Anyone raised on MAD Magazine in the 1970s and 1980s has taken in enough “New York City is a dingy, dangerous hellhole” gags to last a lifetime. The NYC Scouting blog described it very well a few years back:
“I really came to be enchanted by [New York City] through the pages of MAD, in which it was depicted as a place of extremes. The subway was a place to get killed. Times Square was a primal circus, while Fifth Ave was full of elitist ultra-rich snobs. Greenwich Village was home to wackos, hippies, and wannabe bohemians, while a jog in Central Park was less a workout and more a way of escaping the mugger chasing you.”
It’s interesting that “Scout” (a.k.a. Nick Carr) was so enchanted by this depiction; I suspect for most people the incessant talk of muggers and gridlock and rats and cockroaches was a horrible turnoff. A classic of the “I Hate NY” genre was the 1970 Neil Simon movie The Out-of-Towners, an annoying one-note cinematic experience in which Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis play visitors from “Twin Oaks, Ohio” who can’t travel the space of a block without 18 terrible things happening to them. Quite a few years later, around the time of Bernhard Goetz, there was the astonishing “Runaway” episode of The Facts of Life in which Tootie couldn’t spend a half-hour in midtown without having her coat and wallet stolen and becoming the target of a pimp’s malign scheme. Either way, the problems and dangers were overstated in 1970, 1975, 1983—it’s always overstated.
Some classic humor about the New York experience from MAD Magazine
If New York was suffering from a negative image, it’s possible they had nobody to blame for it but themselves, at least judging from this astounding PR campaign from 1975 that Gothamist spotted on Reddit. ““WELCOME TO FEAR CITY” trumpeted the cover, “A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York.” Just in case you had missed the point, the designers put a big, scary skull on the cover.
At the time, New York was suffering a budget crisis so serious that the city actually was facing bankruptcy, which obviously affected the funds the city had available to pay, for instance, law enforcement personnel. I’m legally required to quote here the legendary headline the New York Daily News ran on October 30, 1975, after President Gerald Ford stated that he would veto any bailout funds for New York: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
Already in the second paragraph of the pamphlet you can see some serious scaremongering going on, and it’s not difficult to see the actual purpose behind the pamphlet:
“Mayor Beame is going to discharge substantial numbers of firefighters and law enforcement officers of all kinds. By the time you read this, the number of public safety personnel available to protect residents and visitors may already have been still further reduced. Under those circumstances, the best advice we can give you is this: Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can.”
Nice city you got here. Would be a shame if anything were to happen to it…..
This pamphlet was cooked up by the, ahem, “Council for Public Safety,” which was practically synonymous with the police, firefighters and other unions. One can see in it a chilling reminder of the controversies in which the NY Police Department is currently embroiled, defiantly dissing the new liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio. After the shocking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner at the hands of the police and the all-too-predictable non-indictment of its perpetrators, the excesses of the police have become a topic of discussion all over the nation, and the NYPD is right at the center of that debate. The police must always justify its existence (or the perks it receives for dangerous work), and will always, entirely paradoxically, point to the high crime that it is ostensibly supposed to prevent as a scary image of a world without the police. Just a few days ago the NYPD was engaging in a stealth “strike while getting paid” in which they refused to issue tickets and the number of arrests plummeted.
But the really scary thing is—New York City (or at least Manhattan) in 2015 is tremendously affluent—Millionaire Island—and the crime rate, however you want to measure it, is sharply down from the 1970s peak. But in the intransigence of the NYPD, who have dissed de Blasio (elected by 73% of NYC’s citizenry) in two consecutive NYPD funerals, you can see the implicit claim, over and over and over again, that without us, without the NYPD, the residents of New York face an urban jungle of chaos and crime. The 1970s may have seen an unfortunate high point in New York’s crime and squalor, but ultimately, there’s no such thing as a city too safe for the police not to make that claim.