Tuesday, May 18, 2010

David Brooks Swings and Misses Again

In what might have been a terrific column yesterday about how New York groped its way back from the chaos of the 1960s, 70s and 80s that engulfed us, David Brooks relies on the simplisticism of John Podhoretz, the unerringly inaccurate neo-con, to launch an attack on everything and everyone from hippies to minorities.

Simultaneously, Brooks sanctifies in a backhanded way the old middle class who abandoned New York primarily for racist reasons after World War II while bemoaning the fact that slum clearance, the wholesale destruction of some of the most beautiful housing stock in the city, and the building of housing projects failed to stem the deterioration of conditions.

Babbling Brooks says, among other things, "The crime wave killed off the hippie movement. The hippies celebrated disorder, mayhem and the whole Dionysian personal agenda. By the 1970s, the menacing results of that agenda were all around."

In reality, judging simply by the calendar, the rising crime rate could not have been a result of "hippies," (whoever they were,) since the entrenchment of dangerous conditions began in the mid-1960s when the Baby Boom had not even emerged from adolescence.

Rather the vertiginous decline in manufacturing jobs in New York above all else contributed to the dwindling of employment opportunities for undereducated inner city youth. Secondly, the traditional gate for immigrant and emigrant success - civil service - remained slammed, locked and bolted in the collective face of minorities.

White flight initiated and exacerbated the situation. Cheap suburban housing and the construction of outer-borough projects like Co-Op City sucked the heart and soul of old Jewish and Italian New York away. (The Irish had been decamping since right after the war.)

If any group celebrated disorder and mayhem, it was the nihilistic, right wing and pro-war "Greatest Generation" that blundered into and stubbornly stayed in Vietnam; who saw any sign of protest as reason to act repressively; and whose self-medication through excessive alcohol use was transmogrified into drug experimentation and addiction in the 1950s and forward. 

Further, the failed redevelopment projects, from warehousing the poor in what amounted to the permanent cell blocks of housing projects to the destruction of entire neighborhoods by superhighways championed by Robert Moses such as the Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways, created more havoc than any thousand things hippies ever might have done. (170,000 to 200,000 middle class people were displaced and relocated by those two roads alone.)

Atop of all that, beginning with the tail end of the Wagner administration into the two Lindsay administrations, roughly 1962 to 1970, the city entered a financial tailspin that the helmsmen were unable to stop. Hippies, as one might imagine, had very little to do with this. Inefficiency and corruption in practically every city undertaking had everything to do with it.

Eventually this led to a hiring freeze of public employees, including police and fire fighters, from 1976 to 1980. Neither department recovered to adequate levels until well into the 1990s. As the city recovered financially, policing improved dramatically.

Meanwhile, all those raving hippies turned 30, then 40, then 50 as the city recovered. Manhattan in particular experienced a reversal of white flight, although the city would become an almost indescribably diverse town. The "aging" hippies bought co-ops, had children, helped to better schools, and to demand better services - especially clean streets and public safety.

The liberal spirit of the former youth of the 60s welcomed and encouraged an enormous wave of new immigrants. So much for disorder and mayhem.

This cycle played out in many Manhattan neighborhoods, but especially the Upper West Side, which, along with the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Chelsea, had deteriorated most from white flight. By the 1970s, the Upper West had already seen the gentrification of a swath from the West 70s to lower 80s. (My brother, born in 1946, was among the pioneers on 74th between Columbus and Amsterdam, a neighborhood my mother literally cried over when she saw where he was going to live.)

By 1987, the change had pushed approximately to West 98th where it curiously stopped to take a breath then leaped a dozen blocks to Morningside, the neighborhood around Columbia University, from 110th north.

Why did it skip the intervening blocks? An unimaginably large housing project, the Frederick Douglass Houses, squats between 100th and 104th Streets, stretching from Amsterdam Avenue across Columbus to Manhattan Avenue. It incarcerates thousands upon thousands of people and has helped keep poverty and crime in the immediately surrounding area high, although that has changed, too.

Today the phantom hippies are of grand-parenting age. The Upper West Side is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan, and even though a depressing portion of it was destroyed by urban redevelopment, its architectural charms, park-like atmosphere, and overall ambiance are readily evident on a short stroll through its side streets.

Mr. Brooks' and Mr. Podhoretz's city view could not be any more false and corrupt. The hippies couldn't have brought down the West Side. At best, they were very young adults when the malaise began and most of us were no more than college students who, until 1971, couldn't even vote, thank you. (A person born in 1948, for instance, was only 21 in 1969.)

By moving back into Manhattan, the so-called hippies heartily began countervailing, as they did in so many respects, the destructive impulses of their parents toward the urban centers of America. I'm not sure what Brooks thinks we were doing en masse, but I can tell him that by 1973, when I was 23, I was married, working two jobs, saving for a co-op, and going to museums and concerts in my spare time, even though I was and am a hippie to the marrow. I cannot think of literally one of my friends for whom this was not also the case.

As my own college-age daughter said once regarding our Upper West Side home: "I can't imagine how growing up anyplace else could be as good."

Thanks, honey. We did it for you and your compatriots. And we invited people from every country on Earth to lend a hand.

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