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You think Washington Square Park is bad? Picture this:
It’s July 1, 2022, and Mayor Maya Wiley’s new budget diverts $1 billion from the NYPD to her brand-new Department of Equitable and Inclusive Revenue Allocation; Comptroller Brad Lander argues that’s not enough, make it $2 billion; Public Advocate Jumaane Williams says Lander is a piker, and Manhattan DA Tahanie Aboushi has just laid off half of her felony prosecutors and opened an Anti-Incarceration Bureau.
The horror movie’s title: “Apocalypse Not Quite Yet, But Soon.”
Primary day is one week away. Early voting started Saturday. Wiley, Lander and Aboushi are horrifyingly bad, but quite plausible, candidates (Williams is the incumbent public advocate). So Gotham is dancing on the edge, and the mini-dystopia that is Washington Square Park is the premier example of the stakes in this election.
In fact, the best that can be said of the park right now is that nobody was shot there this week. Of course, it’s only Tuesday. Hell, it’s only June, and at least 20 were shot citywide over the weekend, one fatally. What will happen when the weather really warms up?
Perhaps acting on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s doltish theory that the situation will resolve itself “naturally,” the NYPD sheepishly abandoned its one tepid effort to stem the landmark’s slide into degenerate chaos, a 10 p.m. weekend curfew. There was no announcement; perhaps Police Commissioner Dermot Shea was hoping nobody would notice the abdication, but if that was the plan, it didn’t work.
Too many people are paying attention. The drug dealers, the junkies and their enablers like things just the way they are. Petty criminals prosper. The post-COVID curious, coming off lockdown and maybe hoping to catch one of those bizarre pop-up prize fights the park is becoming infamous for, wander through. The boom boxes blare, the neighbors seethe — and it all resembles nothing if not the park that achieved infamy the last time New York City lost the will to protect its public spaces.
The Lower East Side’s Tompkins Square Park in the 1980s was a laboratory in social dysfunction. Plagued by crime, drugs, activist street politics and shameful official neglect, the park helped define a city experiencing failure on so many fronts.
And it was rescued — along with the city itself — by the turning-point mayoral election of 1993 and the low-tolerance-for-disorder policies that then emerged from City Hall.
Chief among them, of course, was so-called broken-windows policing, derided today as intrusive, discriminatory if not racist and, in any event, emblematic of an earlier, more repressive era.
The theory was simple enough: If the authorities pay sufficient attention to one missing pane — petty crime, public drug use, turnstile jumping, vagrant encampments and chaotic parks — the big things will take care of themselves. If not, all the windows get broken.
And it worked.
It took the de Blasio administration some time to abandon broken-windows policing. Shea’s disbanding of the NYPD’s anti-gun units a year ago was the capstone. But its disappearance has turned out to be the policy’s most dramatic vindication.
Now it’s gone, and suddenly, petty crime, public drug use, turnstile jumping, vagrant encampments and one big fat chaotic park are overwhelming the city. Plus, murder and gun crime are endemic.
It isn’t 1990 in Gotham these days, despite both the zeitgeist and de Blasio’s best efforts. And no Washington Square Park regular has killed and cooked his girlfriend and served the soup to the homeless, a Tompkins Square Park shocker in 1989.
But, hey, give it time. Give it an unhappy primary outcome next week.
There’s no negotiating with entropy. It’s either resisted, with vigor, self-respect and determination — or it wins.
But rarely is the price of surrender so metaphorically on display as it is each evening in Washington Square Park. Like all big cities, New York has its problems — housing, schools and pandemic recovery among them — but all pale before the deterioration of public order and the collapse of official will, now manifest in the park.
So how crazy is it that social order is once again even an issue? Very crazy. Just don’t think it can’t get worse.
Because that’s the issue this primary day.
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