Archive for July, 2020

Curfews Don’t Protect People

Monday, July 6th, 2020

(Originally published in The Bulwark 6/3/20

Yesterday afternoon, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush released an extraordinary statement on the death of George Floyd. It says what needs to be said by every American across the political spectrum: “It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country.”

This is in the grand tradition of Republican support for civil rights and the classic tenets of liberalism. It reminds me why I voted for W. twice and used to be a registered Republican.

But that was back in the day when Republicans stood for limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, and using economic freedom to improve everyone’s lives, not for shredding the Constitution and pitting Americans against each other while using public positions for private profit.

So last night I sat in my house in New York’s West Village, listening to helicopters overhead, forbidden to walk outside because we have an 8 p.m. curfew until Sunday. Because of the curfew local food shops, supermarkets, and restaurants offering takeout had to close as early as 5:00 p.m.—at a moment when they were just beginning to revive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 10 years covering counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, not only because of the familiar helicopter noise. There are analogies to restoring order in a violence-afflicted urban environment. It’s often just called community policing, an old idea involving getting cops out of their cars and having them walk their beats and get to know people. It works.

But instead of reaching out, the NYPD is retreating.

Monday morning, when I walked past my local police precinct in the West Village, the Sixth, I was dismayed to see that the street full of police cars was closed by a barrier at both ends. Not only does this make it more difficult and psychologically uninviting for citizens to enter to report a crime, it gives criminals and law-abiding citizens alike the idea that the police are afraid of them. And this is in one of Manhattan’s richest zip codes.

Podcast episode cover image
PODCAST · JULY 06 2020
Josh Kraushaar on Base-First Politics
On today’s Bulwark Podcast, Josh Kraushaar joins Charlie Sykes to discuss base-first politics and the 2020 election, Mt….
The NYPD and departments nationwide need to be out there talking to citizens, rebuilding trust and discussing grievances. So do our mayors. Yet at a press conference today, Mayor Bill de Blasio was egregiously rude and disrespectful to reporters who asked about some much-photographed instances of looting nearly under the police’s eyes. De Blasio is locked in a struggle with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been very critical of the NYPD’s failure to rein in looting and advocated bringing in the National Guard.

As de Blasio correctly pointed out, bringing in outsiders who don’t know how NYC works could well lead to more violence.

But Cuomo is right that the NYPD are badly led and badly trained. If I were an outsider looking in (as I was in Afghanistan), I would call the NYPD an Irish-American militia, not a servant of the public. Though the force is only 53 percent white, NYPD leadership is still 72 percent non-Hispanic white, and arrogant in the way militia leaders are.

This may be the place to note that police in the United States are not in huge danger from criminals, especially in New York City where there are severe penalties for unlicensed handguns. No New York City cops were murdered in the line of duty in 2019, for instance. And across the United States, only 38 law-enforcement officers were shot and killed in the line of duty between January and mid-December 2019 (not counting deaths by friendly fire).

Overall, just over a thousand American civilians were killed by the police in 2019. And, totaling data from 2013 to 2019, NYC has had the lowest rate of police killings of civilians among U.S. cities with over a million people.

As these figures suggest, American police should not be afraid to engage with the community. I remember the remark of a bright young American captain I met in Afghanistan, Derrick Hernandez, who said to me, “If you tell me to defend this district center I’m not going to sit inside it.” It’s very easy for a fortress to become a self-licking ice cream cone—Army lingo for an outpost that exists only to defend itself, not to make the surrounding territory safer. Sure sounds like an NYC precinct house.

Curfews are very dumb. You can’t draw a line in the sand unless you’re prepared to defend it. If people break curfew, the government looks weak. Such rules breed contempt, not respect, for the law. Americans don’t like being told what to do, where to go, and what time to go there.

And order isn’t maintained by curfews that are unenforceable—or unfairly enforced—in a city of 8 million. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea opposed a curfew on Monday on the Today show. The NYPD department chief, Terence Monahan—who took a knee with protesters in Washington Square Park early Monday night—also said on Monday that he thought a curfew was unnecessary. Mayor de Blasio admitted in his press conference this morning that the curfew is unenforceable, more of an excuse for immediate arrest of criminals. Monahan made much the same point this morning on Today: “Protesters that were still protesting past 8 peacefully we allowed to continue, but when a group of people who were looking to cause mayhem broke off, we were able to take care of them very quickly.”

Mayor de Blasio doesn’t get it that there is a link between commerce being shut and the streets becoming dangerous, regardless of the George Floyd protests. Deserted streets are never safe streets. Taking law-abiding people off the streets leaves more space for criminality; it means those who remain can do what they want with less fear of censure from their fellow citizens. And looting leads store owners to board up storefronts, which in turn suggests that anything is possible, further eroding security.

What makes a city safe? Commerce and the resultant foot traffic by law-abiding citizens.

Last night, the NYPD managed to protect Soho’s stores from a repetition of earlier looting—by the simple expedient of blocking traffic. This could have been done without a curfew. It would be far better—and would not escalate tensions, and would invite far less risk of uneven discriminatory enforcement—if the streets were kept open, stores were allowed to stay open as they wished, and police stood at the ready to deal with problems as they arose.

New Approaches in New York City

Monday, July 6th, 2020

(originally published in The Bulwark 5/17/20

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As the rate of new COVID-19 deaths in New York City falls, this is a moment for the city to engage in self-scrutiny and plan for the future, using the imagination our citizens are famous for in creative fields. We need to rescue ourselves economically while rethinking the nature of our city—fixing the plane while learning to fly it.

Why do we need a fundamental rethinking? Because, at least until an effective vaccine is widely available, people are unlikely to want to return to their former social and economic behaviors. For instance, in a recent poll (weighted to match the nation’s demographics), some 67 percent of respondents said they would be uncomfortable shopping in a retail clothing store, while 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating out. Whether or not these risk assessments are rational, they must be taken into account by business owners and government officials.

And the adaptations we make now can help us better to handle future pandemics with less drastic economic interruptions than this time. Because it is all but certain that there will be more pandemics, and that they will be even worse than this one.

We need a modular city that can, when necessary, be reconfigured for different levels of social distancing. At the same time that we attend to these nuts-and-bolts issues, we must preserve New York’s status as a great city, arguably the world’s capital. This requires nurturing what makes New York special: diversity, the arts, energy, ambition, and opportunity.

Podcast episode cover image
PODCAST · JULY 06 2020
Josh Kraushaar on Base-First Politics
On today’s Bulwark Podcast, Josh Kraushaar joins Charlie Sykes to discuss base-first politics and the 2020 election, Mt….
Great cities produce a mix of industry, culture, and entertainment, drawing residents and visitors. In the nearly six decades since the publication of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we have realized that cities need robust mixed-use neighborhoods, and that commerce makes streets safe and inviting. Today we have miles of closed storefronts and streets deserted after dark except for the homeless. Successful cities also have an esprit de corps, a sense of inclusion. We now need to figure out how to provide all this even as the city likely depopulates, more people work from home, and almost everyone is worse off financially.

But there is a silver lining. Due to the switch to working from home and the decommercialization of the streets, we are at a perfect moment to rethink many of the tired clichés that have guided our city planning.

It’s time for frankness: The New York of recent years wasn’t that fascinating. Manhattan and upscale parts of Brooklyn have become increasingly sterile, homogenized, and slick, full of chain stores found elsewhere. Even many of the more interesting streets have become monocultures of restaurants and nail salons with the occasional liquor store, $1 (how?) pizza, and doggie spa. (I should note here that—as Dutch computer scientist Lora Aroyo has reminded me—such homogenization is evident in most big European cities, too, even those with far more regulations than in the United States, and even those with pedestrian areas.)

We now know that at least two urban “truths” are false: Most of us need to come into an office five days a week. And most forms of exercise and entertainment must occur indoors.

We should overturn another, related myth that says that Manhattan can’t offer pedestrian streets in the way London, Paris, Milan, Rome, Seville, and hundreds of European cities do.

We can continue to enjoy one of the few unequivocal silver linings of the pandemic: freedom from traffic noise and cleaner air. We can walk, run, and bike, for the moment, without cars or trucks on many of our streets—in fact, the pandemic has resulted in the longest stretch without a single pedestrian fatality since 1983. As the city reopens and attempts to find a new normal, would greater pedestrianization cripple commerce? Amazon already functions perfectly well using hand carts for the last 100 yards. Taxis and ride-share services could let most fares off at the nearest corner. Think about the reductions in fumes directly outside residences and businesses.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed eventually opening a hundred miles of New York City streets to pedestrians but his concept seems to be purely for walking and biking, not commerce. I propose pedestrianization as a way of jumpstarting post-pandemic commerce, too.

Here, offered for public debate, are a few suggestions for how we might pedestrianize while reimagining vibrant street-level commerce with social distancing.

(1) Pedestrianize every second or third crosstown Manhattan street. This can be attempted experimentally at first, starting just on the weekends, before it is expanded to full-time. Do the same for major shopping/dining arteries like Bleecker, Broadway, West Fourth, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 57th. Some of these very different streets should have bike lanes, but not all. I don’t know Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx well enough to offer specific guidance, but there are places in each where it would be appropriate to do the same. (This good idea, along with many bad ones, was proposed in Paul and Percival Goodman’s 1947 master plan for Manhattan.)

(2) Use the streets as our citizens see fit. We are going to need more outdoor space for safe exercise and leisure, not only as parks, but as ice-skating rinks, as dog runs, as safe-distance playgrounds, as outdoor theaters, as outdoor gyms, quarter-mile running tracks (how about some with soft surfaces?), sculpture gardens, mini farmers’ markets—and gardens to grow the produce to sell there. (A bit more self-sufficiency in food production sounds good right about now, doesn’t it?)

We will discover new uses as we go along. And all this activity is bound to foster not only new bonds between neighbors, but new business ideas.

(3) To bring jittery riders back to mass transit, try low-capacity, open-air buses along high-traffic routes. (I owe this idea to Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, who was in turn inspired by a 1970 paper.) Make them free, at least to start. While we’re at it, institute taxi stands to prevent idling, and add bus lanes on all crosstown routes. (These ideas I owe to bicycle historian Pryor Dodge.)

(4) Our brand is culture. Theater as we know it began outdoors. Encourage theater troupes to move from venue to venue in the warmer months. How about standup comedy? Dance? String quartets? There are already very successful outdoor programs for tango and swing around Manhattan. Lots of under-used public space in the city could be repurposed easily and cheaply as theaters with simple nonpermanent seating—including some of the sitting areas along Broadway.

If the number of empty storefronts threatens to turn into blight, encourage (but don’t subsidize) their use by artists and gallerists.

There is much more we might consider, including changes to how schools work. Is there any reason that New York, or indeed most of North America, must stick to the school calendar in which the summer months are scheduled for vacation? And would students and teachers benefit from finding ways to move suitable classes outside?

Finally, a word about fairness. Too many of our citizens have been excluded from many of the city’s pleasures by the inequality that accompanied the massive economic shift of the last decades. Not everyone can spend $16 on a movie and $37 for a half roast chicken after. They are even excluded from the patrimony of all, with most museums charging $25 admission. (They should all be pay-what-you-can for residents, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) We need more signals from our government that we are all in this together, that we are fellow citizens and not just consumers living alongside each other.

In this spirit I propose a media campaign—preferably national not only local—to target obesity and diabetes, the preventable pre-existing conditions that make Americans vulnerable to COVID-19 in a way Europeans aren’t. “The fact that 42 percent of this country is clinically obese amplifies the impact and reach of the virus,” says Brooklyn ER physician Mert Erogul.

Many people choosing—on some level—to be grossly overweight has helped to cause the deaths of other people and contributed to the job losses of millions. Of course, some bad lifestyle choices are foisted upon poor people by fast-food chains and agribusiness—and Mike Bloomberg’s oft-ridiculed attack on big sodas looks pretty prescient now. This is a big, complicated discussion, one that will require some creative policy thinking, but we should start having it now, while this pandemic is still with us and before a worse one arrives.

New York’s Pandemic by Zip Code

Monday, July 6th, 2020

(originally published in The Investigative Journal 5/1/20
Looking back from what seems the end of this particular COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, my small circle of friends has talked more of revelations than of sorrows.

The revelations are along the lines of appreciating the quiet or the absence of cars, or less superficially, about enjoying the eclipse of New York’s status- conscious display culture. One friend, Steve, speaks of how people re-discover their common humanity at moments like this, which reminds him of 9/11. Some have felt the presence of the homeless – and the need to do something to help them – more acutely.

“Besides being worried about my husband,” says Sirin, the wife of an ER doctor, “it’s been a time of silver linings. I’d only been a full-time parent on the weekends. I’ve really learned about my children.” I also hear other mothers complain how tired they are of being with them all day long. And with schools functioning only by distance learning until end of term in June, there is still a long summer to get through.

The regrets and anxieties I hear are mainly financial: no one knows what will happen. Most people I know earn too much to be eligible for Trump’s stimulus payment but some small business owners are applying for government help. Friends who work for big corporations are still working from home and those that don’t have children often love it. (I’ve been self-employed for thirty years and agree!)

I should note for non-US readers that policies on stay at home orders are set by each of the 50 states. This crisis has empowered governors and drawn attention to how much the states differ from one another. I don’t think any state has issued shelter in place orders as strict as those in France or Italy, and in New York there is nothing to prevent you from walking around all day, other than the cold weather. I walk, run or bike every day, but then I’ve been getting a lot of exercise all my life. I don’t understand people who are afraid to go outside: that seems like magical thinking rather than science. You aren’t likely to bump into someone who is coughing into your face.

It’s human nature to look for the silver lining, even if it feels unseemly, and I hasten to say that neither I nor my friends here know anyone who died. In fact, I know only three or four in New York who had or think they had the virus, all now recovered. And I number two ER physicians among my friends – both safe.

My European friends – some in hot spots like Milan and Parma – know many people who have died and are surprised I don’t. I think the explanation is this: in the US, this disease disproportionately affects two types of people: highly globalized frequent flyers (think academics and politicians) and highly mobile -of-necessity working poor.

New York is very segregated economically, and COVID-19 cases are much higher in poorer ZIP (post) codes, concentrated in outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens. The numbers are lower in well off Manhattan and Brooklyn ZIP codes, although the chart needs to be used with caution as it is not calibrated according to the population of the zip code.

People who are less well-off are more likely to take public transportation, and to take it for an hour each way rather than ten minutes. Fewer have the luxury of an office job that can be done from home. While most are not on the front lines in the same way our health care professionals are, they are also taking risks. (Some are those food store workers without whom we would have no supermarkets.) And in this part of the country, poorer people are more likely to be obese, smokers, have hypertension or diabetes, or have other risk factors.

The other category of people who get the virus includes academics like my friend Bronwyn and her husband. “My building (faculty housing) had five cases”, she told me. Both she and her husband recovered fully. Another friend, Clara, thinks she had it; she’s a very mobile international artist – and a heavy smoker. Sophie, a high profile academic and think tank fellow, is pretty sure she had it. Both Clara and Sophie still struggle with feeling winded.

I speak of “my stovepipe” because the pandemic has rendered us Manhattanites local. There have always been tired cliches about downtowners who won’t go north of 14th Street and Upper East Siders who won’t go downtown. Now it’s actually true of most of us.

If you don’t own a car or want to avoid any ride shares or public transportation, for safety reasons, you’re pretty much confined to where you can walk, run or bike. (The subways are reportedly almost empty but more dangerous than before, with a huge increase in robberies, most likely the poor robbing the slightly less poor.

Couples and families are locked down together. But many New Yorkers who live alone, like me, are thrown back upon neighborhood friends for safe distance visits.

My neighborhood, the West Village, is a low-rise, low population density part of Manhattan – 75 to 99 people per acre as opposed to 150 or more on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. It’s known for its expensive housing stock, heavy on brownstones, and for upscale restaurants and shops, now all shut. There are few massive high rises where the virus can lurk in elevator banks or lobbies, though there are old fashioned tenement buildings with a small internal corridor between outside and inside doors where some believe the virus can be trapped in the air.

The West Village is a place where you can take a walk without bumping into other people or even seeing very many of them, and now local streets are increasingly deserted, which is good for socially distant walking in daytime but a bit scary at night, now that it’s mainly homeless people on the street.

I call friends in Brooklyn as though it were a different country. As perhaps it is: a longtime friend in Williamsburg, Darcy, told me there were pickup yoga classes in McClaren Park. But Williamsburg is neighborly and small. I haven’t seen classes on the more impersonal West Side’s Hudson River Park, just a lot of runners and bikers and some very impressive improvised workouts.

Many New Yorkers around my age – 61 – have been through something like this before.

“I’ve lived through 15 natural disasters or periods of civil unrest”, Caroline says. She’s 62 and grew up in Florida with hurricanes and lived through riots and earthquakes and floods in Los Angeles, then 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy in Tribeca. Sandy flooded her building; she’s learned the power can stay off for surprisingly long.

Other friends have been in post 9/11 war zones as soldiers, journalists, aid workers or businesspeople. We’re not so surprised when things stop working. I still make myself an espresso the night before to stash in the refrigerator, in case the power doesn’t come on in the morning. But it does. There are no food shortages here, I find hand sanitizer too disgusting to use, and there is toilet paper in abundance, thank you very much.

It’s not too inconvenient here. And it’s refreshingly low key. Maybe this is my age speaking? If I were 30, I’d be missing the bars and live music venues, but I’m not. With no restaurants, parties or benefits, there is nowhere to show off wealth or a sense of style – and the silver lining is that there’s nowhere to feel bad about one’s lack of style or money. (I’m sure there’s more of this in the Hamptons, though.) There’s no FOMO. My married friend Paul, who claims he doesn’t get invited to many parties, observes that his usual sense of social isolation is now shared. “Since there are no parties to be invited to, you don’t have to feel like a loser.” He spends more time than before with his young son.

Lots of my friends left the city in mid-March; non-essential businesses were closed 29 March.

Many of the well-off, or friends of the well-off, have fled to their country houses, or friends’ places, “upstate” or in the Hamptons. (I know two escapees in Palm Beach as well.) Some of these retreats are basic, some are lavish, but their distance from the density of New York feels comforting – and the stockpiled provisions. “We have $1000 worth of non-perishable food on hand,” said Sirin from upstate. “The only thing I miss is sushi.” I asked if any of her neighbors worried about a breakdown of civil order. “No. Everyone up here has guns.” How reassuring.

The exodus from New York has in turn opened up highly desirable housesitting opportunities for lucky friends of the rich, who find themselves living well for nothing. I know one. And I know some people with more than one empty house.

What’s not limited to certain zip codes or tax brackets is concern for one’s livelihood. New York City is expensive, and even friends with high incomes are worried. Most everyone I know is a knowledge worker of some sort who can work from home or already did. And some of us are still busy. But not all.

My friend Lizzy runs a small fashion business and is now facing a new world. There’s also Darcy, a self-made real estate entrepreneur in Williamsburg; all eight of her commercial tenants are closed and have already said they can’t make rent. “And most storefronts here are restaurants which is a difficult business at any time. Many aren’t coming back. A lot of them are very large. Which businesses are going to move into all those empty restaurant storefronts?” Steve isn’t working because he’s a union electrician on films and commercials. How long will that industry not function? On a more positive note, Caleb, an art dealer, says clients are inquiring about art works, perhaps because some of them finally have time on their hands. But so far no sales.

More broadly, the economic damage is more visible day by day. I was wondering if my local overpriced cheese store might have a sale – after all not many of us need $30 a pound cheese to eat by ourselves. Instead, it closed temporarily. Takeout places that used to be open until 9 or 10 close at 5 or 7, contributing to the deserted streets after dark. Restaurants that promised a re-opening are now “available for rent”.

The issue of reopening sooner versus later has become horribly politicized, with Republicans following Trump in seeking speedy reopening and Democrats opposing. As a Never Trump Republican turned uncomfortable Democrat, I just wish that people who would follow science rather than ideology.

What lies ahead? Most people I know are waiting rather passively for Governor Cuomo to put forth concrete re-opening plans, though some are trying to figure out how to position their businesses for a new environment. No one I know thinks that re-opening nail or hair salons is a major goal – and several women I know have started to dye their hair at home. It seems absurd to risk one’s life for vanity.

That said, I badly miss going to the gym.