The Sea-Green Incorruptible

by

08/22/2005

E 50th St & 5th Ave, New York, NY 10022

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

[Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood is proud to share the following, a chapter of a new book from Soft Skull Press called “America’s Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani’s New York” edited by Robert Polner and with a preface by Jimmy Breslin. The book is an anthology that includes reminiscences and critical dissections of the Giuliani Administration by a variety of writers, including this essay by Luc Sante.]

You really couldn’t hope to find a better illustration of Rudolph Giuliani’s terms as mayor of New York City than his stance on jaywalking. The practice of crossing the street against traffic or when the light is red or in the middle of the block is probably the single most common form of law-breaking, especially now that littering has become deeply unfashionable, and spitting on the sidewalk has virtually disappeared. Laws prohibiting jaywalking are universally understood to symbolize a city’s parental stance toward its infantile citizens; in cities around the world they are primarily a cheap and easy way for a beat cop to meet his daily ticket quota. New York City, however, might as well be the capital of jaywalking-it could call itself the City of Jaywalkers. It is the inverse of those German cities in which travelers are astonished to find crowds of pedestrians waiting placidly for the light to change even when there is no traffic to be seen for miles in either direction. Jaywalking is a New Yorker’s birthright, a minor but indispensable sign of his or her independence and self-sufficiency. New Yorkers can cross anywhere at any time if they need to, and if they get themselves creamed, they accept that it will be their own damn fault. It is their city, after all, not one lent to them on a merit basis by cops or bureaucrats.

The fact that Giuliani chose to have his police officers aggressively enforce the anti-jaywalking statutes was a flung gauntlet, a proclamation that he intended to remake the city in his own image for his own pleasure. Unlike most mayors, he would not be adapting himself to better serve his city, but would be adapting the city for it to serve him. Not being one for half-measures, he then raised the ante far beyond anyone’s speculations by declaring certain formerly legal street-crossings off-limits-installing fences on Midtown corners to prevent any pedestrian traffic at those points, so as not to impede the flow of motor vehicles on the major arteries. Favoring cars over people flew in the face of most current urbanist thinking, went directly against the trend of cities, such as London and Amsterdam, that had been doing their best to reduce vehicular traffic in their centers-but Giuliani’s actions had far less to do with traffic control than with behavior modification. He was determined to rule over an obedient citizenry. He would effect a personality change in New Yorkers by forcing them to adhere to whimsical and arbitrary mandates.

The enforcement of the statutes on jaywalking was perhaps thinly justified by the “broken windows” theory, a voguish neoliberal construct that held that the number of minor infractions observed in a district-graffiti, panhandlers, subway-fare evasions-was proportional to the amount of significant crimes, of murders, rapes, and felonious assaults. You might as well say that the number of dust bunnies observed under furniture was somehow predictive of the chances that the house would burn down, but it was hardly coincidental that most such “lifestyle crimes”-jaywalking was a notable exception-were largely limited to, and taken for granted by, the poor. In previous decades there had been rashes of enforcement of particular infractions, notably graffiti, which was the focus of a virulent media campaign that just happened to coincide with its flowering as an art form, but most such torts had traditionally been engrained in city life. Begging, for example, went back to the prehistory of cities, and even conservative regimes had long been inclined to view it as an occasion for demonstrative charity, if not as a reproach to materialist self-satisfaction. Unlicensed sidewalk vending of secondhand goods had flourished in the poorer neighborhoods of New York more or less forever, but under the mayoral administration of Ed Koch the police had begun to harass vendors on the pretext that their goods might have been stolen property. Under Giuliani, the enforcement of such petty laws became draconian and unavoidable, and the number of targetable infractions swelled dramatically. Out-of-towners who desired a quick nutshell view of the city’s tone in those years would be taken to the Criminal Courts Building on Monday morning, to observe the endless line of otherwise blameless citizens who had been given a bench-appearance ticket over the weekend for drinking beer-concealed by paper bags-on the sidewalk.

New York City was hardly alone in its attempts to erase these aspects of its fabric that journalists tended to characterize with the adjective “gritty.” It was the era when gentrification went into overdrive, and hardly any urban neighborhood, no matter how ill-constructed and godforsaken, was safe from the incursion of smart boutiques and chic restaurants-businesses that were only affordable for the well-to-do. New York’s transformation differed in the pedantic obsessiveness with which laws were combed to find a basis for extirpating all manifestations of street life, and the harshly punitive way in which those sweeps were carried out. Those items carried Giuliani’s signature. He had first made his name as a prosecutor whose ruthless zeal for conviction suggested some throwback hybrid of Thomas E. Dewey and J. Edgar Hoover. It may have been the late author and columnist Murray Kempton who applied to him Carlyle’s characterization of Robespierre: “a sea-green incorruptible.” He set the tone of his mayoral administration very early, with a speech given at a forum on city crime in which he asserted that “Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.” That speech struck me as uncomfortably reminiscent of some statements that had been made sixty-odd years earlier. For example, “State and individual are identical, and the art of government is the art of so reconciling and uniting the two terms that a maximum of liberty harmonizes with a maximum of public order. . . . For the maximum liberty always coincides with the maximum force of the state.” Those words were written by Giovanni Gentile, the official philosopher of Fascism under Mussolini. Few made the connection in print, just as only a few publicly noted the then-mayor’s philosophical debt to Girolamo Savonarola, the scold of fifteenth-century Florence, because of an unwillingness to appear in thrall to an ethnic stereotype. Giuliani was tireless. He bullied, hectored, and sought to marginalize anyone who dared oppose him. No sooner had one battle been joined than he opened another front, so that he could ensure the dispersal of outrage. The mayoral podium seemed to be erected in five or six places per day for the benefit of the evening news, and it became exhausting trying to take in all his various but singularly pointed performances. He would be refusing to apologize for the unjustifiable murder of a black man by the police over here, then attempting to abrogate freedom of expression over there, then arguing for tax exemptions for the very rich somewhere else. He long succeeded in outshouting and outrunning the opposition, and coasted in popular esteem on the pretense that he single-handedly lowered the crime rate.

By 2001, however, his public image was somewhat battered, the greatest harm having come to it from his long-running divorce battle rather than from any graver matter. Just when it looked as though he might have lost the support of the city and would be forced to slink from office at the close of his term, he was delivered by a deus ex machina: 9/11. He played the part of embattled leader well-the enormity at hand being sufficient to make his choleric personality seem reasonable by contrast. No one had ever suggested that Giuliani was unintelligent or ill-prepared, and he demonstrated his competence quite conspicuously, even allowing a reporter to witness him consulting a biography of Winston Churchill. In the end, however, a letter to the Village Voice, published later that September, summarized matters rather tersely. Giuliani is forever being credited (I am quoting from memory) with “rising to the occasion,” the writer noted, but the truth is that the horror of 9/11 has dragged the city down to his level.

Giuliani is in an excellent position at present. His consulting firm is hired by cities around the world that seek hints on how to make their intransigent underclasses and surviving dissident fringes disappear from sight. He is favored by the Republican Party as an aggressive speaker and militant presence who has had combat experience; as an operative who might have retained credibility in the traditionally liberal urban enclaves as a man who has gay friends and has been known to read a book. Meanwhile, he has left a New York City that has had much of its identity bled from it. It is a city of chain franchises and million-dollar hovels, of minimized public services and sweetheart tax deals, of a corporate Times Square and a whitened Harlem. There is less discourse and exchange across class lines than there has ever been, and whatever life and vigor and color the city retains has a great deal to do with Giuliani’s inability to entirely vacate the rent-stabilization laws. The city he has left might in a generation or two be interchangeable with Phoenix or Atlanta, but for some geographic quirks. It should be noted, however, that the trains have already ceased to run on time.

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