Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gangs of New York

This is a fascinating old documentary about a few notorious New York City street gangs during the seventies. A time when World Series cameras at Yankee Stadium would pick up buildings burning and Travis Bickle and "Son of Sam" epitomized the dark and foreboding nature of New York life. The city was bankrupt. The middle class was largely gone. The only remaining hipsters were anarchic squatters and semi-employed CBGB habitues. And people like my parents and their friends in the near suburbs would speak of the city not with reverence or envy as New Yorkers prefer to believe, but as a gaping, gangrenous leg wound. I was just a wee tyke at the time, but aside from the delightful aroma of hot pretzels when dodging bums while going in or out of Madison Square Garden, it was obvious even to a kid that the primary smell in the city was rot.

That's all ancient history now. The Wall Street boom of the eighties and nineties coupled with Giuliani's relentless efforts to tackle crime and quality of life issues put the city on an altogether different footing. So the above documentary would for all intents and purposes be little more than an interesting historical artifact were it not for the growing left wing nostalgia for New York as an open sewer. You'll routinely hear it said that they miss the graffiti. The subway as a pit of vipers. Times Square as a human cesspool. The hookers and street crime. The grit. The anomie.

Like so much of what one hears in New York, I have little doubt that most are simply mindlessly and uncritically regurgitating sentiments they've picked up in the ether. New York is so overwhelming, such an assault on the senses, - less a place than a state of mind imbibed by a steady stream of people coming from elsewhere - that there's a persistent tendency for people to sing from a common hymn book.

But when people have such a tenuous grip on reality it seems rather pointless to accord them the benefit of the doubt. What, really, is the difference between phony posturing and an emotionally-perceived and peer-reinforced truth when they meld together so seamlessly? It makes viewing the documentary all the more eery. Like we're living less on a turned page than in an ebb. And all that's required for a resumption of flood conditions is liberals just being who they are.

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