This past weekend I spent an hour exercising in an underground Harlem gym, where the work-out was accompanied by copious amounts of marijuana. Everything about the experience was illegal: the basement of the bustling restaurant where we worked our core as waiters ferried food orders. The pot – although technically legal in New York State – was being smoked in an unlicensed distribution site. What’s more, the marijuana itself was grown in the Pacific Northwest, technically illegal in New York State where all marijuana consumed must be grown, yes, in New York.
There’s a new sense of lawlessness coursing through New York City, and I’m not talking about the city’s well-documented crime spikes. I mean a return to rampant low-level vice that feels at once entirely out of control – yet inexplicably well-behaved – and thoroughly post-pandemic. From the city’s thousands of unlicensed pot dispensaries and the throngs of illegal vendors now crowding the Brooklyn Bridge, to my clandestine Uptown exercising and the dozens of Queens prostitutes now operating in broad daylight, New York’s newest tag-line might as well be “anything goes.”
But this new era of openness is not without consequence, particularly as the police prove ineffective at reigning in the illicitness. Nationwide confidence in law enforcement dropped to a new low last year, including in New York, where the local force has been battered by budget cuts, misconduct probes and accusations of bias. A series of particularly public violent crimes has only added to the city’s discord, as has a nearly 20 per cent rise in homeless numbers just this year alone. Add in the now constant smell of cannabis, flocks of deadly, unregulated electric delivery bikes – along with a 65 per cent decline in new police recruits and thousands of undocumented migrants – and the city is like the Wild West rendered in glass-and-steel. And most bafflingly of all, no one seems to care.
It’s a recipe for disaster – and early figures suggested catastrophe was at hand. Heavily fueled by 2019’s progressive-led bail-reforms, crime rose by double digits across New York in both 2020 and 2021. But something intriguing has begun to emerge: as laws are further flouted, violent crime numbers are actually declining city-wide. Indeed, shootings fell by 17 per cent in 2022 and so far in 2023, serious crimes such as murder, rape and burglary have decreased by double-digits across most of New York. The NYPD may be hemorrhaging officers while felons are increasingly permitted by prosecutors to walk free, but the city has yet to turn into the bloody free-for-all conjured in films such as The Purge.
Why not? For one thing, even as illegality explodes around us, the vast majority of New Yorkers remain particularly well-behaved. Crime hasn’t just declined: in most of New York, it’s back to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, when measured against the city’s historic highs during the 1980s and 1990s, this is still among the safest-ever eras to make New York City home.
Indeed, according to NYPD Compstat data, most of New York’s violent crime now occurs in just a few poor and minority communities – by just a few poor and minority criminals – far from Manhattan’s power centers. As DAs treat crime as just another public nuisance, for the moment at least, wealthy white New Yorkers are practically immune from its consequences, further fueling entitlement among those with the resources to enjoy it most.
Bad behavior was practically nonexistent at my cannabis workout on Saturday. Amid exposed concrete floors and blaring rap, everyone did what they were told – whether perfecting their plank, making way for waiters, or lighting up in approved smoking spots – with little fear of repercussion. Over on the Brooklyn Bridge, tourists happily pose with those rogue hawkers with minimal fuss or fanfare. While the Department of Transport says it’s working to formally ban illegal operators, few appear bothered by them except for the handful of licensed sellers who want their turf back.
A vast chasm is now growing between urban officials demanding increased enforcement and average citizens who just don’t give a damn. Battered by the pandemic, skyrocketing inflation and housing costs, safety fears and culture wars, New Yorkers have been lulled into a kind of care-free complacency in which the privileged are cocooned from everyday unpleasantries while the poor are too battered by them to fight back. There’s a sudden do-as-we-please attitude in town; a performative untouchability that’s resulted in a tolerance for petty scourges aided by lax law enforcement and almost unimaginable even five years ago. (New York is a city, after all, where it’s still illegal to drink beer on the street).
New York has always been a place of rules – and rule followers – but never more so than today. In a way, we have no other choice. The police are untrustworthy and ineffective, while local prosecutors are powerless to lock up criminals in the face of soft-on-crime progressive law-makers up in Albany. How soft? In 2021, for instance, nearly 70 per cent of criminal cases were dropped by the city’s court system. But the rules New Yorkers now follow appear highly selective and often self-generated. Somehow, everyone has found a way to indulge without fear of consequences.
But those consequences are actually everywhere, particularly as modest indulgences evolve into outright impunity. Pharmacies and convenience stores now barricade ice cream bars behind chains to combat the rampant shoplifting crisis that’s accompanied New York’s fentanyl crisis. Meanwhile, Fentanyl is now encroaching far beyond the city’s blighted fringes as everyone from toddlers to investment bankers succumb to its potency. In Union Square, a social media-inspired gathering erupted into a mass riot this past August. Also in Union Square: Illegal hawkers peddling pepper spray canisters for self-defense. Guess what? They’re illegal too; because bafflingly, you can’t sell pepper spray in New York City. New York’s unanticipated laxness may still appear tolerable – but the rising casualties and chaos suggest it’s ultimately unsustainable.
No matter the tax bracket, rising citizen disdain for police and politicians suggests that the mythical purge could actually be close at hand. But convincing New Yorkers to return to law and order will prove far harder now that laissez-faire legality has become the cultural norm. Post George Floyd, New York has little taste for the petty crime crackdowns that defined the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations. Now accustomed to doing what we want, where we want, when we want it, our standards for citizenship and civility have never felt more fluid.
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