Manhattan on the Rocks; Moderate Black Leaders Could Save New York from the Sharptons and the Brawleys

By Alter, Jonathan | The Washington Monthly, November 1990 | Go to article overview

Manhattan on the Rocks; Moderate Black Leaders Could Save New York from the Sharptons and the Brawleys


Alter, Jonathan, The Washington Monthly


MANHATTAN ON THE ROCKS

A New York story:

Our building superintendent tells us there was another murder in the neighborhood. Over on 108th St., a 23-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic was rubbed out in a drug deal. The next day brings the murder of a Utah tourist trying to help his mother in the subway. Like millions of other New Yorkers, my wife throws up her hands. That's it. We're outta here.

Then, as if we were previewing some warped new civic ad campaign, the other New York springs to life. We return from a Saturday evening out to find our tree-lined street bathed in the loudest music imaginable. But this time it's not the usual salsa beat. In fact, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who normally keep the neighbors up are shaking their fists and muttering oaths. Like something from heaven or a movie set, glorious Vivaldi is pouring forth from a sixth floor window. Loud. A barechested teenager previously seen in possession of a boom box summons the cops, who arrive after the music has stopped. It came from up there by that air conditioner, the youth plaintively tells the police. They laugh in his face.

This is what constitutes "good" story in New York, 1990. It's not about skating in Central Park or finding the perfect new restaurant. The theme is survival and hanging onto a few shreds of dignity in a Hobbesian world--plus a little revenge on the punks who make life so fearful. When the PBS-Lincoln Center-Vivaldi crowd starts thinking like the queens working class it once snubbed, something fundamental has changed. But even the satisfaction of outrage are waning. In his engrossing and important book, (*1) Jim Sleeper argues that the classic New York resentment featured in popular culture has evaporated in a pool of weary cynicism: "From Ralph Kramden, the garrulous but decent 'big mouth,' and Archie Bunker, a quiver of barbed retorts against shrinking horizons, we have come down to a world of resignation spoken anonymously in the street:

'Fuggedaboutit.'"

What's extraordinary about Sleeper's book, though, is that I put it down feeling more optimistic about the city. Part of the reason is that he identifies inspiring examples of virtue amid the rubble. But another part is a result of who Sleeper is and what he has done. The tendency nowadays is to say that anyone who attacks affirmative action and vigorously points out where blacks have hurt themselves must, by definition, be a conservative or neoconservative. But Sleeper is not only a former liberal activist (now an editorial writer for Newsday) he is still a liberal. Liberals and black militants ("professional blacks," he calls them) are the principal villains in Sleeper's book. Yet no one can accuse him of becoming a Reaganite, for Sleeper refuses to Forget About It. In his wordy but passionate editorial-writer prose, he puts us right up against the wall of race and class, where we can't ignore it any more. That is liberal in the best sense of the word.

Courting disaster

Much of the book is a thumbnail history of how New York's neighborhoods went down the tubes. Having edited a community newspaper in Brooklyn and covered city politics for The Village Voice, Sleeper comes by his observations first-hand. But the larger picture is vivid, too: "The confluence of radical spite, absurd legal extrapolation, and liberal disdain for white ethnics that led to forced busing, the bloating of welfare rolls, and the mau-mauing of white teachers broke the spine of New York's civic culture," he writes. Some critics of the book have focused on this sentence and other like it as evidence that Sleeper is roiling the rhetorical waters at a time when they've been roiled quite enough. It's a valid point. But before racial calm comes honesty, and this book is a good place to start.

Earlier this fall, veterans of the Lindsay administration gathered for a reunion. The New York Times story focused on how well they had done in the private sector in the years since. …

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