispered, "They might get you for that." I guess I just looked at him, startled. He went on, "Don't step off the curb if there is a cop nearby. The Mayor has ordered them to ticket anyone they see jaywalking."
When I got to 5th Avenue there were permanent wrought iron barricades at each corner, with cops leaning against them. One of the cops told me the mayor had put in the barricades in January.
Barricades, I was beginning to understand, are real popular in New York. The cop agreed. He said that in Washington Heights and other "high crime" neighborhoods the police are barricading whole residential blocks to control drug traffic. Now you need to show ID to walk down the street. If you don't live on that block, no dice.
He explained that this had driven the drug dealers indoors, so that police now have to raid apartments based on anonymous tips.
I mentioned to him that I had read an article in the New York Times about how innocent people are getting raided. Columnist Bob Herbert described how the police broke down the door of an apartment in Crown Heights, threw in a stun grenade, and then rushed in to handcuff the family living there. The woman was terrified that her retarded daughter might respond suddenly to the cops. And so she was screaming "Don't shoot! She's mentally retarded!" There weren't any drugs in the apartment.
This police officer explained to me that such mistakes are inevitable. And that Police Commissioner Howard Safir has announced that New York police will now replace any doors they destroy in the course of mistaken raids. I wonder if people find that promise comforting.
I was walking crosstown on 49th Street and noticed a big sign saying, "The No York Museum." It was near Madison Avenue.
Inside, somebody really took issue with New York's mayor. Under his portrait they had written "Jailiani." Another showed the Mayor saying "Arrest Everyone!" Another said "Giuliani = Police State."
I asked what this was about. Apparently an artist, Robert Lederman, had been arrested 33 times--because the city government says that artists must have a permit to sell art outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Only a limited number of permits are issued, and it is illegal for the rest of the artists to sell anything. And so the city's "no tolerance" policy has meant arresting the artists in front of the Met and confiscating their art.
A building manager at 49th and Madison was angry at Giuliani's barricades, so he opened his lobby to Lederman to display his protest posters.
Apparently artists and building managers aren't the only ones who don't like the "Quality of Life." Taxi cab drivers say that in South Asia they have a tradition of slapping portraits of dictators. And so they bring these posters of Giuliani to all their marches. Street vendors also seem to like these posters.
What was this "Quality of Life"? I walked over to 40th Street and Fifth Avenue for a little research at the New York Public Library. The librarian directed me to a computer terminal and told me how to get to the Mayor's website. The Mayor had come to power in New York promising to restore the "Quality of Life"--by enforcing laws and pushing the homeless people, and especially the "squeegee men," out of public spaces.
I found a copy of his speech, "The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil City." Giuliani says "Quality of Life is a process, not a destination. It's a way of living, not a goal." I'm not sure I understood that fully.
But walking out I caught the headlines of the New York Post: "Cop Shoots Squeegee Man." I read the article. A 38-year-old Black man, Antoine Reid, had stepped up to a car and put soap on the window--hoping to earn some money from a quick window washing with a squeegee. An off-duty New York police officer, Michael Meyer, stepped out of the car and shot Reid point blank in the chest. Reid survived the attack. The Daily News article seemed to be supporting the policeman's action. Apparently shooting homeless people is supposed to improve the quality of life for the rest of us.
Enough reality for one day. I decided to relax at a movie--Godzilla.
Afterwards I tossed and turned in my sleep. I dreamed I was sitting in the $15 million command bunker that Mayor Giuliani is building for city-wide crisis. I was watching the city's parks and street corners on huge monitors. Standing next to me was Mayor Giuliani himself--tight thin lips pursed as he watched for lawbreakers. And on the wall, where the city's coat of arms would be, was a giant toilet plunger, gilded with Latin inscriptions.
Suddenly the monitors showed nothing but green scales....and then a huge eye. The lizard was visible from the sky-cams, holding a police car in each hand. There were crowds....and they were cheering the lizard. And then, in this dream, an artist appeared on the screen, surrounded by the cheering crowd, with a sign saying "It's Godzilla Time." Next to me, the Mayor went ballistic, screaming and calling for police on two or three phones at once. "Arrest that guy! Arrest that guy with the sign!" he screamed.
I woke up in a sweat, with the dream still fresh in my mind. A MONSTER was loose in New York City.
I decided to go to the beach for my last day in New York. As I climbed on the subway for Coney Island, I couldn't help wonder why three of this summer's blockbuster movies entertain people by showing the outbreak of chaos and massive destruction in New York City.
A Day at the Beach
Coney Island is in Brooklyn, and it is on the largest stretch of beach in New York City that people can reach without a car.
On the subway I was surrounded by posters telling me not to give money to the homeless and others recruiting informants for various police programs. All around me were excited families on their way to the beach. Some were clearly recent immigrants--from Russia, the West Indies, just about anywhere you could imagine. Everyone hoping to have a good day.
We got to the last stop and trudged off for the famous Coney Island boardwalk. Communities along New York's ocean front have become like towns in Russia--and are known by names like Little Odessa. As we got nearer the water, we all noticed that a huge section of the beach was shut off by snow-fencing. In fact, most of the beach was shut off. Big signs said "No Swimming." The only stretches of beach with lifeguards were in front of the condos of Seacoast Towers.
I noticed large crews of people picking up trash. As one young Black woman came by, I asked her why the beach was closed. She stopped working for a moment, and explained that the city had not hired enough lifeguards this year.
That didn't make sense to me. Why then did the city hire all these crews of park workers to clean the beach? She gave me that New York look, and in a barely tolerant voice explained that she was not a park worker.
Really? No, she said, she used to be a student at the city colleges, studying to be a teacher. Was this then a summer job for her?
Again she gave me that look. No, she said, the welfare department now made her work for her babies' checks. No daycare means no real job. And welfare now meant she had to quit school to do this slave labor thing for the city. "No more school for me." It sounded so final, and so unfair.
Why force a young woman to drop out of school--and thousands like her--and force them to do meaningless jobs with no future or hope of training?
I asked her, "Can you support your kids on these wages?" And she gave me that look, a third time: "I don't make any wages on this job. 20,000 park workers got replaced--we do their jobs below minimum wage, without wages or even gloves."
Police buzzed by in an all-terrain vehicle chasing down a teenager who had snuck past snow fences and gone body-surfing. They dragged him away.
I thought to myself, no relief on this beach. As I rode the subway back through Brooklyn I suddenly felt I'd seen enough of New York City. I would go back to my hotel, gather my things and head home.
There must be better places than this to visit. Maybe next year I'll go out to San Francisco. I understand there's a wonderful tour of Alcatraz Island...
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)