Things don’t have to be rotten
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.