When my parents divorced in the early 70s, in the days before travel was popular and flying to places became easy, regular and cheap, my father moved permanently to New York. My only impression, as a six year old child, of America came, of course, from what I saw on the TV. The likes of The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, Columbo, The Bionic Woman to name but a few. My favourite shows helped me create a spotlight on the USA. It was fantastic, modern, and bright and WOW. The American Dream became My Dream. People said ‘cool’ and it sounded right, or held up their two fingers in the name of Peace, and it looked right – they wore huge sun glasses and they seemed to fit; and, after all, if Dad left us to go there, it MUST be an amazing place. The images in my mind were of sunny days in hot, busy streets, crowded with successful, happy school kids, fit business people, roller skaters, colourful clothes, yellow taxis and shiny, new tall buildings – everyone, but everyone with a smile on their face. “One day I would like to be there” I thought. Of course.
My brother had a different opinion – he was slightly older and grew up with Mad Magazine, which seemed to show off New York as a vision of violence and backstreet mistrust, amongst ironic viewpoints of underlying corrupt politics. Both comic and brother were most probably way ahead of their time, and I refused to agree with either; not that I understood, but because I didn’t want to shatter my dreams.
Quite probably, my sibling’s opinion was more accurate. Because, in reality, in the middle of that decade, things in that city weren’t quite as hot as I imagined. On arrival in New York, tourists were handed leaflets entitled ‘Welcome To Fear City. A Survival Guide for Visitors’, a shrouded skull emblazoned on the front. Inside, the pamphlet warned people to ‘stay off the streets after 6pm’, ‘avoid public transportation’, ‘safeguard your handbag’ and ‘conceal your property’.
‘Remain in Manhattan. Police and fire protection in other areas of the city is grossly inadequate and will become more inadequate. In the South Bronx, which is known to police officers a ‘Fort Apache’ arson has become an uncontrollable problem.’
In 1975, New York Mayor Abe Beame was responsible for a city that was more than five billion dollars in debt and practically broke. As well as fiscally, the city was in a steep moral decline – crime was rampant, rents were nominal, infrastructures were crumbling and urban decay was all around.
In order to begin the desperate and necessary change that summer, Mayor Beame laid off 20% (more than 10,000) uniformed police officers and firefighters, and up to 45,000 workers by that autumn. The unions, of course, were outraged and reacted as such. At a time when their presence was most crucial, they fought back, and were supported by many other related departments.
The leaflet opened with a paragraph explaining that ‘crime and violence in New York City is shockingly high, and is getting worse every day. During April 1975, it was reported that robberies were up 21%; aggravated assault was up 15%; larceny was up 22% and burglary was up 19%. It did however encourage visitors that ‘some New Yorkers do manage to survive and even keep their property intact.’ ‘Fear City’ was designed to provoke a reaction – what it said wasn’t entirely true – the streets were not deserted after 6pm and probably quite safe, as were many other neighbourhoods outside Manhattan. And a reaction it did provoke.
The City’s legal team attempted, unsuccessfully, to block distribution of the leaflet and their reaction was to send representatives to Europe’s main cities to abay the fear that it may have caused. By this time, after much discussion, some unions began to reassess the situation and withdraw their support for ‘Fear City’ – eventually its distribution just stopped. Instead, other unions supported the city and instead of bring it down, decided to support it financially and got behind the debt. By winter, a solution had been found and city was saved.
So, no-one can judge a book by its cover.
When I finally did visit New York for the first time at fourteen years old (some ten years later), I saw the city of my dreams, with eyes of a child; like Alice in Wonderland. It was exactly how I had imagined – busy, clean streets – vibrant colours – huge, crowded buildings – sunny weather and happy people. I loved it. It didn’t make any difference to me that the Fear City campaign happened, even if I had known anything about it.
Later, in the 90s, I got into Friends. It became a firm favourite and I still watch it on Sky when I can. It helped secure my image of New York, when even floozy Phoebe can survive on the streets, and not-so-bright Rachel can do fantastically well in her career. For them, it’s a city, a world, where hopes and dreams can, and did come true.
Today, I think, New York continues that trend and certainly seems more affluent – with some areas overhauled, renovated and improved vastly. Crime continues to drop as do murder rates and tourism us at a high. Shop until you drop, see the shows, eat until you can eat no more, stay up and party for 24-hours, be a culture vulture. This is truly a city where anything is possible… and more.
I always understood why my father never wanted to return to the UK. To me, over the almost forty years he lived in New York (his last house was Glen Cove in Long Island), he was happy and enthralled by its way, it’s energy and its people. I don’t remember him ever mentioning Fear City. The gifts he brought home for us kids – skateboards, Jets T-shirts, ‘I Heart New York’ stickers, spoke of another utopia and it never left my mind.
But thinking back, I remember him describing Coney Island. I use this place and his description in my novel, and it could be a true image of how it was then, during that awful time. Perhaps he did tell me about Fear City, but I was just too young to understand.
New York and I have something in common – we’re survivors. New York survived its ungracious Fear City scandal and uncompromising arguments (and probably much more over the years). At the same time as I survived my parents’ divorce, their passionate battles, and labours of love. Thank goodness we both came through with all our hopes and dreams intact. All I can do now is hope that I’m growing old as gracefully and charmingly as that amazing city.