Wednesday, October 05, 2005

# Posted 11:15 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG'S NEW JACK CITY: This morning, I read an article in the Times that began as follows:
New York City's police force has fewer officers, less money and more work than it did four years ago. Yet, by almost any measure, the city is safer today than it was before Michael R. Bloomberg became mayor in January 2002.

If that sounds like grist for a campaign commercial, it is. Public safety has emerged as Mr. Bloomberg's not-so-secret weapon as he goes about pressing his case for re-election.
This afternoon, I watched New Jack City, a film best described as Scarface set in Harlem, starring Wesley Snipes instead of Al Pacino. Although mostly a primitive shoot-'em-up, New Jack City (NJC, for short) also has pretensions of serving as a commentary on Reaganomics' responsibility for the urban crime wave of the 1980s.

The strange thing about watching NJC in hindsight is trying to empathize with the pervasive fear of drugs and street crime that once made living in New York so emotionally draining. Even as a child at the time -- or perhaps precisely because I was a child at the time -- I had a very sharp perception of my middle-class, family-centered way of life being under siege.

And most disturbing thing of all was the knowledge that the situation could never get better, only worse. There had once been a golden age for New York City, but I knew that it never would return. (By the same token, sophisticated intellectuals in the 1980s believed that America's golden age was dead and gone, never to return. See Kennedy, Paul.)

Now I certainly don't give Giuliani or Bloomberg all of the credit for stamping out crime in New York. But my point here isn't about who deserves credit. It is about the changed mindset made possible by a safer New York.

According to this morning's Times, crime is down 20% since 2001, with murders down from 714 in Giuliani's last year to 572 in 2004. But what has happened in New York over the past decade and a half transcends statistics. It is about living in a city which you are proud of, in which one feels that public spaces truly belong to the public and not to the threat of criminal violence.

The crime wave of the 1980s gave rise to an entire genre of black, urban crime stories: New Jack City (1991), Colors (1988), Juice (1992), Boyz N The Hood (1991), Menace II Society (1993). Although, unlike NJC, some of those films were excellent, I think that they were all made possible by a cultural moment in which Americans felt that they were losing control of the cities they lived in.

Of course, gangsta culture hasn't disappeared. It continues to inspire an unending array of million-selling albums purchased by kids in the suburbs. But the success of these albums doesn't depend on their threatening the listener, the way the films mentioned above threatened their audience. In this sense, gangsta culture has become more tame, even as it glorifies the mindless self-destruction of young black Americans.
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