Things don’t have to be rot­ten

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Glenn Reynolds — Cour­tesy: USA Today

LOOK­ING around the world, things some­times seem pretty bad: Chaos in the Mideast, refugees over­whelm­ing Europe, po­lit­i­cal prob­lems and ter­ror­ism at home. If you fol­low the news a lot — and I do, be­cause I pretty much have to — things can seem aw­fully de­press­ing. But in or­di­nary daily life, things of­ten aren’t that bad. Some­times they’re even, dare I say it, pretty good. And there’s a les­son in that.

I had this ex­pe­ri­ence last week when I spent some time in New York City on busi­ness. My wife and I both lived in NYC back in the era be­fore Rudy Gi­u­liani cleaned up the streets, and it was pretty ugly. It was years af­ter the movie Taxi Driver, but had very much the same feel: Crime was ram­pant. Streets and sub­ways were dirty and de­cay­ing. Most ev­ery­one you met when you were out and about was rude and un­happy.

Now I barely recog­nise New York. I re­mem­ber be­ing there on a book tour in 1997 and think­ing that it had turned into “Dis­ney New York,” and that things were amaz­ingly clean, shiny, and pleas­ant. Since then, that im­pres­sion has only grown. We walked through parts of the city that were no-go zones when we lived there, but that are now bustling and vi­brant and safe. (The ten­e­ment in “Al­pha­bet City” where she lived in the 1980s is now pricey con­dos; so is an­other dump she lived in later, and the first floor of the build­ing is a fancy bak­ery with free wifi.)

Most strik­ingly, we had cheer­ful con­ver­sa­tions with strangers on the street about their dog’s back surgery, the trou­ble with LaGuardia Air­port, and the es­pe­cially fine weather we en­joyed that week­end. “Peo­ple are so friendly, it’s like be­ing in the Mid­west,” my wife ex­claimed. Well, maybe not quite — but cer­tainly it seemed that way com­pared to 20+ years ago. We even stopped at a food truck and when my wife couldn’t find the Diet Peach Snap­ple she wanted, the guy got out and cheer­fully dug one from un­der the ice for us. “That’s my job!” he re­marked, when we thanked him.

So why is it bet­ter? A lot has to do with safety. In the old days, New York was a dan­ger­ous place, and that sense that no one was safe led to a gen­er­alised sus­pi­cion and ag­gres­sive­ness. Now, in the post-Gi­u­liani era, it’s much safer. A few years ago, one of my friends from NYC was tak­ing his kids to Paris and found him­self warn­ing them to pay at­ten­tion to their sur­round­ings and be on their guard: Re­mem­ber, you’re not in New York City any­more! He laughed at him­self when he re­alised what he was say­ing, but it was true: New York in re­cent years has been un­usu­ally safe for a big city, and when you feel safer, you’re gen­er­ally in a bet­ter mood.

At any rate, there’s a les­son here. In the era of such movies as Death Wish, Taxi Driver, and Es­cape From New York, it looked as if New York City was doomed: An abyss of crime, poverty and degra­da­tion from which the most one could hope was to, well, es­cape. But, in­stead, things got bet­ter. Now, look­ing at the head­lines, it’s Amer­ica that seems doomed, with nowhere to go but, well, down. But as de­press­ing as the news can be – which is to say, pretty darned de­press­ing – there’s al­ways room for things to change for the bet­ter.

New York got bet­ter be­cause its cit­i­zens got tired of its prob­lems and wanted a change. They were will­ing to sup­port peo­ple who might make that change hap­pen. If Amer­ica’s cit­i­zens feel the same way, there’s plenty of room for im­prove­ment. Let’s hope we see it. The writer is a Univer­sity of Ten­nessee law pro­fes­sor and the au­thor of The New School: How the In­for­ma­tion Age Will Save Amer­i­can Ed­u­ca­tion from It­self.

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