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Unmugged by Reality

Christopher Caldwell, nostalgic for nasty New York.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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A friend told me at dinner over New Year’s break that people had started walking at night in New York’s Central Park again. In the year just ended, the New York Times reports, there was about one robbery in the park every three weeks. Back in the 1980s, when I started visiting, there were two a night. I can more easily imagine Wrigley Field in July without baseball than Central Park after dark without random violence.

Drawing of a girl running through Central Park

DAVID GOTHARD

In the wake of power
outages in 1977, Lord of the Flies-style looting spread across the city. Longtime residents—the kind of people who could remember strolling at midnight with their sweethearts by the Central Park Reservoir shortly after arriving from the Midwest in 1946—asked what this world was coming to. But by the time I got to college, not so many years later, it was taken for granted that the place was a garrison city. New York became one of those places like, say, Beirut or Belfast, where you could die of crossing the wrong street. Central Park was even more dangerous than that. 

The summer after my sophomore year, I sublet a one-bedroom apartment for $235 a month in the far East Village, about a block or so east of McSorley’s alehouse. Auden used to live in the neighborhood, or maybe he just drank in it. At the time, the distinction between those two verbs—“to drink” and “to live”—had a way of eluding me. The area had always (and I use the word always in its American sense, to mean “for the past few years”) been a neighborhood of East European Jews. There were enough of them left to support the superb Kiev delicatessen, the first place I ever had borscht, but not enough to hold the neighborhood against an influx of winos and heroin addicts. One particularly hopeless case lay every night on the front steps of my apartment building. Late-night walks home after dark were heart-pounding-in-your-ribcage affairs of darting across streets to avoid gangs of dangerous-looking kids. I spent very little time in that apartment because two friends had their own sublet above the Broome Street Bar on West Broadway, and I was welcome on their sofa. After a party that went till after midnight (and somehow, when you’re 21, there is always a party that goes till after midnight), the six-block walk home seemed an unnecessary risk. But it would have been considered nothing compared with the foolishness of walking through Central Park.

In the two weeks it took me to find that downtown apartment, I had lived in a vacated room in John Jay Hall at Columbia. I remember getting off the B train around midnight one night and walking the wrong way (that would be east) down 117th Street, sure that the campus must be just at the end of the next block. I walked past avenues I’d never heard of, although I’d heard of the civil-rights leaders they were named after, and the first moment I realized that I was severely lost came when I saw a sign for Fifth Avenue—I had crossed the whole of Harlem alone in the middle of the night. Maybe today this passes for a romantic stroll. Back then it passed for extremely stupid. The only thing stupider would have been to turn around and walk back the way I’d come, which I promptly did, too. When I mentioned it over drinks to my native-New Yorker friends the next night as a “funny thing” that had happened to me, nobody saw anything the slightest bit funny in it. It was as if I had mentioned a newfound enthusiasm for dogfighting or crystal meth or Russian roulette.

New York is no longer that kind of place. You can jog across Central Park after work, even if work ends at 8 o’clock at night. The sex trade has been chased so far from Times Square that there’s even a Toys“R”Us there. The violence and filth that stood between New Yorkers and their city’s cultural amenities—its vast publishing industry, its dozens of thriving little magazines, its cafés that were the only place in the country to get espresso—have been eradicated. But there’s the catch. What happened to those cultural amenities? Today espresso is available in prettier cities with lower taxes. The governor of Alaska can get a copy of the Divine Comedy delivered to her Kindle more quickly than a New Yorker can walk downstairs and buy one at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble. The question of how to live in New York has been replaced by the more troubling question of why.

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