The Dream of New York


THE New York State Lottery is running ads in the city's subway cars that seem to mirror the frame of mind of New Yorkers these days. They are fantasy ads, in which ordinary people declare what they'd do if they won the big prize. The prevailing theme: Get out of New York City, or at least buffer its harsher impositions. ``I'd buy this subway car and install sofas,'' was one of the more benign.

For decades, New Yorkers have teetered upon a daily calculation. The lows of their city are abysmal. But its rewards have been correspondingly high. As long as the balance tilted toward the credit side, the annoyances and travails seemed worth it.

Today there's a growing sense that the pact has unraveled. Most obvious of course is crime. In the cultural capital of America, the newspapers and TV news consist primarily of gore, indictments, and celebrity trials (most recently Leona Helmsley, the ``Hotel Queen'' who is charged with shaking down suppliers and cheating on her taxes).

A friend commented that a particular neighborhood was ``safe enough to lock the car in.'' Usually, she just leaves it open so the thieves won't break the windows.

But New Yorkers have always lived with crime. In the late '60s, people in my neighborhood discussed break-ins as casually as those elsewhere chat about leaky plumbing. Besides, most New Yorkers pass through most days unassaulted and unscathed.

What's really different today is the context - the way New Yorkers are squeezed on every side.

Literally. Rents are astronomical, and gouging by rental agents can seem a form of legalized mugging. I have friends who pay $2,100 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

Before, low-rent neighborhoods such as SoHo and the Lower East Side served as pressure valves, the way the West once did for the nation at large. The impecunious and aspiring - actors, writers, entrepreneurs - could find a cheap apartment from which to pursue their dreams.

Today, that frontier is closing fast. And the yuppies bring more crowding with them. Car registrations have increased in Manhattan by almost 25 percent over the last 10 years. Try parking there someday.

It's not just the prospect of physical injury that makes crime here so oppressive. It's the way the threat of crime takes away public space - the refuge from cramped and overpriced private quarters, and New York's former glory.

This was how the brutal Central Park rape affected people who like to run there at night. ``During the day there's a zillion, zillion people,'' said one recently. ``You go there at night and it's just you and the city. It's beautiful.''

Runners are more wary now. The city is no longer theirs. Likewise mothers who take kids to local parks. To editorial writers from the suburbs, the ``homeless'' are uniformly objects of solicitude and pity. To people in Lower Manhattan, they can mean beer bottles and worse on playgrounds.

Again, it's not just the hoodlums. Developers have choked midtown with high-rises. The old, five-story walk-ups, with their little shops and warm neighborhood feel, are giving way to hulking towers. The New York for which people endured is diminishing fast.

The criminals make it unsafe. The developers make it not worth it.

With his contentiousness and chutzpah, Mayor Ed Koch speaks to the people beset by such changes - the ones jostled by crowds on the E train, clipped by cab drivers at corners (even though Koch is a developer's friend).

Surely, part of the lurid fascination with Leona Helmsley is the way she embodies, in full flower, a tendency other New Yorkers try to keep in check. Who here has never harbored a desire to throw a little weight around, to beat down the price, to get - just once - what they feel they deserve?

The saddest fact is that Mrs. Helmsley - and others like her - can take all they want legally. Which is one reason another lottery ad proclaims, ``I'd trade the Broadway Local for the Orient Express.''

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